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Should You Count Social Security as a Bond?

The right answer depends a lot on the retiree’s risk capacity as well as risk preferences.

A version of this article was published in September 2016.

For many people approaching and entering their retirement years, Social Security benefits are the most valuable "asset" they have. A married couple with average wages would receive well over $1 million in lifetime benefits, according to estimates from the Tax Policy Center. Meanwhile, millennial couples--born in 1995 and retiring in 2060--are on track to receive more than twice that amount, barring significant changes to the program between now and then.

The specific dollar value of benefits received over a lifetime will depend on each individual's earnings history, marital status, and longevity, among other factors. But that amount still looms large over the investment assets that many retirees bring into retirement. The average 401(k) balance for people ages 50-59 was $160,000, according to estimates from Fidelity Investments, and $182,000 for people age 60 to 69. Many of those investors also have IRAs that are equal to or greater than their 401(k) balances. Still, it's safe to say that for many pre-retirees, those accounts are no match for the lifetime value of their Social Security benefits.

The question is, should you actually factor in those Social Security benefits when it comes to determining your portfolio's asset allocation? Or are Social Security benefits different enough from investment assets like stocks and bonds that you should separate them from your asset-allocation decisions?

Count 'Em In?

Vanguard founder Jack Bogle was firmly in the camp of factoring Social Security benefits into one's asset-allocation plan. He argued that investors ought to consider Social Security as part of their portfolios' fixed-income weightings, and asset-allocation plans that don't do so will be overweight in bonds. Not only does Social Security deliver income payments in a way that a bond does, but those payments are also adjusted for inflation.

Viewed from that vantage point, Social Security is akin to an inflation-protected bond that pays income for the rest of your life. By extension, retirees who are eligible for Social Security can reasonably hold a higher equity weighting than traditional asset allocations would dictate.

In a similar vein, David Blanchett, formerly of Morningstar and now PGIM's director of retirement research, has also argued for taking a holistic approach to retirement portfolio management and asset allocation. "Social Security is a government bond and part of someone's total wealth and therefore should be considered in the portfolio as a bondlike asset," he said. In a paper Blanchett co-authored with Morningstar's Paul Kaplan, total wealth allocation--encompassing investment assets as well as nonportfolio assets such as pensions, Social Security, and an individual's human capital--is one of the strategies that advisors can employ to enhance their clients' income streams during retirement.

Or Out?

But not all financial experts agree that Social Security is entirely bondlike and should be treated as such in a portfolio.

Author and financial advisor Rick Ferri concedes that because Social Security promises regular inflation-adjusted cash flows, it's similar to a bond. But he notes that it's different in a few key respects, too. For one thing, Social Security has no maturity date; your payments will continue as long as you live. If you die young, Social Security will be a much less valuable asset than if you live to age 95. Depending on the start of benefits and overall life spans, the value of benefits that an individual receives could differ by hundreds of thousands of dollars. That makes Social Security a squishy item to value, and in turn, to count as a percentage of your portfolio's asset allocation.

Determining the true value of Social Security and its value as a percentage of your portfolio's asset allocation is further complicated by the possibility of benefit cutbacks for younger generations; if benefits are scaled back or if means-testing is applied for younger beneficiaries, then the value of benefits for those individuals will be that much lower.

Even more fundamentally, Ferri believes that Social Security benefits shouldn't be counted as a portion of an investor's fixed-income portfolio because Social Security recipients lack the same level of control that owners of other assets have. "You can't pick the maturity date or the interest rate, you can't decide how risky this income stream will be, thus collecting a higher risk premium, you can't swap your income stream for a different one (unlike bond swaps), you can't sell the income stream, you can't ask for a lump-sum payout, and when you're dead, your estate doesn't get any principal (unlike insurance)," he said.

Implementation Issues Abound

Other financial-planning practitioners argue that one of the biggest reasons not to count Social Security as fixed income is behavioral. One of the key benefits of owning bonds is that they serve as ballast to the riskier parts of the investment portfolio--bonds typically go up, or at least don't lose as much, when stocks go down. That, in turn, helps investors stick with their plans when their equity investments inevitably slump.

By contrast, investors who are using Social Security as part of their fixed-income allocations don't have that same ballast. Financial-planning guru Harold Evensky made that point vividly in an interview I did with him: "If you're doing an asset-allocation model and you factor in Social Security as a bond, then you can have a much larger equity allocation in the financial assets. Intellectually, that makes all the sense in the world," he said. "The problem is when the market is down to tell someone, 'Oh don't worry about it. Your bond is doing fine.' And they say, 'What? I don't own any bonds.' If your response is, 'Oh, Social Security,' it just doesn't resonate."

In a similar vein, Blanchett notes that paying attention to Social Security's bondlike characteristics shouldn't automatically lead to a higher equity weighting. "The fact that Social Security is bondlike doesn't mean someone should be more aggressive in their portfolio, depending on their risk tolerance/capacity," he said. "But at a minimum it should at least inform the decision."

Sue Stevens, wealth advisor at Buckingham Strategic Wealth, employs a hybrid approach. While she doesn’t consider Social Security as part of a client’s fixed-income weighting, some of her clients may in fact end up with higher equity weightings as a result. “I like the concept of liability matching,” she said. “When formulating a plan I look at the present value of Social Security and pensions--what the person would need in retirement to cover expenses for the rest of their lives. If you’ve carved out enough income needs for expenses, you could potentially hold more stocks,” she said. Could Your Portfolio Use a Makeover? Submit your information for a chance to have Christine Benz review your portfolio and provide improvement suggestions based on your needs.

The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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