Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stress Test Your Retirement

With stocks going nowhere for the past ten years or more, we now understand that retirement planning involves more than seeking the highest returns. Risk has to be managed. Savings must be protected. This is especially so as one grows older. With fewer working years left, those who have living memories of seeing or wearing leisure suits should think about downside risk as well as upside potential. It's a good idea to stress test your retirement.

A stress test would estimate how well your finances would look in adverse circumstances. There are different ways to do this, and some can become quite complex. There is no magical formula or golden number(s). Much depends on your appetite for risk, your life expectancy and your retirement goals. Let's start with individual factors.

1. Stocks. Assume a 50% drop in the stock market. That's not an unrealistic assumption since stocks dropped a bit more than that at their worst point in the 2008-09 financial crisis. They could drop like that again, notwithstanding every assurance from Wall Street and high ranking government officials. What impact would that have on your finances? If the answer is too much for your comfort level, then reduce your exposure to stocks until you feel comfortable.

2. Bonds. Assume a 20% loss of your taxable bond portfolio. This would be a very large loss for bond holdings, but could happen if the Fed has to raise interest rates sharply in order to combat inflation. (Indeed, the Fed's ongoing quantitative easing program--the purchase of Treasury securities with printed money in order to lower interest rates--has anomalously resulted in increased interest rates, suggesting bond investors expect inflation from the QE.) What impact would a 20% drop in your taxable bond holdings have on your equanimity? If the answer isn't conducive to equanimity, dial back your bond exposure.

3. Municipal Bonds. Assume a 20% loss in the value of your muni bond portfolio. This, too, would unusually large. But the growing crisis over state and municipal deficits, and the possibility that interest rates may rise because of or in spite of the Fed, could produce significant muni bond losses. How would this affect your sense of financial security? If you don't like the answer, trim your muni holdings.

4. Money Market Funds and Similar Products. As we know from the 2008-09 financial crisis, money market funds can go under. Less well-known similar products, most notoriously auction rate securities, may be less safe than money markets. Assume a liquidity crisis for your holdings of money market funds and other short term investments. What would you do if you couldn't get to these assets? If the answer is ugly, transfer your liquid assets to money market funds that invest only in U.S. Treasury securities, or to bank or credit union accounts and CDs that are fully insured by the federal government. Don't mess around searching for incremental increases in yield. Make sure your liquid assets are truly safe (because they may not be liquid otherwise).

5. Insurance Products. Insurance products are subject to the creditworthiness of the insurance company. Insurance companies make mistakes. If, like AIG, they make big enough mistakes and put the international financial system at the edge of the abyss, they will be bailed out by the government. But most insurance companies can't put the touch on taxpayers like that. Try to figure out how much you could salvage from your annuity or other insurance products if the insurer goes belly up. You might have to research the law of the state where the insurance company is chartered for the coverage provided by its guaranty association for life insurance. (One place to start is the website for the national umbrella organization for these associations, called the National Organization of Life & Health Insurance Guaranty Associations, The amount of coverage may be between a maximum of $100,000 to $500,000, depending on the state. If that limit spurs major heartburn, either avoid making a big investment in insurance products, or look to boost the non-insurance portion of your portfolio. Be cautious about exiting insurance products you've already bought, because the insurance companies may whack you with painful termination fees. But pay those fees if your exposure to insurance products makes you queasy.

6. Pension. Let's say your employer goes bankrupt and ditches its pension plan. Can you live with the reduced payments you might end up with? Figuring out how much your pension might be reduced in such a circumstance could be difficult and the stress test might have to be done with just an approximation (factoring in the limitations in coverage from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., if applicable; see You could try assuming your pension payments turn out to be half of what you expected. Then, increase your current savings a lot because the loss of half a pension would be painful for just about anyone.

7. Social Security and Medicare. Social Security and Medicare will not disappear. They will be here as long as the Stars and Stripes fly. Of course, some modifications will surely be made, particularly in light of the recent mid-term elections. These modifications won't give you a warm glow. Assume your benefits are reduced by 15%. If that would increase your antacid budget, save more.

8. Health Insurance. If you're under 65, consider the impact of losing your health insurance. (Just about everyone 65 or older has Medicare coverage.) If you're in a group plan, research the cost of buying replacement coverage (which would be an expensive individual policy for most people). Then save more. If the health care reform of 2010 survives Republican attack in 2011 largely intact, you'll probably be able to get good coverage. If the 2010 health insurance reform is significantly cut back, you could be in a tight spot.

9. House. If your home is part of your retirement finances, consider the impact of a 25% drop in its value. Many homes have dropped more than that in the past few years. Don't think it can't happen again. Factor in the mortgage, home equity loan(s) and other liens on the house. If a 25% loss would ruin your day, save more.

We all know that, in a financial crisis, more than one asset class may go sour at the same time. Estimate the combined impact of such a morass. One thing that is certain is we will have another financial crisis like 2008-09. When is anyone's guess. But an enduring lesson of 2008 is that there are no new paradigms in the world of investments and finance. Sooner or later there will be another financial crisis. Those that prepare for it will probably do okay. Crisis deniers surely won't.

Where is there safety? Money market funds that invest solely in U.S. Treasury securities for one. Bank and credit union accounts and CDs that are fully insured by the federal government are another. See Longer term U.S. Treasury securities will be paid in full upon maturity, but are subject to interest rate risk during their terms. Gold and silver may look attractive at the moment, but their values have historically been extremely volatile. Invest in commodities at your peril.

If you don't like the results of your personal stress test, save more. That, more than anything else, will strengthen your finances. A diversified portfolio is prudent (stocks and bonds can help with your long term financial needs). But diversified doesn't necessarily mean high risk. Having 20% in stocks and 30% in bonds, with the rest in safe assets, may be as diversified as some people want to get, especially those over 70. All the nice looking statistics and charts that financial planners can generate about long term gains don't mean diddly if we're stuck in one of the decade long or longer time periods when financial assets sag. Allocate your assets in the way that facilitates sleep. You'll sleep better for it.

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