The "Nastiest, Hardest Problem" in Retirement

December 05, 2019
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Running out of money in retirement is, according to Nobel Prize winning economist William Sharpe, the “nastiest, hardest problem” in retirement. Professor Sharpe has spent his career thinking about risk.  His work on the Capital Asset Pricing Model and systemic risk produced in 1966 the Sharpe ratio, which measures risk-adjusted returns. Now, he’s tackling a much broader subject, extremely important to everyone, about possibly outliving your money in retirement. Similar to the Monte Carlo analysis that DWM uses to provide a probability of success for your financial plan, Dr. Sharpe created a computer program with 100,000 retirement-income scenarios to calculate the probability of not running out of money. He’s published a free 730 page e-book “Retirement Income Scenario Matrices.”

In short, there are three key variables that impact your retirement income; your spending, your investment returns and your eventual age (when your plan “ends.”)

The first variable, spending, is the one you can most control. Your spending before retirement will generally determine how much money you accumulate while working. What you don’t spend becomes savings/investments and these annual additions and their appreciation increase your investment portfolio overtime. Your spending in retirement will determine how much you need to withdraw from your investment pot. As your earnings during the working years increase, you need to save a larger percentage of your income in order to accumulate an investment pot at retirement time that will support the lifestyle you’ve created. Withdrawals from your investment portfolio during retirement typically should not exceed 4% of the total investment pot. It’s an easy calculation. For example, if you determine you will need to withdraw $100,000 from the portfolio in your first year of retirement, you’ll need a portfolio of $2.5 million.

Now let’s look at investment returns. No one can predict the future. Historically, we know there is a relationship between inflation, asset allocation and returns. Hypothetically, let’s assume that a diversified fixed income portfolio over the long term would produce a return of 1% above inflation. The return above inflation is called the “real return.” Equities, because of their higher risk, have earned an “equity risk premium” of roughly 3 to 7% above the inflation rate over the long term. Again, hypothetically, let’s assume that in the long-run equities earn 5% above inflation. Alternatives have a shorter historical track record but are designed to produce returns comparable to fixed income returns over time. Therefore, a portfolio with 50% fixed income holdings and 50% equity holdings might hypothetically produce a 3% real return over time. If long-term inflation is expected to be 2.5%, the nominal return could be expected to be 5.5%. A larger allocation to equities will likely produce a larger real return and a smaller (more defensive) allocation of equities would likely produce a smaller real return.

Lastly, longevity. Certainly, we can look at actuarial tables, such as those used by insurance companies and social security, to calculate life expectancy. These charts show that a male age 60 might be expected to live another 22 years; a female age 60, another 25 years. However, we suggest you not use these actuarial tables. Harvard Professor David Sinclair‘s “Lifespan- Why we Age- and Why We Don’t Have To” shows that the increases in technology and medicine are going to give those individuals who want to live a longer and healthier life the opportunity to do so. It is very possible that many of our clients and friends will live a healthy 100 plus years and younger generations, such as millennials and Gen Z, may live to 110 or longer. Accordingly, we suggest using an eventual age of at least 100 when doing your financial planning.

Dr. Sharpe’s final section in the book is about advice. He indicates that many people will need help. He outlines the “ideal financial advisor” and compares a “good financial advisor” to a “fine family doctor” who has “deep scientific knowledge, can assess client needs, habits and willpower and is able to provide scientific diagnoses and can communicate results to the client in simple terms so that the best treatments can be applied.” We like the analogy, we use it all the time.

Yes, running out of money in retirement would be a nasty, hard problem. It’s doesn’t have to be that way. You need a solid financial plan based on realistic values for investment returns and longevity. You also need to focus on spending and savings.  And, you might need some help from a “good financial advisor” that operates like a “fine family doctor,” a firm like DWM.