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How Pensions and Social Security Affect Asset Allocation

A reader writes in, asking:

“I am a retired government employee, and I receive a pension to the tune of roughly $50,000 annually. I have a relatively low risk portfolio; it is a mix of stuff but roughly 20-25% is in stock with the rest in bonds or CDs. I recently met with an adviser who said that my pension is essentially a big bond so it’s a mistake to have such low risk holdings in my retirement accounts. This is the first time I’d heard of this idea before. What do you think?”

It is a very common idea for people to count their pension or Social Security income as a bond holding. Many financial advisors and writers suggest doing so. Industry luminary John Bogle suggests doing so as well.

Personally, I do not like the idea because:

  1. It is confusing to many people, and
  2. It encourages people to use higher-risk allocations in their portfolios as a result of their pension/Social Security income, when in many cases the correct approach is to do exactly the opposite.

Instead, I think it is easier and more helpful to think of a pension (or Social Security) as exactly what it is: income.

For example if you plan to spend $60,000 per year, and you have pension/Social Security income of $50,000 per year, then you only have to spend $10,000 per year from your portfolio. In other words, your pension/Social Security income allows you to use a withdrawal rate that is one-sixth the withdrawal rate you’d have to use if you didn’t have such income.

What this does is it allows you to choose from a broader range of asset allocation choices.

That is, you could say, “my pension satisfies my basic needs. Therefore, I can afford to shoot for the moon with my portfolio, taking a lot of risk in the hope of achieving very high spending or a large inheritance for my kids.” Or, just as reasonably, you could say, “my pension satisfies my basic needs. Therefore, I have no need to take risk in my portfolio at all. I’ll stick to very safe holdings like TIPS, I-Bonds, and CDs, so that I don’t mess up a good thing.”

Either approach can be perfectly reasonable, and the correct answer depends on your personal risk preferences.

It is a mistake, in my view, to say that a person should necessarily take on more risk in their portfolio as a result of having a large pension (or other safe source of income).

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