Monday, March 16, 2020

How to Score Free Ben and Jerry's as a Retirement Planner

I recently received an email from a retired couple I work with noting that the market had fallen 20% at that point and asking what they should do. The wife admitted that she was beginning to feel a bit anxious.

"You actually don't need to do anything", I replied.

"The market is down 20% but your portfolio is only down about 6% because a lot of your portfolio is in I Bonds and TIPS bonds. The annuity we purchased isn't subject to market risk, either, nor are your Social Security benefits, and those two pay most of your living expenses. The remainder is a small draw from your portfolio. So your spending hasn't been impacted and the market will eventually recover. So, why the seeds of panic?"

I assume the reply helped because the couple shipped me five quarts of Ben and Jerry's. (Who knew you could ship Ben and Jerry's?! Is this a great country or what?)[1]

The stock market has gone from raging bull to a bear market (roughly defined as a 20% decline or greater from a recent high) in just a few weeks. We recently experienced the longest bull market in history, so bear markets will come as a shock to many who have never experienced one but this is the way they work. The market drops precipitously. Life in the market seems grand and all of a sudden you’re trying to “catch a falling knife.”

I’d like to offer some perspective without the typical “stay the course” bromides that you can find anywhere, though I agree that’s good advice at this point.

First, you may have noticed that your risk tolerance has fallen as fast as the market. This is normal. During a roaring bull market, we have the feeling that we can tolerate a lot more risk than we feel we can tolerate during a bear market. It's human nature. Now is the time to reassess your risk tolerance, not during a sunny bull market. If you feel panic then your stock allocation is likely too high. Now is the time to adjust that for the next bear — you’re too late for this one.

Let's delve a bit deeper into why this couple is not panicking and I'm scoring ice cream big time.

Let’s say that before our mutual planning sessions a recently-retired couple had saved $1.5M in their two IRA accounts. The wife is quite risk-averse; the husband less so but strongly focused on ensuring that his wife is comfortable with their finances. Before planning, they owned mostly stocks and bonds but had no idea what they owned, why they owned it, or how much of each they owned. (I see this frequently, by the way.) Let’s guess they owned 50% equities and 50% bonds.

When the market fell 20%, their portfolio would have fallen about 10% or 11% with a 50% equity allocation (bond returns minus stock losses). Not nearly as frightening. That $1.5M would have been reduced to about $1.35M simply due to a less risky asset allocation.

But they had better news. To reduce risk to meet the wife’s risk tolerance, we had purchased a single premium income annuity (SPIA) with about $500K. The SPIA, when combined with joint Social Security retirement benefits, pays most of their living expenses and reduces the spending rate from their IRA’s to about 3% — a very sustainable draw.

A chart of 2020 year-to-date S&P 500 returns is fairly ugly right now, as you can see below from the chart of the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund VFINX produced at Hopefully, as a retiree, you weren’t 100% invested in stocks. If your portfolio were perhaps 50% stocks and 50% bonds, for example, before the bear, then your losses would be about 10% or 11%.

Also as a retiree, your investment horizon is a lot longer than one calendar quarter. So, let’s jump in Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back Machine and look at market returns from the beginning of this bull market, or right after the Great Recession that began in the fourth calendar quarter of 2007 with S&P500 market losses exceeding 50% by first quarter 2009. As the following chart shows, market returns since early 2009 have been fantastic.

(Also note that your recent losses occurred after an 11-year holding period, which belies the argument that stocks get safer the longer you hold them. The proper metric for retirement portfolio risk is terminal portfolio value, not annualized volatility. The range of possible portfolio value outcomes gets larger, not smaller, with time.)

I’m not going to suggest that you ignore the fear that comes with a precipitous market decline any more than I would ask you to stop touching your face or not see an elephant in your mind’s eye right now. There are some behaviors we simply can’t adopt.

Nor will I suggest, as many do, that “this is a perfect time to buy stocks”. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t but market timing doesn’t work. Stocks are cheaper than they were last month but they may be cheaper still in the near future. Or not. No one really knows.

Interest rates are equally unpredictable. A year ago, many advisors would have recommended that retirees not purchase annuities given then historically low interest rates of a few percentage points. Overnight, rates are now near zero and that previously-purchased annuity looks pretty good. If you're trying to predict stock market prices or interest rates you're playing a loser's game.

What I do suggest is that you consider a longer perspective of market returns and realize that you were way ahead before you gave some back. Rebalance your portfolio once a year or so but only if your allocation is off by about 10% or more.

A reader emailed me not long ago to say that her advisor wanted her to sell stocks, incurring fees and taxes, because her asset allocation was off by a couple of percentage points. That’s pure folly. No one knows exactly what their asset allocation should be but it is a cinch that we can’t know it within a couple of percent.

According to CNBC[3], had you invested $10,000 in an S&P 500 index fund when the bull began in 2009, that investment would be worth about $45,800. Of course, you probably weren't 100% invested in equities so your portfolio return was lower but you’re still ahead of the game.

More importantly, because your portfolio probably wasn’t invested 100% in equities, especially if you follow my blog, your losses should be much less. My example retired couple lost only about 7% when the market fell 20% because we had set up an investment strategy that matches their risk tolerance. Not fun but certainly tolerable.

Purchasing a SPIA with some of your savings also removes market risk exposure and ensures lifetime income to pay your living expenses. That may help you invest the remainder of your portfolio more aggressively without causing too much angst.  Remember when you hear that the S&P 500 has fallen X percent that a properly positioned portfolio has fallen only a fraction of that. (The same is true when the market rises X percent.)

Lastly, reconsider your risk tolerance and plan to make any changes to your target asset allocation that will help you sleep through these occasional bear market. It’s too late to do anything more about this one. I haven’t even looked at my portfolio since my annual review last December and have no plans to do so. If you, too, can reach that point then your planner has done a great job.

I’m pretty happy with mine.


[1] How to Order Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Online | Ben & Jerry’s

[2] The market's 10-year run became the best bull market ever this month

[3] S&P 500 Return Calculator, with Dividend Reinvestment


  1. 1. given the turmoil in the credit markets in particular, do you have any concerns about the solvency of annuity providers? i put about 30% of my assets in fixed spia's [split among 4 companies] a few years ago. they all have top credit ratings, but nonetheless a systemic crisis could affect all of them equally. thoughts?

    [of course there's no way to get the money back even if i wanted to, but nonetheless it is among the many risks i consider]

    2. re tips: the cpi-u is a very imperfect hedge against inflation, especially MY inflation [everyone's is different]. do you use other kinds of inflation hedges with your clients?

    1. Excellent questions, Jeffry.

      Had you asked me about annuity providers a month ago, I would have directed you to some excellent work on the subject by Joe Tomlinson. You can find it here. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do. Bottom line, if you have an annuity from a top provider, the odds of you missing annuity payments are quite low. Some of these top insurers have paid dividends since the 1800s.

      However, as Joe explained to me recently, we don’t know what will happen to insurers during this unprecedented crisis. I would add that Joe also pointed out a few months back that annuities are essentially bond portfolios and there is no macroeconomic scenario in which the bond market fails that stocks don’t fare far worse.

      I don’t think you can look at annuities in isolation and say they’re weak or strong. You have to compare them to the alternatives: stuffing your cash in a mattress or investing in stocks. Neither seems a better alternative to me at this point.

      I recommend I Bonds, TIPS and real annuities for inflation protection –– though the real annuities are currently not available in the US –– and nothing else. All of the alternatives (commodities, mortgages, etc. and real annuities) are flawed.

      We have discussed your issues with CPI-U before and, frankly, I don’t know how to help you. There is nothing imperfect about CPI-U other than it doesn’t perfectly track your personal financial situation. No index is going to but CPI-U will track 80% to 90% of your personal inflation. Sounds like you’re making the perfect the enemy of the good and I wonder what you think the alternative might be?

      Thanks for writing. I always enjoy and appreciate your comments.

    2. Dirk, great to see you back blogging.
      IMO a good overview of UK annuities (including funding regimes, etc) is given by Ned Cazalet in his 2014 paper when I am sixty four, see e.g.
      From page 64 Ned gives some more details about the Investments held by UK annuity providers.

    3. An index is an average and none of us is average. Regarding retiree tracking error of CPI-U (CPI-W for Social Security benefits), see for example this piece from Mark Hulbert.

  2. re hedging inflation- my business partner just called me, literally minutes ago, about how to take advantage of current oil prices to cover his home's heating needs for the next 10 years. i think a futures based etf is not a good hedge for such a time period, so i suggested he just buy some ixc- not too bad a hedge for this purpose. so there's an example of hedging at least that piece of inflation. i hold some moo, a very imperfect hedge for my food consumption. there is no hedge that i can think of for medical costs.

    having fixed rate debt [as a borrower] is a good inflation hedge - it's why i won't pay off my mortgage.

    real annuities, where/when available are enormously overpriced, which is understandable given the risks involved. i think it was a recent paper by pfau that concluded the fixed spias were actually preferable, and that inflation should be hedged in some other way.

    always enjoy your columns by the way. thanks for your work.