Best of The Long View 2020: Financial Planning and Retirement
From financial-life planning to the latest retirement research, these are some of the most memorable moments from our podcast in 2020.
On this week’s episode we’ll feature some of our favorite clips from interviews we’ve done on the topics of financial planning and retirement research.
Here are the complete episodes that are referenced in this week’s episode.
Christine Benz: Hi, and welcome to The Long View. I'm Christine Benz, director of personal finance for Morningstar.
Jeff Ptak: And I'm Jeff Ptak, global director of manager research for Morningstar Research Services.
Benz: On this week’s episode we’ll feature some of our favorite clips from interviews we’ve done with financial planners, advisors, and retirement researchers over the past year.
In next week's episode, we'll include some of our favorite excerpts from our interviews with portfolio managers.
The pandemic was dominant in 2020, and we asked almost all of our guests to share their perspective on how it has affected how they approach their work and the guidance they provide to others.
Top of mind for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary was the importance of people at all income levels holding liquid reserves to tide them through economic shocks.
Michelle Singletary: We often talk about the lack of savings. And right away people think, Oh, it's lower-middle-income folks who don't have it. But let me tell you that a lot of the people that I work with through my community involvement make six-figure salaries. They have a 401(k) or a 403(b) and they're saving for retirement and they have no cash cushion. They are living paycheck to paycheck. And so, this pandemic hit them hard, too--maybe they have reduced hours, or they are trying to help other relatives and they have nothing to pull from. And so, it's so crucial to have that emergency fund at all income levels. And it's sometimes harder to persuade people who are making good money to save because they've got this fat paycheck that is for the most part covering everything, and they don't feel like they need to put aside money in an account that's not earning anything.
Well, many of those people have lost their job during the pandemic. If you worked in the service industry or hospitality, and maybe you had a middle-level position as a manager or something, and now you're not working, that fat paycheck isn't coming in and now they're eyeing their retirement accounts to tide them over. And so, I'm hoping that they get the message that no matter what you earn, you have to try to save something. And obviously, if you don't make a lot, that's harder; but if you make good money, you need to use this pandemic of what happened as a wake-up call that you need to make sure you have a cash cushion. Even as you're saving for retirement and investing, that you still need to have liquid cash so that you don't have to tap those portfolios before you're ready in your retirement years. Because if you had to tap them now in the markets down, that's heartbreaking that you would have to tap that money.
Benz: The pandemic appears to have had especially negative economic effects for older workers, a topic we discussed with author Kerry Hannon.
Benz: A lot of your work over your career, Kerry, has been around how midlife and older workers can continue working, continue to have fulfilling careers. Let's talk about how older workers have done during this pandemic in terms of simply hanging on to their jobs. The early data would indicate that they have been kind of a hard-hit cohort through this period.
Kerry Hannon: Yeah, you're absolutely right. It has been a tough slog. And I don't have the most recent numbers in front of me. But even anecdotally, I have seen a lot of older workers accepting early retirement packages. They've been laid off. They've decided, "You know what, I don't want to go through this again." The slog of finding a job at this age over 50 even can be really difficult. We saw this in the Great Recession in a way. It really takes so much longer for someone who is in this age cohort to land a job again. It doesn't mean they can't. The jobs are there. But it does take longer. And as employers are really battening down the hatches and tightening things up and having to do lots of cost-cutting because of loss of business and especially small businesses certainly have had this issue.
So, I find it troubling because this is not a good thing at all. Because with longevity, the big focus that I've talked about for years is you've got to plan for working longer of anything, you need to stay on the job as long as you possibly can because we have no idea what the medical costs are going to be at end of life for us. And we do have these "bonus years" but this longevity that you're going to at 65--you can definitely do something for another 10 or 15 years. Our generation, and this is the boomer generation, is really no one's been here before, no one has seen this sort of down the road that Yeah, you don't just step out of the workplace. And work is not a four-letter word. Work is something that we need to embrace and plan for doing it in different variations. It may not be that primary linear career, but you need to continue working. So, yes, I am fearful because of the hit that older workers have taken in the pandemic, because often they were more expensive and easy to cut. So, I encourage people to not give up and to try to find ways to stay in the workplace. And hopefully, we'll turn this corner here and look for some of the bright lights and the opportunities that we are seeing from remote work.
Benz: We discussed retirement planning and portfolios at length in our conversation with retirement researcher Wade Pfau. We asked him to explain his assertion that a 4% initial withdrawal rate is untenable for new retirees.
Wade Pfau: Well, there's a number of factors--people are living longer, and the 4% rule ignores taxes, it assumes investors are not paying any fees on their investments and so forth. But the biggest driver for what I'm talking about right now is the low interest-rate environment. Low bond yields mean low bond returns in the future. And there's not really any controversy about that. It's a very close mathematical relationship. If interest rates don't change, today's bond yields will be the bond returns. And then, of course, if you're holding bond mutual funds, well, if interest rates go up, you're going to have capital losses, which make things even worse. Or vice versa, if interest rates decrease further, you could have capital gains. But effectively, future bond returns are going to be very close to today's bond yields. And that means spending from bonds is going to be lower mathematically. And for the 4% rule, it's just based on U.S. historical data, where we've never seen interest rates this low. The one time we saw, like, for example, the 10-year Treasury yield fall below 2% was just very briefly in the early 1940s.
So, if you are just trying to fund retirement with bonds and starting in the early 1940s, you'd be looking at about a 2.5% withdrawal rate for a bond portfolio. But for a diversified portfolio, stocks came to the rescue of bonds in the early 1940s. Because this was now after the Great Depression, and stocks were undervalued. Going back to that Shiller analysis--stocks were undervalued in the early 1940s. And so, the long-term prospects for stocks were much better at that point. And they did come to the rescue. And for a diversified portfolio, the 4% rule survived in the early 1940s, when it's the only time we saw interest rates low like today. But today, we're dealing with this high-valuation environment, although it's ...
Benz: Less so now?
Pfau: ... less so now. And historically low interest rates, lower than the 4% rule ever had to be tested by. And so, it's not as clear how stocks can come to the rescue of bonds. So, you're really starting from a position where the 4% rule is under a lot more strain. And it's really sensitive to market returns. Like, if you just take historical average data and plug that into some sort of financial-planning calculator, which is kind of the naive approach that still gets used today, that will be assuming you're going to have 5% to 6% bond returns in the future. The 4% rule looks like it's going to work 95% of the time. But if you just lower returns to account for lower interest rates, and because of this idea of sequence-of-returns risk, even if interest rates normalize later to their historical averages, that's kind of too late if you're retiring today. Based on those kinds of projections, you're going to be looking at the 4% rule working more like 60% to 70% of the time, and that's usually not the amount of safety people want, that if you want that kind of safety of at least getting your strategy to work 90% of the time, the lower interest rates are going to push you towards something like 3% being a lot more realistic than 4% as a sustainable strategy in a low interest-rate environment.
Benz: Financial advisor Jonathan Guyton has done extensive research on the topic of flexible withdrawal rates in retirement. We asked him how that would work in practice.
Ptak: How do you inculcate your clients in a flexible withdrawal approach when perhaps many of them are accustomed to thinking of withdrawal is sort of a straight line type of rate?
Jonathan Guyton: Right, right. Well, you know, it's funny, because I think one of the things that has helped me the most is that my full-time work is not as a researcher, or a writer, or anything like that. I'm a practitioner. And so, I get the chance to have retirees teach me and teach my colleagues what it's like to actually put this stuff into practice. And then we can adopt the way we implement things in a way that matches their behaviors, their lifestyles, and the emotions that affect their decision-making.
So, when you think about someone who is--we'll just make up a little scenario here. They're 65 years old, and now they're going to retire. And if they've made choices along the way, where they have put money away for retirement, we know that over the last 40 years they have had variations in their income. Somebody takes time off because they have a baby, somebody gets a bonus, somebody takes a leave of absence, somebody gets laid off, there's an illness. And so, people have 40 years of learning how to be flexible in their spending decision. And so, what we realized was that doesn't go away when you're 65. That's the only thing you know how to do. And so, the idea that retirees would have the ability to have some small amount of flexibility in their spending is actually something that lines up with people's real-life experiences.
And so, the work that I did basically said, since that is true, if we factor that into the idea of sustainable withdrawal approach over one's lifetime in retirement, does that make any difference to the amount of money that you can take out because of course the previous research had always said, every year you get a raise for inflation come hell or high water. And that is actually not the way retirees look at things. And the only reason we're talking here today is because that research revealed that if there can be a little bit of flexibility, then yes, you can turn the faucet on a little bit more and take more money out sustainably as long as you're willing and understand the adjustments that you need to make along the way when they're called for.
Benz: The impact of low bond yields for retirement and portfolio planning was a topic that we came back to again and again. Retirement specialist Jamie Hopkins noted that low yields aren’t just problematic for people in retirement.
Ptak: One outgrowth of the pandemic is that yields are seemingly as low as they can go on safe securities. Is that mainly a concern for people who are in drawdown mode? Or is it an issue for retirement savers as well?
Jamie Hopkins: It's an issue for a lot of people. Retirement savers, too. As you start dealing with that group looking at retirement income, and they're 55 years old, and they're thinking they may be 10, 12 years from retirement, and they do want to start thinking about derisking a portfolio a little bit, because there's, again, some good research out there that suggests that five years right before and right after retirement are your biggest concerns from a sequencing standpoint, that they want to derisk. Well, all of a sudden, derisking doesn't look very attractive right now with, as you said, interest rates basically at zero and negative. And somebody's saying, "Why am I going to pull money out of the market to put into anything that's paying zero or negative? I'm just not going to do it." We 100% run into clients like that now that are probably, in my opinion, starting to get overweighted in the market, because they don't feel that they have a good, safe investment or safer investment-style option.
And I've had some concerns, too, with that group and the retirement-income-drawdown group on being in bond funds. And people can argue about this back and forth. And again, I don't always necessarily think there's a right answer, but there's things to consider. But we saw some bond funds through the pandemic--we were looking at some on a Friday back in March or April that lost over 20% of their value in a single day. We just had this pulldown in bond funds. And we've been talking about that for years, and academics talk about it, and investment specialists talk about it: Bond funds are not bonds. But the reality is a lot of people's investment portfolios were made of bond funds. And as you had these liquidity draws--and then they're essentially selling out of bonds and buying new bonds at low rates--these bond funds were just getting crushed. And you have the person who was doing what they were supposed to do and not selling that was being harmed in that case, because that was supposed to be their safe investment allocation, all of a sudden, it's down 20%. And then that person is saying, "Why am I in my safe investment losing 20% when I might as well just be in the market for the upside?" And we had people come to us with that conversation, too. And insurance products, which would have been nice to buy into probably in the fall, you know, a lot of their interest rates now is tied to the overall Fed rates too have come down, and I don't think there's a lot of appealing options out there for people today. And that's a true challenge of where are you going to be properly allocated today if you do need returns, either you're still saving or your returns from an income-generation-drawdown perspective.
Benz: Many retirees rely mostly or even exclusively on Social Security for their living expenses, but the Social Security Trust Fund was under stress even before the pandemic. We discussed the topic in-depth with Mary Beth Franklin, an InvestmentNews columnist and an expert on Social Security.
Ptak: The latest report from the Social Security trustees indicates that the Social Security Trust Fund will run out by 2035 if no action is taken to shore it up, and that doesn't even take the pandemic into account. The question is, how concerned should we be about the health of Social Security overall?
Mary Beth Franklin: That's a great subject to bring up, Jeff, and you are correct. The latest Social Security trustees report was compiled before the pandemic. It essentially said the combined Old-Age, Survivor, and Disability Trust Fund would run dry around 2035, which is the same estimate as the previous year. There are other think tanks that watch this closely, and they said, “No, probably it's going to be a lot sooner than that, possibly by the end of this decade, 2029.”
Why is that? Recession has a severe impact on the Social Security Trust Fund for three reasons. One, those payroll taxes--that we pay with every paycheck--is what funds Social Security. The money is specifically earmarked to fund Social Security. When you have 40 million people out of work, they and their employers are not paying FICA taxes, so, less money is going into the trust fund. Also, when you have a severe recession, you may have many people like we talked about at the top of this podcast, 62, 63, 64, who may have lost their jobs, and they decide they need to claim their Social Security benefits earlier than they had planned. So, more money is coming out of the revenues as well. And higher-income retirees pay taxes on a portion of their Social Security benefits. Maybe if their income is down because they lost a job or their investments are down, they might not pay any taxes on their Social Security benefits. And then, the final step, the Federal Reserve had stepped in to basically lower interest rates to zero to keep all the credit markets running, but that also means the securities where the Social Security Trust Fund reserves are invested are earning less money. So, it's a quadruple whammy really against Social Security Trust Fund. The problem, however, is still the same: That the way to fix it is either to get more money into the system or take less money out in the form of restructuring or reducing benefits or a combination of the two.
The thing about the Social Security Trust Fund is, since about 2010, our last recession, there was enough money prior to that from just ongoing FICA taxes to pay all the needed benefits. Around 2010, when we had a recession, we needed the money from the Social Security FICA taxes and money from the interest that was being earned on these securities to pay the benefits. But we weren't actually tapping the noninterest reserves. We're expected to start tapping that excess money that's been built up over the last 30 years, next year. And by 2035, if Congress does nothing and the reserves are depleted, there would be enough money from ongoing FICA taxes to pay about 79% of promised benefits.
Now, none of us is going to be satisfied with 79% of promised benefits. It would essentially mean a 21% across the board cut in benefits for everybody who is getting benefits. Now, nobody wants to see that happen. And I doubt Congress wants to see that happen because they know that old people who receive Social Security benefits tend to vote in higher numbers than the rest of the population. When this happened back in 1983, and I will add that I was a very young reporter for United Press International back in 1983, and I covered the Social Security reform legislation back then, and what they decided was, “Let's institute some changes, like let's gradually increase the full retirement age, which at the time was 65 to 67.” There was a huge outcry, “Oh, this is horrible; you can't change it.” Well, that was nearly 40 years ago, and that part of the legislation has not been fully implemented yet, because people born in 1960 or later, whose full retirement age is 67, that doesn't kick in until 2027. Congress gave us more than 40 years to get used to changes like a higher full retirement age and taxing some Social Security benefits for the first time and a few other changes like that.
The sooner Congress steps in to make needed changes, the easier it will be for the population to adapt. And I like to be the optimist and say, “If you had asked me in January 2020, could Congress get together to agree on anything? I would have said, ‘no way.’" But as a result of the pandemic and the crisis--we saw that in a crisis, our lawmakers actually can work together. And that does give me hope that Congress will address the shortfall of the Social Security reserves as soon as it gets the COVID problem under its belt, because it has demonstrated during this recession how incredibly valuable the guaranteed income of Social Security is and why it's imperative that they fix it for current and future retirees.
Benz: the course of the year we had several conversations about what might be referred to as financial life planning—aligning financial resources with bigger-picture objectives and values. We asked financial advisor and author Tim Maurer about whether the pandemic was giving people the opportunity to think more deeply about their lives.
Tim Maurer: I feel as though the pandemic has taken all of us to a place where we are more attuned to the deeper matters of life. And maybe it's just because we're all experiencing pain at various levels, Christine, but I think that it has just simply taken us to a deeper place in life. We're asking those bigger questions that when everything is just going great, we don't have as much of a tendency to ask. So, people are going down a few layers as opposed to just looking at things on a superficial level. They're not just looking at portfolio returns, even though that might have been one of the first things that just scared them to death in the middle of March when the market was going crazy. But it's now leading to some of those deeper questions, and I do indeed believe that financial life planning is one of the best ways for people to navigate those types of big life questions and decisions.
Benz: Financial advisor Lazetta Rainey Braxton corroborated that the pandemic had changed the types of conversations that she was having with her clients.
Lazetta Rainey Braxton: What we're seeing now is people really are allowing themselves to dream even more. With financial planning, we like to say, let's put everything on the table. And we can decide based on what your goals are, your values are, and the trade-offs of what should come off the table and what should be added on. And so, now there's a heightened appreciation for life. With this pandemic, people are thinking about what really matters to them. And we're seeing that they're living into their financial plan. They've been great savers, been very prudent with their finances, and now venturing a little bit more in terms of reshuffling what's important to them, whether it be buying a second home, or investing in a startup, because a lot of innovation happens during crisis and a lot of people don't think about that. But when things are tough, that's when you are most creative oftentimes.
Benz: We discussed aligning goals with financial resources at length with financial advisor and author Carl Richards, whose sketches impart complex financial concepts in an easy-to-understand way.
Ptak: I wanted to ask you about one of your famous sketches. And for our listeners who aren't familiar with your work, I think that they can readily find it online, but they sort of look like napkin sketches, and I hope you don't take exception to that, but they're very effective in their simplicity. That's basically a Venn diagram. And the one I wanted to ask you about: There are two overlapping circles. One is marked "Your use of capital" and the other "What's important to you." And the overlapping area's marked "Real financial planning." And so, my question is, How can advisors hone their skills in providing the type of advice you suggest that's in the overlapping portion of that circle? Are there any resources you'd recommend?
Carl Richards: Sure, yeah. Jeff, I've got to tell you a funny--I love hearing people describe what they are, because we like "cartoons," but that implies way too much skill, "sketches" or "napkins"--it's all fine. But one funny story is, I used to get these long emails from the Venn diagram police telling me why these things weren't Venn diagrams. And I used to engage: I'd write back these long defensive things. And then finally, I just decided, "Yeah, you're right. It's actually a circle sketch." ...
But I think there's a couple things that go into this, and this is useful both for advisors and for the people listening that aren't involved in this industry: Remember, there's two circles there, right? There's two things we have to figure out--your use of capital. Another simple way to say this would be: your values in your money or your money in your life, right? So, use of capital. And then, the other one was: What's important to me? Getting clear about what's important to you is really hard. I mean, I used to think that was like, "Oh, that would be the simple part." It's really hard. And so, it turns out that we've got all this stuff going on with mimetic desire. And I think it's only been made hard through, like, the Instagram life problem that we all have. Getting clear about your goals is hard. And I think that it's not a destination. It's a process. It's a journey. And the only way to figure that out, and I think advisors can get good at this, but we all individually need to get good at this, too, is, you sort of just make a guess, right?
One of my friends refers to it as "placing bets." Like, I think this thing over here will kind of make me happy. We can relax a little bit. I find as soon as I use the word "goals," people are like, "Ah, like, there's so much pressure." I love to just call them "guesses," like, "Relax, just guess: Where do you think you want to go?" We place a little bet that way. We take a step. And when we take this new step, we start aligning our use of capital to help us get that direction. Let's say we think that it's important that we educate or we provide Ivy League education for our kids. I don't know – I'm making something up. We think it's important that we take that trip five years from now. We think it's important that we retire. Whenever it is, we make a guess, we start moving that direction. And then, we need to realize, and I think this is a big part of the problem, guesses and planning. It all sounds so serious, and it all sounds written, like carved in stone. And if we start to lighten up a little bit and realize these are guesses. Let's not worry about being right today. Let's not focus on being right today. Let's focus on being a little less wrong tomorrow. And so, that first circle, "What's important to you"--you don't know? Every time I've asked somebody that question, they've had some idea. And so, we write that down. And then we review it. So, that's the first area.
And then, aligning your use of capital. Obviously, that becomes just much more about tactical financial planning and investment portfolio design. If we know where we want to go, it's much easier to decide. Do we want to take a train, a plane, or an automobile to get there? But I'm finding most of the time people are arguing about train, plane, or automobile, and they've never had the discussion about where you're going. So, the shorter version of that answer would just be: Place a couple of bets, make a guess, head that direction. I like thinking: Make a guess, take a step forward. When you take that new step forward, what will become available to you is new information, just literally by the fact that you're in a new location. When you get that new information, incorporate it in the complexity literature, they say, solve for the next local optimum, and then reset. That's all it is. It's a game. And we should just relax a little bit. And I don't mean game like it's not serious. It's super serious. But that's the complexity on the other side of that simple image.
Benz: Author and financial expert Ramit Sethi also made the point that a financial plan has to begin with the process of goals discovery beyond the numbers.
Ramit Sethi: I find that the minute anyone starts talking about money, whether it's in a financial advisor's office or reading a 401(k) brochure, they're already on defense, because most people don't know about personal finance, but they know enough to know that they're doing something wrong. And that's not a good sign to help them absorb and learn and make moves.
So, if it were up to me and I were advising financial advisors on their primary first conversation, there would be no math allowed, there would be no compound interest, there would be no words like estate allowed. Not at all. The questions are human questions that you might ask your children or your friends or parents. What's important to you, what do you want to do with your life? What does your rich life look like? What if you could spend more on that? These are questions that any person can answer, and they actually want to answer it. People desperately want to talk about their dreams. But until we get that down and set some foundational context for what their vision is of their future, then no amount of interest rates and returns and expense ratios are going to matter.
And I can tell you that many of us have experienced with people who end up in their 60s, let's say, they have some money, but they have no idea what to do. No idea what to do with it. They saved and they did all the right things, but they forgot the most important thing, which is to have a reason why. I remember I was having dinner with somebody in their 60s. And I asked him, if you could go back and give yourself advice in your 20s, what would you tell yourself? Any thought about it for a second? And he said, save more. I would have saved more. And I happen to know his financial situation. He's done fine. He has money. I said, if you'd save more, what would you have done with the extra money? You've got money now. What would you have done with some extra? And he looked at me stumped. It is reflexive. It's almost religious in our culture to save money. Now, that doesn't mean we do it. There's just words around and there's all these commercials out there telling people save and invest in 401(k) and this and that. Doesn't mean we do it. But what we lack is asking people why, what do they want to do and pushing them on it, not accepting the first typically lazy answer, I want to do what I want, when I want. Well, what is that? When you get into that, then suddenly people are much more receptive to these foundational concerns of retirement and tax-advantaged investing, et cetera.
Benz: We asked author Brian Portnoy to discuss whether some financial advisors are well equipped to have these sorts of conversations with their clients.
Ptak: You alluded to it before, but there's the potential for a skill mismatch. It's possible that some investment advisors who are very much at home discussing things like bond convexity or Sharpe ratios, or maybe Roth conversion, stretch IRA, you name it, are less comfortable sitting down to discuss their clients' aspirations. And so, based on the work that you've done with advisors and the conversations you've had, how do they skill up or evolve as they will need to in order to stay relevant to these clients?
Brian Portnoy: Yeah, it's a really good question. And, I mean, Jeff, there's a sample bias in who I talk to because I'm not interested in converting. I'm more interested in selling Bibles. So, if someone wants to be a stockbroker, and they think all of this financial-coaching stuff is goofy and silly, that's totally fine. I'm not going to try to convince them to be somebody that they're not. The challenge is neither the hardcore broker who just wants to be wheeling and dealing in the market nor is it the financial therapist who literally and figuratively puts their clients on the couch to talk about deep-seated issues. It's everybody in the middle who is in one way or another pursuing something called “goals-based wealth management.” And to Christine's point or question just a moment ago, that phrase "goals-based wealth management" was sort of invented by some big wirehouse firms who wanted a different wrapper for the same old sales jargon.
If an advisor is interested in talking with their clients about bond convexity and particular diversification strategies or sector rotation, I think, number one, there's a decent chance the client has literally no idea what they're talking about. I don't know many individuals who go to a financial advisor because they basically want a pocket portfolio manager. Maybe some do, but that doesn't seem to be the case in my experience, and that's probably even more true from a generational-shift perspective. I think that's more of an old-school way of thinking about things.
Bottom line, there are going to be some people who pursue a deeper, more sophisticated conversation about goals and objectives, and there are going to be others who just use those as placeholders to sell the right products. And I'm not trying to make it sound like one is wrong versus right. I have a preference, obviously. But I think authenticity is absolutely critical in all of this. To me, the modern advisor is aspirational, adaptive, and authentic. They have an orientation toward growth. They're not just in a legacy business. They're willing to accept that the world is unpredictable, and they're going to change with things. And then, finally, they're going to just be who they are to their clients and not try to be somebody else because people can pick up on that almost immediately. To me one of the cool things about the wealth management industry is that it's so large, there are so many advisors, and so many clients and potential clients, that everything is on offer and you know, it’s just a matter of mapping up people with like minds who can do good work together.
Benz: Thanks for listening this past year. From all of us here at The Long View, best wishes in the year ahead.
Ptak: If you liked what you heard, please subscribe to and rate The Long View from Morningstar on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Benz: You can follow us on Twitter @Christine_Benz.
Ptak: And at @Syouth1, which is, S-Y-O-U-T-H and the number 1.
Finally, we'd love to get your feedback. If you have a comment or a guest idea, please email us at TheLongView@Morningstar.com. Until next time, thanks for joining us.
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