Longevity risk

My grandmother was born in 1927. At that time, the life expectancy for women was about 60 years, but here we are in 2013 and she is doing amazingly well. During the last 80 years, technological and medical advances have tacked another 26+ years onto her life. Already she has lived 50% longer than the initial expectation.

My son was born in the fall of 2012. He is expected to live about 80 years. Following my grandmother’s case, he would live to 120 years of age. Put another way, he can expect his pre-retirement and retirement periods to be about the same. Clearly, retirement nest eggs and pensions are going to be stretched a lot further than they ever have been.

This is the trend that we need to plan for. The following are key areas of consideration for our increasing life spans.

  • Inflation. At 3% inflation, a $100,000 annual income need today becomes $242,726 30 years down the road. This substantial difference requires careful consideration. Do your pensions have an annual cost of living adjustment built in? Have you built inflation protection into your retirement accounts?
  • Health care costs. Along the same lines, the estimated rate of inflation for health care in 2014 is 6.5%. Should you insure to protect against this risk?
  • Portfolio withdrawal rate. What is a sustainable rate that can last throughout your retirement period? Is your portfolio structure congruent with this rate? That is, do you have the appropriate mix of stocks and bonds with sufficient diversification?
  • Your end of life wishes. Statistically speaking, the majority of medical costs occur in the last five years of life. And, there is little doubt that advances in medicine and technology will afford increasingly difficult decisions. Having a clear medical directive can save significant emotional and financial resources.
  • Savings rate. Pensions are becoming a thing of the past. This has shifted a huge responsibility to the saver. If you are still in your accumulation years, figuring out the savings rate that corresponds to your retirement goals is more important than ever.

As life expectancies increase, so do the complexities of retirement planning. Inflation protection and an appreciable return that keeps up with your distribution needs are just the beginning. If you have not already done so, take the time to meet with your advisor to build a goal-centric plan that is specific to your unique retirement needs.

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The insidious effects of inflation

We have all heard the expression, “back in my day…” followed by the amount a particular item used to cost. While it’s somewhat of a cliché, it does carry a lot of weight. The impact of inflation on your cost of living has real consequences, and factoring it into your retirement plan is of paramount importance.

Consider someone who is planning to retire at 66 years old. Current actuarial figures give them a retirement window of about 25 years. Using 3% for average annual inflation, the future value of a dollar 25 years out is $.48. Put another way, you can afford to buy less than half as many goods 25 years into retirement as you could when you started. Fortunately, that is not the end of the story.

There are several ways to insulate your retirement income from the effects of inflation.

One solution has to do with retirement pensions. Once the pension spigot is turned on, one thing that can increase the flow is a Cost of Living Adjustment, or COLA. A COLA increases annual pension amounts based upon the previous year’s rate of inflation. The important thing to know is whether your pension has a COLA. Without one, you will become increasingly dependent upon other assets as time goes on. Remember, 25 years from now a dollar will be worth less than half of what it is worth today. With a COLA, you will still need to understand how your increasing income stream fits in with your other assets and your specific retirement plan.

Another pension source most people have in retirement is Social Security Income, or SSI. The COLA for SSI is tied to the Consumer Price Index. As such, it varies from year to year.

The final piece to consider is your retirement accounts, such as IRAs, Roth IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts. These accounts do not provide a fixed income stream in the sense that a pension does. Typically, they are invested in an allocation of stocks and bonds controlled by you or your investment advisor. Distributions are on an as-needed basis.

Stocks have historically been the best long-term hedge against inflation. In a sense, they act as a super charged COLA for your retirement accounts. How much stock you allocate to these accounts and how the accounts will supplement your pensions requires careful consideration.

No two retirement plans are alike. Understanding how the unique pieces of your retirement puzzle fit together to meet your retirement goals is what’s important. If you have not already done so, take the time to sit down with a professional who can help you figure out where you are, where you want to go and most importantly, how to get there.

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Advisor Forum on International Exposure and Diversification

A few weeks ago, four Merriman advisors got together for a round table conversation to review themes that came up during meetings with their clients. Aaron Spencer, Mark Metcalf, Paresh Kamdar and Tyler Bartlett all provided insights on the most common questions that investors are asking. Over the 40 minute conversation, you’ll hear their take on the following themes:

  • International exposure
  • Diversification
  • Bond rates being at an all-time low
  • Inflation
  • DFA and the value they add

Enjoy!

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All that glitters is not gold

Merriman does not include a specific allocation to gold in our standard portfolios. This article, by Bryan Harris of Dimensional Fund Advisors, discusses why gold has not been an ideal long-term investment. It includes the following key concepts:

  • Gold has done well since the year 2000 and in the 1970s, and can potentially be a safe haven during times of political and economic stress. However, for the entire period of 1971 – 2011 gold performed worse than the S&P 500, U.S. small-cap stocks and non-U.S. stocks on an inflation-adjusted basis.
  • From 1980 – 1999, gold experienced a negative return after inflation of -6.5%, vs. strong positive returns for stocks.
  • While gold has held its value against long-term inflation, there have been extensive periods when gold did worse than inflation. Gold is also much more volatile than inflation, and can add substantial volatility to a portfolio.
  • Unlike stocks, which are productive assets which generate growing levels of income and dividends over time, gold has no cash flow and costs money to own.

For more detail and some illuminating graphs, please see the article.

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How can I get hurt holding bonds?

I am considering buying bond funds and would welcome your recommendations. I recently read in Time magazine that you could get hurt if you’re invested in a bond fund. How can I get hurt holding bonds?


Many people think bonds are risk free, but that is not actually true. There are multiple risks associated with bonds, but they can be an extremely important component of a portfolio despite those risks. And, if properly allocated, they can provide a level of security above and beyond the equity markets. Of course there is no free lunch, and the added stability of bonds requires a tradeoff. Namely, you are foregoing the equity premium associated with stocks.

We recommend using a mix of high quality short- and intermediate-term government and Treasury issues. For tax-deferred accounts we include Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS). This allocation is purposefully designed to be very conservative. Nonetheless, it is still subject to certain risks. Interest rate and inflation risk make the top of the list. You can alleviate the risk of inflation through the use of TIPS. Interest rate risk is somewhat of a different story.

There is an inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates. As rates rise, bond prices fall and as rates fall, bond prices rise. Longer-term bonds are hit hardest in a rising rate environment; short-term issues are hurt the least. Of course shorter-term issues generally pay less interest. If you want an appreciable return – especially in today’s low rate environment – you need to extend beyond extremely short-term debt. Our solution is to limit risk exposure and also gain some additional yield by using high quality short- and intermediate-term US government and Treasury debt.

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Is rampant inflation an upcoming problem for the US?

I am a buy and hold investor, but two recent lectures by Niall Ferguson, a Harvard Economic-Historian, make a strong case for the impending economic collapse of the United States. He predicts default and/or rampant inflation and suggests re-allocating one’s portfolio to a mixture of gold and foreign investments. I can already hear you saying “no, this time won’t be different, America will recover”, but I suppose I just wanted to hear it straight from the source. Any words of wisdom would be most appreciated.

At any given time, it is not difficult to find somebody professing to know the short term future of the economy or the capital markets.  Quite often these people are highly regarded professionals armed with plenty of data to support their claims.  And quite often they are wrong.  History is replete with examples of how investors made wholesale changes in their portfolios based on excessively optimistic or pessimistic predictions, only to regret it deeply after the opposite occurred.

We believe that the future is fundamentally unknowable, and thus cannot be predicted with any precision. We believe investors could use their time and energy and brainpower much more effectively by controlling what they can control instead of trying to predict what cannot be predicted. We do this for our clients and with our clients by maintaining portfolios that are designed to address a wide range of economic and market climates, including inflation.

(more…)

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What annuity option should I choose?

I am approaching the age of retirement after a career in teaching, and I have a couple of options for taking my pension. One option is to take a single life annuity benefit of $1,040 per month. The other option would give me a lump sum of $35,320 plus a reduced monthly benefit of $793. Which one would be better for me?


The best answer will depend on your unique set of circumstances. A general rule of thumb is to base this choice on your life expectancy. If you live for many years, you’ll collect more by taking the larger annuity. If you live for relatively few years, you’ll collect more with the lump sum.

There are two main risks involved in this choice. One is that you might live a very long time. The other is inflation. Unless your annuity payment is protected by a cost-of-living adjustment, inflation will erode your monthly income over time. (more…)

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Inflation and our Merriman bond portfolio

Here’s an article we recently mailed to Merriman clients, addressing some inflation questions that we felt our FundAdvice readers may also be interested in:

Some investors are concerned about the prospect of future inflation, based on fiscal and monetary measures the U.S. government has taken to respond to the recent market crisis. However, other metrics suggest that moderate inflation will continue. These include current inflation, bond market indicators and worldwide excess capacity.

Merriman’s recommended bond portfolio is structured to provide a reasonable level of protection against inflation.

The Fed’s view

The Federal Reserve, in a statement on April 28th said, “With substantial resource slack continuing to restrain cost pressures and longer-term inflation expectations stable, inflation is likely to be subdued for some time.”

Notwithstanding this reassuring if somewhat abstruse statement, there is considerable debate about whether higher inflation will result from the fiscal and monetary actions the federal government used to curtail the market plunge from October 2007 to March 2009. Inflation is the nemesis of bond investors. An increase in inflation will cause an increase in interest rates and decrease the value of bonds. Conversely, if interest rates were to fall because of lower inflation, bond prices would rise.

What factors impact inflation and how is our bond portfolio structured to handle inflation risk? (more…)

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Inflation, politics, history and investments

Fear is never far from investors’ minds, especially during tumultuous times like these. Nervous investors will always find plenty of authors, gurus, prognosticators and analysts who are willing and able to feed these fears.

Fear isn’t necessarily bad. It’s one of the two primary psychological forces that drive the market (the other, of course, being greed). When you’re ready to buy an asset, you want to get the lowest possible price. Logically you should hope that the seller is fearful and eager to sell.

Fear can also be useful by reminding us that risk actually exists and bad things can happen when people plunge ahead in spite of warning signs they should be noticing.

However, it’s easy to get carried away and lose sight of the facts. This can happen to even the smartest investors. A case in point is one of my clients (I’ll call him Jim here, though that’s not his real name), a veteran scientist with a distinguished career at a large, successful company. (more…)

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Sell TIPS to hedge against higher interest rates?

Is now the time to buy more TIPS in my 401(k) or to sell TIPS as a hedge against rising interest rates next year? I’m 57 years old and wonder if I should buy a short-term investment grade bond fund before interest rates go up. Or is it better to buy them when interest rates are much higher?


I cannot recommend what you should do because I have very little information about your situation, other than your age. But I can give you some pointers that might help you think about these questions.

You are asking questions involving market timing and also about your overall asset allocation. To get answers that make sense, you need to think clearly and logically about this. Bonds and bond funds are not quite as simple as you might think.

As Paul Merriman has written before, there are three rational reasons to own TIPS and other fixed-income funds. First, you might want to buy low and sell high in order to make a profit. Second, you might want these funds so you can collect the income they provide. Third, you might want them in order to dampen the volatility of the equities in your portfolio. (more…)

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