Retirement finance has an accumulation stage and a decumulation stage. Accumulation gestates, hatches, and cooks your retirement nest egg; decumulation allows you to eat it. Accumulation commands the lion’s share of attention in popular finance, but decumulation, or distribution, is equally important. Understanding how to disburse wealth is just as important as understanding how to build it.
The Basic Problem
On retirement day, you possess a store of wealth built up throughout your working life. Stretched out before you is the rest of your life, of uncertain duration. You want to withdraw a sufficient quantity of wealth to finance a comfortable lifestyle, but not so much that you run out of money before you run out of life.
In order to make your problem manageable, you will probably choose to withdraw and consume a specified fraction of your wealth. If your chosen fraction doesn’t work well – either because you don’t have enough money to live on or because you are using up your wealth too rapidly – you may either choose a bigger fraction or a smaller one. You won’t, or shouldn’t, simply withdraw a random amount whenever the spirit moves you. That would leave you with almost no control over how fast your money is used up.
Your basic problem is choosing that fractional withdrawal, which is called the withdrawal rate and is expressed as a percentage. The optimal rate depends on subjective factors – your tastes and preferences, your need for security, and your tolerance for risk – as well as objective ones. Copious research has been devoted to identifying it. The most widely-cited studies focus on the question of how much can be safely withdrawn, and over what time period, without depleting the principal.
The Right Withdrawal Rate
Financial advisors can and should tailor their estimation of the right withdrawal rate to the particular circumstances, needs, and proclivities of each client. When asked to suggest a “rate of thumb,” however, they usually fall back on a conservative standard – a rate that will not deplete principal over a long retirement – or an even-more-conservative standard – a rate that will keep principal from declining.
The most widely-cited studies of this issue were conducted around the turn of the twenty-first century. They suggested that a withdrawal rate of 4-6% would probably not deplete principal, although the risk of doing so seemed to rise steeply once the rate reached 5%. (Another factor affecting the withdrawal rate is the rate of return earned in retirement, which depends on the allocation of retirement assets. The larger the equity allocation, the higher is the permissible withdrawal rate.) Today, 10 years later, financial advisors have lowered their sights markedly, picking 3-3.5% as the rate of thumb. What accounts for this change?
Over that 10-year interval, stocks have turned in their worst performance ever, with a negative rate of return. That has reduced the historical rate of return to equity, which in turn has driven down the highest permissible rates. The recent financial crisis has almost certainly exerted a downward psychological pull, leading planners to pull in their horns in case the recession stretches out over the next decade.
Other Important Parameters
Other parameters also affect the right withdrawal rate. Life expectancy at age 65 has increased dramatically over the last half of the twentieth century. All other things equal, a longer withdrawal period lowers the withdrawal rate consistent with non-depletion of principal.
Interest rates are a key determinant of the right withdrawal rate. Higher interest rates produce lower bond prices, reducing the value of a bond portfolio. This is a difficult parameter to gauge, however, since the higher rate will also increase the interest yield on both fixed-income and liquid assets.
Expenses in retirement can vary widely for different households. In particular, debt can eat up income otherwise available for consumption. The more debt (or other expenses), the lower is the permissible withdrawal rate.
How Do Annuities Fit Into This Picture?
After reading the foregoing, how much would you pay to simply forget about all potential complications and settle for a guaranteed income for life? That is the concept underlying most annuities. Its attractions obviously depend on the size of the guaranteed payment, as well as the solidity of its guarantee. Since the rate of return on an annuity varies directly with the length of the annuitant’s life, the trend toward increased life expectancy certainly favors the annuity.
Perhaps the biggest plus for annuities – especially equity indexed annuities – is the elimination of the need to guess about future stock prices, interest rates, and longevity. The world’s greatest experts cannot forecast these parameters with much precision. It is very likely that, in hindsight, there will be a particular allocation of stocks, bonds, and real assets that will outperform the annuity. The problem is that we cannot know this allocation in advance, so we cannot guarantee that it will find its way into our portfolio.
If we compare the annuity payout with an optimal withdrawal rate and asset allocation chosen after the fact, the annuity will likely come out second best. That is hardly a decisive argument against annuities, however, since there is no particular reason to believe that the choices we actually make will be the optimal ones. Annuities give us a reasonable outcome, guaranteed, compared to the prospect, but not the promise, of a better outcome if we make the right choices.
Annuities: The Dark Horse Choice
It is ironic that, given all the lip service paid to the concept of security, the only asset able to provide lifetime security of income is not even-better understood and utilized. The reasons for the dark-horse status of annuities are many and complex, but the fact remains that a life annuity is probably the best, most secure way to provide guaranteed income for life. The quickest way to realize this is to sit down and try to compute the right withdrawal rate on your retirement savings. Afterward, check out the best deal on a life annuity. Ask yourself if the incremental gain in income is worth sacrificing the security of the life annuity.