Friday, October 13, 2017

Why a Rational Retiree Might Keep Going Back to that ATM

In particular, the presumption that a client will adhere to a deterministic spending schedule, wake up one morning, go to an ATM, and discover that the “money process” has reached zero is silly and naive.” — Moshe Milevsky[1].

Milevsky refers to periodic, constant-dollar spending from a volatile portfolio, as simulated in sustainable withdrawal rates (SWR) research.

It is with no small measure of sadness that I find myself disagreeing, at least under certain conditions, with three of my favorite retirement researchers — Moshe Milevsky, Michael Kitces . . . and me.

For Michael’s perspective, I refer to a comment he made somewhere on the Internet some time ago referring to a paper entitled, “A 4% Rule — At What Price” by Jason Scott, John Watson and William Sharpe[2]. That research showed the high cost of mitigating longevity risk by over-saving. The large amount of “fettered” assets that must remain untouched to survive long periods of poor market returns make SWR strategies economically inefficient and expensive. Wade Pfau has referred to fixed spending from a volatile portfolio as the least efficient strategy.

I couldn’t locate that comment from Kitces so I will do my best to paraphrase from my (aging) memory. The problem with the Scott analysis, I recall Kitces suggesting, is that retirees don’t “do that.” They don’t just keep spending the same amount no matter the circumstances.

That was my intuition, as well. And in fairness, we were all three mostly right, though the devil is in the details.

It was hard to imagine that rational retirees would keep spending the same amount from a portfolio that appeared to be spiraling into ruin. (Cue Richard Thaler laughing aloud[4]). But, while Michael used that intuition to question the Scott research, I have always considered it an invalidation of the constant spending model as a planning tool. (As a research tool, it taught us about sequence risk.)

A predictive model says, “If you do this (follow the model’s policies in real life) then you can expect these results. If we don’t expect people to follow those policies, then we shouldn’t expect the outcomes that the model predicts. And, clearly, most of us don’t expect rational retirees to “do that.” So, why believe the results?

Why rational retirees might keep going back to that ATM.
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I still have serious problems with the model, and not just this behavioral assumption, but it took a retiree going broke in his early 80’s to help me understand that there might well be rational reasons for a retiree to keep showing up at that ATM until it spits her card back at her.

(Please note this evidence that actual retirees go broke with SWR strategies and this isn't a hypothetical outcome that occurs only in Monte Carlo simulations. Considering elder bankruptcy rates, however, the evidence seems to show that the rate of ruin is an order of magnitude less than SWR models predict. On the other hand, I suspect the rate of reductions in standards-of-living is higher.)

A retiree contacted me after depleting his savings portfolio at age 82 with a failed SWR strategy. He was down to Social Security benefits and a little home equity and hoped I could show him a way out of selling his home and living off Social Security benefits.

Sadly, neither I nor several retirement planner friends could offer a suggestion beyond a home equity loan, which didn’t work out. It’s tough to rebound after you age out of the labor market.

After our discussions and a little thought, I realized that households with substantial savings relative to their spending might well see portfolio failure looming and reduce spending. If they do, they will likely see their portfolio recover, as I showed some time ago in a series of posts entitled, Clarifying Sequence of Returns Risk. You don't go broke with variable spending from a volatile portfolio. On the other hand, the spending is, well . . . variable.

Households with limited savings, on the other hand, may well find that their non-discretionary expenses gradually overwhelm their safe level of portfolio spending. Even though the portfolio would be doomed by continued spending, they will still need to pay for groceries and housing and may have little recourse other than to keep spending and pray for a tremendous bull market. They may find themselves in a “spending trap” in which they must sustain their level of spending simply to pay non-discretionary expenses with the knowledge that doing so will most likely soon bankrupt them.

If we consider that credit card debt is a major cause of elder bankruptcy, then we can expect retirees in such a spending trap to max out their credit cards to pay bills before depleting their credit along with their portfolio. (The 2017 Retirement Confidence Survey from EBRI notes that "18 percent of all workers describe their level of debt as a major problem and another 41 percent call it a minor problem.")

A credit card debt spending trap is similar. The household continues to spend from credit well past the point where they believe they can repay because it has no good alternative. We would not expect excessive credit card spending to be normal, rational behavior but if it is the best of a set of bad alternatives, we probably have to call it rational. Again, this occurs in households with little or no remaining savings.

I learned this lesson long ago when I was asked to help a lady who had run up $60,000 in credit card debt while her husband suffered a long bout of unemployment. "I didn't use the card at Nieman Marcus," she explained. "I bought groceries and clothes for my kids." Not irrational.

A similar conundrum applies to reverse mortgages. The sales pitches strongly suggest that a mortgagee can’t be forced from the home by foreclosure so long as the home remains their principal residence. In other words, just stay in the home and the reverse mortgage can’t be foreclosed. True, but notice how easily that suggestion rolls off the tongue.

A reverse mortgage borrower can lose her home through processes other than foreclosure. A retiree who chooses a reverse mortgage might find that despite her expectations when she retired, she no longer wishes to live in the home or can no longer afford its maintenance or the local cost of living. “Just” keeping the home as her principal residence might not be an attractive option.

I recently learned of a wealthy, retired corporate executive who lived in an expensive suburb of Houston. His wife developed dementia and her care bankrupted the household. Reverse mortgages were not a part of that story but it is easy to imagine that, had he borrowed one and spent most of the equity, he would choose to move to less expensive housing in a less expensive community even though that would trigger the mortgage’s repayment. While he could postpone repayment by just remaining in the home, that might not be his best option. Moving out, though it would trigger mortgage repayment, might be the rational choice.

So, returning to that “deterministic spending schedule,” I, too, prefer to believe that most people would note their deteriorating finances and reduce spending in time, but retirees with more limited resources might end up in a spending trap in which their portfolio’s death march is the best of a poor set of choices. They might also fall victim to the "boiling frog" scenario in which the deterioration is so gradual that it fails to set off trigger points in time (although the whole boiling-frog thing is fake news, according to The Atlantic.[3])

As a friend and Duke philosophy professor recently told me when I questioned people voting against their own interests, sometimes people are acting in their own interests but we just don't understand what those interests are.

This week that the Nobel Committee conferred its award to Richard Thaler seems appropriate to remind ourselves that our financial models are fairly irrelevant if we ignore the human behavior element or oversimplify it.

Sometimes a retiree may keep returning to that ATM for as long as possible because she has no better alternative. That's rational.


[1] Financial Analysts Journal : It’s Time to Retire Ruin (Probabilities), Moshe Milevsky.

[2] A 4% Rule - At What Price? by Jason S. Scott, William F. Sharpe, John G. Watson.

[3] The boiled-frog myth: stop the lying now! The Atlantic.

[4] Richard Thaler, A Giant In Economics, Awarded The Nobel Prize, Forbes.


I will participate on a panel of retirement advisers in a Twitter chat sponsored by Thomson Reuters and entitled "When Can You Retire?" on Wednesday, October 18 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET. Follow @Retirement_Cafe and @ReutersMoney to join us.

A fellow retirement planner was told at a seminar this week that "95% of retirees should get a reverse mortgage at the beginning of retirement to create income." Aside from writing a will, I can't think of any single thing that 95% of retirees should do. I am told that Mark Warshawsky estimated that 14% of 62+ households could potentially benefit. Sounds much more reasonable to me. Still others might benefit from a reverse mortgage to create an emergency fund.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Equifax Breach and Freezing Your Credit Reports

In the wake of the Experian breach, I have received a number of questions about what happened and what we should do to protect ourselves from identity theft. Identity theft is a significant financial risk to retirement. Fraud risk is number 13 on "the list" (Retirement is Risky Business – Here's a List.)

The Problem

Identity theft can hurt us financially in several ways but the two aspects I'll discuss here are theft from an existing financial account (PayPal, credit cards, Amazon, a broker, etc.) and thieves creating new financial accounts in your name.

Here are two examples of theft from an existing financial account.

Three or four times a year I am contacted by one of my credit card companies to inform me that they have detected fraud in my account, often before I even see it. Their solution is to issue a new card with a new account number. That fixes one problem but causes others because three or four times a year I have to change my card number at places that store it like Netflix and Amazon. Another time, Amazon informed me that someone had ordered a $4,000 TV from my account but that they had stopped the order because it was clearly fraudulent.

Most of these incidents work out OK, except for the inconvenience, because my credit cards are insured against fraud by the issuer.

A lot of elder theft and fraud, however, is committed by family members. If a family member steals your credit card, Social Security check or ATM card, you probably won't be reimbursed unless you are willing to file legal charges against that family member. Sadly, you need to take extra precautions to protect your PINs, passwords and other vital information from family members. Remember that many of them will have physical access to your computer.

The second risk involves someone stealing your identity and opening a new account in your name. Unless you are vigilant, they can use these accounts undiscovered for some time and you will have the nightmare of proving you aren't responsible for the charges. The accounts they open could be anywhere from PayPal to a home equity loan.

Who Steals Your Identity?

Often, the hacker who steals your identity is not the person who steals your money. Hackers steal personal information and sell it to fraudsters over the Internet. (The magic of specialization.) Thanks to the Internet, the hackers and fraudsters can be anywhere in the world. Russia, North Korea, and Eastern European countries are common homes for this activity, but it happens everywhere.

What does this mean to you? It means that you can take extensive precautions to ensure that you protect your valuable identity information only to see the thieves just steal it from someone you do business with who also has your information. 

The latter is largely beyond your control. You can't control your personal information that Experian or Target keeps and has promised to protect.

Where Do Thieves Find Your Information?

They can look over your shoulder for your password while you log onto the Internet or enter your PIN at an ATM. They could steal your wallet. They can steal your credentials while you use a public Wi-Fi connection at a coffee shop (I use a VPN to protect against this.) They could hack into your computer. But, the least-cost approach is to steal millions of ID's at a time from places like Equifax, Target, and Yahoo.[1]

If bank-robber Willie Sutton were an identity thief, he'd explain his attacks on large companies by saying, "Because that's where your data is."

Why rob your home, steal your wallet or hack into your PC to steal one ID when a thief can hack Yahoo and steal millions?

If the Home Depot breach was a bank robbery, the recent hack of the credit-reporting agency Experian was like robbing the Federal Reserve.

Should you freeze your credit reports? Yup.
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The Credit Reporting Agencies

There are three major credit reporting agencies, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Most people have a file at all three, which should (but doesn't always) contain the same information about you. (You should check all three regularly at to correct any discrepancies.)

In addition to the three major agencies, there are about 40 others[2], most of which specialize. You should focus on the top three (and perhaps Innovis.)

When you apply for a new credit card, an apartment lease, or a reverse mortgage, for example, the company accepting your application will first check your credit record. Unless you have frozen your credit report at the credit-reporting agency they choose to check, this will be done easily and will not be reported to you.

This simplifies your life but, unfortunately, it also simplifies the life of the thief opening an account in your name.

Freezing Your Credit Reports

You also have the option of "freezing" your credit reports at these reporting agencies. If you order the agencies (plural, it only makes sense to freeze all three) to freeze your reports, they will provide you with a PIN number to unfreeze the account when you need to.

The bad guys can't open an account in your name without your PINs. This is less convenient for you because you have to unfreeze your reports when you want to open a new account. (This is typically less inconvenient for retirees because we tend to open fewer new accounts.)

My reports have been frozen for years, so when I recently opened a new account the lender called me to tell me that he couldn't run a credit check because my credit report was frozen. I try to remember this and unfreeze the account when I submit an application, but I often forget.

I asked the lender which agency his company uses and was told Experian. I knew then that I only needed to unfreeze the Experian reports so I logged onto, entered my PIN, and unfroze the account.

I could choose to unfreeze it for everyone or for one specific lender so I chose the latter. I could also unfreeze it until I chose to freeze it again or for a specific time period, so I chose to unlock my credit reports for this single lender at one agency (Experian) for five days, after which the account would once again be frozen to everyone.

Inconvenient? Yes, it cost me a few more days in the application process because I had forgotten about the freeze, but not nearly as inconvenient as identity theft.

Credit Monitoring Services

Many companies, including the reporting agencies, offer a service to monitor your credit report. Note that this is not the same as monitoring your credit accounts. After a breach, the hacked companies inevitably offer a year of free credit report monitoring service to help repair their image. "Free" is a fair price for this service and I generally take them up on it.

The problem with these services is that they won't notice a problem until your creditor reports it to the credit-reporting agency. (Again, they monitor your credit report at the agencies, not your actual Visa or PayPal accounts.) This is somewhat akin to checking the obituaries each morning to see if you're in them.

You may have seen a TV commercial that shows a bank being robbed while a security guard just watches. "Aren't you going to do something?" a customer asks while lying face down on the floor.

"Oh, I'm not a security guard," he responds. "I'm a security monitor. My job is to tell you when your bank is being robbed. By the way, your bank is being robbed."

The credit report monitoring services are even less useful. They tell you that your bank was robbed, not that it is being robbed.

Protecting Against Fraudulent Accounts

Though credit freezes won't stop the first problem I described, someone accessing your existing financial accounts, they can prevent someone from opening a financial account in your name.

I protect my existing accounts with two-factor authorization everywhere it is available.[3] I also set up email notifications on every financial account that offers them to immediately notify me of unusual transactions, like those for large amounts or charges outside the U.S. Lastly, I set up email notifications for accounts that don't offer this service at[4]

For the second risk, someone opening an account in your name, I highly recommend that everyone — especially retirees, since they open fewer new accounts and may be more financially vulnerable — freeze their credit reports at all major credit reporting agencies. It may cost a few bucks, depending on your state laws[5] and it will be a little inconvenient, but it is worth the effort.

Here are some directions if you choose to freeze your credit reports.
  • Assume that your ID has already been stolen. That's the safest assumption and it's probably true. Many IDs have been stolen and the thieves are waiting for someone to buy them. Maybe they just haven't gotten around to yours — yet. Once you accept this fact, you will focus more on how to protect yourself after your information has been stolen.
  • Log on to all three credit reporting agencies (links below under "References") and freeze your credit reports.[6-8] Follow their directions. You will need to provide a good deal of personal financial information to do this online so they can be sure that you are you, but you always have the option of calling the phone number they provide.
  • Don't do this, of course, over a public Wi-Fi network.
  • Request a freeze at the smaller agency, Innovis, because as the Washington Post asks, "Why not?"[9]
  • Some concerns have been raised regarding weak PINs provided the agencies and whether PINs were stolen in the Equifax breach.[10] Equifax says they were not, but not everyone is willing to trust Equifax' word right now. To play it safe, you might want to change your PIN if you already had one. Equifax says they will add that ability immediately and begin providing more random PIN numbers, as well. 
I'll be changing my PIN because, well. . ., "why not?"


[1] 2017 Data Breaches - The Worst Breaches, So Far | IdentityForce®.

[2] Credit Reporting Agencies: Big 3 & Alternative Bureaus | WalletHub®.

[3] Two-factor authentication: What you need to know (FAQ) - CNET.

[4] Mint: Money Manager, Bill Pay, Credit Score, Budgeting & Investing.

[5] Details of credit freeze laws in all 50 states.

[6] TransUnion Fraud Alert

[7] Equifax Alerts

[8] Fraud Alert Center at Experian

[9] Innovis Security Freeze.

[10] After Equifax Breach, Here's Your Next Worry: Weak PINs, New York Times.