Thursday, June 12, 2014

How To Reduce Volatility in Your Retirement Income

The S&P 500 has dropped three days in a row, and after all the market calm of recent months, many investors must be thinking that the apocalypse looms.  There are understandable explanations for the recent downdrafts.  Islamic radicals of the Sunni variety have rapidly seized several towns and cities in Iraq, along with American weapons and vehicles provided to the Iraqi government (and the administration worries about giving small arms to moderate Syrian rebels?).  Iranian paramilitary troops, who are Shiites, supposedly are fighting alongside Iraqi government troops to retake territory seized by the Sunni radicals. Is Iran now a more important ally of the Iraqi government than the U.S.?

Russian tanks have reportedly rolled into Ukraine, where the fighting is escalating.  Bashir Assad is winning in Syria, and the moderate rebels that the U.S. supports seem to be almost inconsequential.  Most of East Asia is squabbling over this island or that, with contending nations issuing many a proclamation declaiming a neighbor as a ratfink, a double ratfink or even a triple ratfink. 

Domestic politics also create uncertainty for the markets.  Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader, was just defenestrated in a primary election by a guy from far right field whose name, even if we mentioned it now, you probably wouldn't recognize.  (But we're going to, because it's Dave Brat, a marvelously fitting name for a guy who ousted the Majority Leader.)  Cantor, who outspent his opponent's six-figure campaign by $5 million, convincingly proved that money isn't everything.  Not even in politics.  The Koch brothers must be scratching their heads about what checks to write next.

The markets will always be plagued by volatility.  And it tends to pop up when you least expect it.  That might be inherent in the definition of volatility, but you know what we mean.  Yogurt happens, but you don't want your retirement finances smeared with yogurt.  While there are no complete protections against the ups and downs of life, here are a few ideas for calming the financial waves.

Build Up Social Security Benefits.  Disregard the hyperbole.  Social Security will be there when you retire.  Maybe not exactly as it is now, but nevertheless in a meaningful form.  Any politician who votes to eliminate or sharply reduce Social Security retirement benefits will end up doing an Eric Cantor faster than Eric Cantor as voters reject the idea that they should have to eat dog food in their old age.  Work as long as you can to build up your benefits.

Get a Pension.  If you're lucky enough to get a pension, stick out it long enough in that job to qualify.  Although classic defined benefits pensions are usually found these days only alongside the remains of diplodocus, lasso one if you can.  Other pension arrangements, like cash balance plans, are a lot better than no pension. 

Save More.  Saving more is a salve for portfolio instability and financial insecurity.  Those that have the saving jones won't have to get loans.

Use Retirement Accounts.  Retirement accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs and so on offer tax advantages that let you leverage your retirement savings, while limiting your ability to prematurely spend your savings.  A particular advantage to a 401(k) account comes if your employer provides a matching contribution, which is the freest money most people can get.  Use these accounts as much as you can.

Diversity Your Investments.  The values of all assets wax and wane.  But they usually don't wax and wane in unison.  More commonly, some assets get yeasty while others do the fallen souffle thing.  And vice versa.  So a diversified portfolio is usually kind to your antacid budget.  There are moments, like the 2008-09 financial crisis, when it seems like almost all assets belly flop.  But these cognitively dissonant interludes are the exception and not the rule. 

Consider an Annuity.  A fixed annuity (one that pays a specified dollar amount per month) or a fixed annuity adjusted for inflation can be a reasonable way to provide a steady income.  Annuities aren't cheap, and you should buy only from an insurance company with a strong credit rating. Don't put more than about one-third to one-half of your portfolio into an annuity because cash needs in old age can be unpredictable and it helps to have a nice pool of cash or cash equivalents.  Be very cautious about variable annuities--they often have high expenses, and the point here is to reduce volatility, not subject yourself to it in another form. 

Health Insurance and Long Term Care Insurance.  Financial volatility can sometimes come from sudden increases in expenses, and not just decreases in portfolio values.  Health care and long term care needs are the biggest landmines in the journey through retirement.  Most retirees are covered by Medicare, but if you're not, then buy something else.  The Affordable Care Act, despite all the teeth-gnashing on the right, is likely to be a good option if you don't have anything else.  If you have a significant net worth, consider buying long term care insurance, especially if you have a spouse who may depend on that net worth after you've gone to the great Dance Party in the sky.  It's expensive, but so is long term care.  If you want more than the quality of care given to Medicaid patients, long term care insurance may be a good choice.

Part-time Work.  Okay, you want to hear about retirement, not employment.  But part-time employment reduces the extent you need to draw down your savings, so you can keep more powder dry for later.  It also lessens your risk of dying from the boredom of day time TV.  It may boost your Social Security benefits (depending on your work history).  And the dignity of work is better than the indignity of looking for sales on dog food.

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