Question to the boomers; "How did your parents invest their retirement nest eggs?" The common perception is that they only spent the interest and dividends while never touching the principal. Perhaps this explains why so many boomers are trying this strategy. After all, if it worked for the baby boomers' parents - often known as the "greatest generation" - why can't it work for baby boomers too?
IN PICTURES: 10 Retirement Wrecking Moves
Why The Boomers' Retirement Is Different
- Much Longer Retirement
Many people in previous generations worked as long as they could and very few were fortunate enough to have a retirement that would be considered "golden" by today's standards. How many spent the last third (or more) of their lives pursuing hobbies and leisure instead of working? Boomers retiring in their 60s can expect to live about 30 years in retirement, which is a lot longer than their parents did.
- Higher Expectations
Not considering tours of duty in Europe or the Pacific, how much traveling did past generations of retirees do? Boomers' parents were Depression-era babies who practiced frugality and continued to pinch pennies throughout retirement. In stark contrast, boomers want their retirement to include travel, vacation homes, new cars, dining out, etc. This is fine, but it is expensive. Therefore, boomers need to plan for a much more expensive retirement than their parents ever would have expected.
- Personal Savings Instead of Pensions
The greatest generation might have had a lower per capita income but many also had corporate pensions. Boomers wanted higher salaries, freedom to change employers and the ability to save independently. Corporate pensions were largely phased out, giving way to the 401(k). However, when given the option, most boomers didn't start saving enough or early enough. Today, many boomers haven't amassed enough in personal savings, and most don't have meaningful pensions compared to their parents.
- Rising Instead of Declining Interest Rates
In the 1980s, when the greatest generation started to retire, interest rates were about 18%. In 2010, rates were about as low as they get, at less than 1%. This long decline in interest rates provided a great return to bond investors. The boomers are facing the very opposite situation. Instead of an ever-declining interest rate, they are facing the likelihood of steadily increasing interest rates during their retirement.
- Exotic Investment Options
The greatest generation had relatively few investment options - mostly ordinary bonds and certificates of deposit. Today's boomers, on the other hand, are being offered an ever-expanding universe of income securities. The investment industry has provided a lot of rope, and a lot of new and exciting ways to lose it all.
If they felt like taking risk, the boomers' parents might buy some dividend-paying stocks. At the time, most of the dividend-paying industries, such as finance and utilities, were highly regulated. Decades of deregulation have caused these industries to become less predictable and more risky; hence, the certainty of previously assumed dividends is now extremely uncertain.
Just about everything the greatest generation experienced during retirement is different for the boomers. So, how can you expect the investment strategy that worked for them back then to work as well for you now?
What Boomers Want (And How To Get It)
Most retiring boomers ask for income to replace their employment income. So what does the investment industry offer? Usually taxable interest and an annuity.
But do retirees really want income, or is it cash flow they're after? There is a huge difference between the two: When you ask for income, you get securities that produce income. When you ask for cash flow, you are talking about a distribution strategy independent of the securities.
How to Get It: Retirees should be asking for a sustainable cash flow from a diversified portfolio producing dividends, interest, capital gains and return of principal.
As the yields on cash, CDs and bonds have plummeted the amount retirees receive has also declined. This is the realization of reinvestment risk, the risk of having to reinvest at a lower rate. To offset this decline, the common reaction is to increase the percentage allocated to bonds. But in doing so, you increase your risk from inflation, withdrawal rate shocks and rising interest rates. Essentially, you are trading a higher current income today for more risk in the future.
How To Get It: Retirees should set their stock-to-bond mix based on their capacity, their need and their desire for risk, not current cash flow.
- Higher Yields
Instead of, or in addition to, increasing the percentage of bonds in their portfolios, retirees are asking for higher yields. They ask for bonds with yields higher than 5% or 6%. They end up acquiring high coupons that have the same yield to maturity as a similar bond with a 2% coupon. The only difference is that they are paying a premium. The only real way to increase bond yields is to increase the credit risk or term risk, which at some point is just as risky as owning stocks. Frequently, instead of getting bonds, the retiree is sold cherry-picked income securities such as master limited partnerships or closed-ended funds that did well but won't necessarily do well in the future. So, retirees often end up with securities that have a high historical yield but an unknown future yield. Owning these types of investments can have as much or even more risk as owning stocks.
How To Get It: Retirees should ask for a diversified portfolio based on total return per unit of acceptable risk.
- More Dividends!
For those boomers still willing to invest in stocks, their interest seems to be concentrated on dividend stocks. Yet empirical evidence shows that a dividend-focused strategy does not have a higher return than a total return strategy. In addition, the focus on dividend stocks usually increases risk because it decreases diversification.
How To Get It: Sorry, boomers. Given the countless dividend suspensions and numerous cuts that occurred during the recession of the late 2000s, boomers should have little doubt that the concept of buying a "good" company with a "solid" dividend is a euphemism at best.
What Boomers Really Need
As boomers give up on stock gains, they inevitably focus on income investing, and are always on the hunt for higher yields. There is no secret to finding higher yielding securities. In one way or the other, a higher yield just means higher risk - either term risk, credit risk or price risk. Higher yielding securities always have more risk than lower yielding securities. And some high-yield securities can even be riskier than a simple basket of stocks, but with a lower expected return. For these reasons, your best opportunity is to ask your advisor to establish a sustainable withdrawal rate and build a diversified portfolio focusing on total return rather than focusing on dividend-producing, interest-paying securities.