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How Does Sequence Of Returns Risk Impact Your Retirement?

For many investors, a long bull market like the one we’re in is leading to some frayed nerves.

When will there be a downturn? The “when” question is especially relevant to investors nearing or at retirement age. While it’s true that returns have historically evened out — for the 93-year period between 1926 to 2018, large cap stocks have gained a 10% compounded rate of return — what happens if your retirement happens to occur during a year the market suffers a loss over 20%?

After all, if this sort of downturn occurs in your twenties or thirties, it’s a setback, but time and earnings potential are on your side, explains Roger G. Ibbotson, Chairman and CIO at Zebra Capital Management and professor in the practice emeritus of finance at the Yale School of Management. If the same downturn occurs during retirement, would your portfolio be able to weather the downturn?

Implementing safeguards against this possibility can protect your portfolio from sequence of returns risk — the potential that years of bad returns early in your retirement could deplete your retirement savings for the future. Ibbotson advises that conservative withdrawals in early retirement, several streams of cash flow and a diverse portfolio including bonds and annuities can all be tools to help ensure your retirement savings won’t freefall even if the market does.

Scroll down for a guide to sequence of returns risk and how to protect your portfolio from a potential market downturn.

Consider De-risking Before Retirement, Even In A Bull Market

While some camps stay true to a buy-and-hold strategy, Ibbotson recommends de-risking your portfolio as you approach retirement, regardless of how the market is performing. According to Ibbotson, “twenty-percent proofing” your portfolio — or safeguarding your portfolio from historic losses in early retirement — can help ensure your retirement savings are able to survive a substantial market dip.

“When you’re young, you’re in what’s called an accumulation phase,” explains Ibbotson. You have high human capital (the value of future earnings, like income) but low financial capital (investments in stocks and bonds). Early on in your career, when you’re primarily dependent on human capital, you can afford to take more risk with your financial capital. But as you evolve toward the “pre-retirement phase,” when you might not be earning a steady income and are more reliant on the financial capital you’ve grown over time, it may be a good idea to de-risk your portfolio.

Rethink A Standard Annual Withdrawal

While a retirement plan based on a standard yearly withdrawal rate can give you a good ballpark of your returns and cash-flow expectations, this model doesn’t account for large market fluctuations at a key moment: early in retirement, when you begin taking withdrawals. Even if the market eventually evened out to an average that’s not far from your expected return, being dependent on those withdrawals through a bear market could hurt your savings for decades to come because so much of your portfolio would have been depleted by market losses in early retirement.

Of course, you may be required to take required minimum distributions (RMDs), and you may also depend on retirement withdrawals to fund your expenses. But following the popular 4% rule of thumb — plan on withdrawing 4% of your retirement savings each year — in early retirement could leave your money vulnerable during a bear market, Ibbotson argues. “Since you can’t predict when a downswing will occur, it’s best to be conservative during early retirement, when you don’t have the luxury of time and human capital potential to make up the difference,” he says.

Consider Alternate Retirement Income Streams To Ride Out A Market Downturn

In addition to de-risking your portfolio, it may be smart to consider alternate income streams that won’t make you overly dependent on portfolio withdrawals in early retirement, says Ibbotson. “There’s a longevity risk to consider as well, which means that you may need money to last for thirty plus years,” he says.

Some ways to mitigate longevity risk — and put yourself in a stronger position to ride out a potential bear market — include working into retirement to provide a source of cash flow (which may also eliminate the need to take out RMDs on your 401(k)), making sure you’re maximizing Social Security benefits or downshifting and earmarking that money as funds for your early retirement, giving your nest egg more time to grow. Depending on your circumstances, a HELOC or second mortgage taken in early retirement can also help safeguard your retirement savings, says Ibbotson. Even lowering your withdrawal rate slightly in the first years of retirement can protect your savings from a market downturn during those early years.

Consider “Laddering” Bonds And Annuities

While bonds may have lower rates of return than stocks, their low risk and guaranteed principal return can be one way to de-risk your portfolio. One strategy to consider is called a bond ladder, says Ibbotson. This is a set of bonds purchased specifically to mature in different years, so instead of investing in a single $100,000 bond, you might invest in ten $10,000 bonds. One might mature in one year, another in three, another in five and so on, diversifying cash flow and protecting against market dips.

The same is true for annuities. Annuities can be purchased over a period of years and purchased from an array of insurance companies, which can minimize the risks of market fluctuations or the underperformance of one insurer. Annuities can be purchased as a fixed, variable or hybrid product, with aspects of both fixed and variable annuities. One popular example of a hybrid annuity product is a fixed-indexed annuity (FIA). Fixed annuities guarantee both an interest rate — around 2.5 to 3.5% as of publication date — as well as the principal. Variable annuities are typically riskier, as neither the interest nor the principal is guaranteed. Meanwhile, a product such as an FIA guarantees a stated return on the investment along with an investment return based on market performance. As the annuity reaches the annuitization stage, this money can then be used as income.

Keep Plans Flexible

Strategy exists so you can change course if necessary. Having several options for how to weather a stock market slump can help ensure you won’t run out of savings. As with any retirement planning options, speaking with a financial advisor can help you navigate the best course of action for you, your money and your retirement goals.

This content was brought to you by Impact PartnersVoice. Certain opinions expressed herein are those of Professor Roger Ibbotson and/or others acting in an academic and/or research-related capacity and not as a representative or on behalf of Zebra Capital Management, LLC (“Zebra Capital”). Roger Ibbotson is Professor in the Practice Emeritus of Finance at the Yale School of Management and the Chairman and Chief Investment Officer of Zebra Capital.  

Annuities have limitations. They are long-term vehicles designed for retirement purposes. They are not intended to replace emergency funds, be used as income for day-to-day expenses or fund short-term savings goals. All guarantees and protections are subject to the claims-paying ability of the insurer. You should read the contract for complete details.

This material is not a recommendation to buy, sell, hold or roll over any asset, adopt a financial strategy or purchase an annuity policy. It does not take into account the specific objectives, tax and financial conditions or particular needs of any specific person. You should work with a financial professional to discuss your specific situation. 

The content herein includes the results of academic research conducted by Professor Ibbotson and others outside of the services provided by Zebra Capital and which may have been funded, in whole or in part, by parties unaffiliated with Zebra Capital. The results of that research should not be considered as having any relevant or material financial bearing on the services provided by Zebra Capital.

Zebra Capital is entitled to receive certain compensation in consideration for, among other things, the granting of certain license rights and/or sub-licensing rights of certain of its intellectual and other property rights to one or more third parties for the creation, sponsorship, compilation, maintenance and calculation, among other things, of one or more indices to which certain fixed indexed annuities make reference.

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Source: How Does Sequence Of Returns Risk Impact Your Retire

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