Friday, November 21, 2014

Hope and Your Retirement Portfolio

In my last post, Are Social Security Benefits a Bond?, I pointed out that many retirees might not be willing to implement a very risky upside portfolio simply because they have an income floor to rely on. Floor-Leverage Rule goes the 100%-equity bet one better.

Three, actually.

The Scott-Watson Floor-Leverage Rule and Zvi Bodie's floor-and-upside strategy are two very different variations of the Floor-and-Upside retirement income strategy. These variations recommend different floor allocations. The basic floor-and-upside strategy, described in Risk Less and Prosper: Your Guide to Safer Investing by Zvi Bodie and Rachelle Taqqu, calls for the floor to at least cover non-discretionary expenses.

Floor-Leverage Rule takes a different approach, recommending 85% of all assets be included in the floor portfolio without regard to which expenses that might cover.

More to the point, the strategies also recommend varying allocations for the upside portfolio. I envision a reasonable, 50% equity portfolio, but Bodie, for example, recommends that the upside portfolio consist of 90% Treasury bonds and 10% long-term call options (LEAPs). (Nassem Taleb has also suggested this strategy.)  Scott and Watson go even farther, recommending a 200%-leveraged (3x) stock indexed ETF. One such fund, ProShares Ultra S&P500 (SSO), which is “only” leveraged 100%, fell 79% in the last bear market. I can’t find a 3x leveraged fund that was around back then.

You can implement the upside portfolio with any amount of risk you want. Yours will still be a floor-and-upside strategy if you implement the upside portfolio with something other than Bodie's or Scott's approach.

Why do these experts, some of the most highly-regarded in the retirement planning field, recommend such risky upside portfolios and are they a good idea?

I think these recommendations are made with the assumption that retirees with a sound floor of income will be willing to take huge risks with their upside portfolio, but I am not, and I doubt that many retirees are. I think this may be another case of the pig having a different perspective than the chicken.

They also assume that retirees value floor assets and upside assets equally, in other words, that losing their entire upside portfolio would be OK if they had an adequate floor. Floor assets and the upside portfolio are both wealth, but the upside portfolio has something that the floor assets don’t and that retirees find quite attractive — hope.

Recommendations for highly-leveraged and risky upside portfolios appear to assume that a retiree will always value guaranteed income at least as highly as they value having an upside portfolio. In other words, were they to lose most or all of their upside portfolio (a 3x leveraged portfolio is wiped out by a 33% drop in stock prices), retirees wouldn’t be overly concerned because they would still have Social Security benefits and annuities to meet their needs. But, they would also have lost their upside potential. That wouldn’t make me happy.

While I can’t produce studies that show retirees would prefer not to make a huge, risky bet with their upside portfolios, I believe we can infer that from other behavior. The evidence seems clear that retirees are generally reluctant to annuitize their entire savings at retirement, and many advisers recommend against that, as well. I believe the reasons are reluctance to give up the opportunity for improving their standard of living in a bull market (hope) and hesitance to give up all liquidity, among others. If an unforeseen expense comes along, you can't withdraw extra cash from Social Security benefits or an annuity.

If we know that retirees are reluctant to create a retirement income strategy that consists of all annuities (private or Social Security), then we should assume that they would be reluctant to risk backing into that position by losing most or all of their upside portfolio and being left with illiquid annuities. It would follow, then, that they would not be willing to make huge, risky bets with their entire upside portfolio. Although Bodie’s call options strategy makes risky bets, it does so with only 10% of the portfolio. The Floor-Leverage Rule risks losing all or most of the upside portfolio and, with it, any chance of a higher standard of living.

In Three Portfolios, I showed that considering Social Security benefits a bond forces most retirees into a much riskier upside portfolio, often 100% stocks. Many argue that a 100%-equity upside portfolio would be acceptable because the retiree has a floor to rely on, but that again assumes that a retiree values floor assets at least as highly as upside potential. I argue that at the margin, this isn’t typically the case.

Retirees may value floor assets quite highly at the beginning, but at some point they will value upside potential and liquidity more than they value more floor assets. In other words, they won’t want to fully annuitize their savings and give up the opportunity to improve their lot.

If you truly don't mind that your upside portfolio might take wild swings or it won't bother you when your call options expire worthless because you would be content with your floor, then these might be reasonable strategies for you. If you don't have an iron stomach, then investing 100% of your upside portfolio, let alone 300%, might not be the answer.

I'm not suggesting that these are inappropriate strategies for everyone; one might be a perfect fit for you. I'm pointing out that any strategy that puts your upside portfolio at high risk assumes that you would be fine with losing most or all of it, along with any opportunity you might have for improving your standard of living with stock market gains, because you have an income floor.

Are you?

A Floor-and a Lottery-Ticket strategy probably sounds better to chickens that it does to us pigs.

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