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Investing Blog Roundup: New Book Recommendation

If you’ve been following this blog for some time, you’re probably already familiar with Darrow Kirkpatrick via the weekly roundups. In case you aren’t familiar with his work, he blogs at CanIRetireYet.com, where he discusses various aspects of retirement planning, having retired at age 50 himself. (In addition to enjoying his writing style, I also enjoy the perspective he provides as somebody who retired early via “normal” means rather than by selling a business for a fortune or getting lucky with investing.)

This week, Kirkpatrick released his latest book (named after his blog) Can I Retire Yet?: How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.

After reading the Kindle edition, here’s what I wrote in my review on Amazon:

This book is uncommon in that it is written from the perspective of somebody who has already retired. Naturally, most books (including but not limited to books about retirement planning) are written by people still in the midst of their careers. It is refreshing to get the first-hand perspective of somebody who has been through the process himself.

Perhaps my favorite characteristic of this book is that it’s very honest about the uncertainty involved in retirement planning. You don’t know how long you will live. You don’t know how your investments will perform. You don’t know what inflation will look like. And you don’t know how your spending will change from year to year. Unlike many other books that attempt to gloss over this degree of uncertainty, this book really spells it out for you in a no-nonsense way. Then it shows you how to go about planning in the face of such uncertainty.

I especially enjoyed Kirkpatrick’s discussion of “lifeboat strategies” — ways that you can change course somewhat after retiring in the event that things (i.e., investment returns or spending) aren’t going as you had hoped.

The “6 Crucial Questions” at the end of the book provide a concise, clear way to get started with planning. And I’m sure many people will relate to the “Should I Work One More Year” postscript.

In any event, if you are nearing retirement (or in retirement), I think you’ll find the book helpful.

You can find the book here on Amazon or read Kirkpatrick’s announcement here.

Other Money-Related Articles

Thanks for reading!

Annuities with Fixed Cost of Living Adjustments Don’t Protect Against Inflation

A reader writes in, asking:

“I have been considering purchasing one of the “SPIA” annuities often recommended on Bogleheads. [Mike’s note: SPIA stands for single premium immediate annuity, and they are the most straightforward type of annuities — essentially just a pension that you purchase from an insurance company.]

I like the idea of inflation protection, but the ones linked to CPI are very expensive. What are your thoughts on buying one with an automatic 3% COLA [cost of living adjustment] every year as a compromise approach? It gives me some protection against inflation but not perfect protection.”

In short, I’m not a fan of annuities that use a fixed cost of living adjustment (rather than actually having the payout tied to the consumer price index) as a way to protect against inflation. The reason is that, as it turns out, they don’t actually protect against inflation! They just protect against a long life.

Let’s look at an example.

As of this writing the Income Solutions website (which I access via Vanguard) shows that a 65 year old male can get a fixed lifetime annuity paying 6.83%. Or, he can purchase an annuity with a 3% annual increase in the payout, with a payout that starts at 5.02%.* And, according to the SSA’s most recent period life table, a 65 year old male has a total life expectancy of nearly 83 years.

So, if the person buys $100,000-worth of each annuity, and there is no inflation over the person’s lifetime, then:

  • The fixed lifetime annuity will pay a total of $129,770 over the person’s expected lifetime, whereas
  • The annuity with the 3% COLA will pay a total of $126,087 (i.e., 97.2% as much as the annuity without the COLA) over the person’s expected lifetime.

But what if there is inflation? That’s what we really care about, after all.

If we assume annual inflation of 2% and we do the analysis in inflation-adjusted dollars:

  • The fixed lifetime annuity will pay a total of $108,859 over the person’s expected lifetime, whereas
  • The annuity with the 3% COLA will pay a total of $103,896 (i.e., 95.4% as much as the annuity without the COLA) over the person’s expected lifetime.

So in the scenario with higher inflation, the annuity with the COLA performs worse. (That is, it underperforms the non-COLA annuity by a greater amount than in the no-inflation scenario.)

But is that just a fluke? The table below shows other scenarios, with various ages at death along the left-hand side, and various rates of inflation along the top. The value in each cell shows the ratio of total inflation-adjusted dollars paid by the annuity with the COLA to total inflation-adjusted dollars paid by the annuity without the COLA.

So, for example, if the person lives to age 88 and there is 4% inflation over that period, the annuity with the COLA will have paid 99.5% as much as the annuity without the COLA.

0% inflation 2% inflation 3% inflation 4% inflation 5% inflation
73 83.0% 82.6% 82.5% 82.3% 82.1%
78 89.7% 88.8% 88.4% 88.0% 87.5%
83 97.2% 95.4% 94.6% 93.7% 92.9%
88 105.4% 102.5% 101.0% 99.5% 98.1%
93 114.6% 109.9% 107.6% 105.4% 103.2%

The key point here is that, the higher inflation is over this person’s lifetime, the worse the annuity with the COLA does as compared to the annuity without the COLA.

Why is this? It’s because the annuity with the COLA has a greater portion of its payout occurring later in the annuitant’s life (due to the fact that its payout starts lower, but climbs over time). And in a scenario in which dollars are declining in value over time due to inflation, the annuity that front-loads the payout (i.e., the annuity without the COLA) does better.

My point here isn’t that the COLA annuities are a bad idea. As you’ll notice, they do a better job of protecting against longevity than annuities without COLAs. (That is, the longer the lifetime, the better they perform.)

But annuities with fixed cost of living adjustments do not protect against inflation. Not only do they not keep up with high rates of inflation, they actually perform worse in the face of inflation than annuities without COLAs. If you want an annuity that provides true inflation protection, you have to buy one with payments that are tied to the actual rate of inflation.

*The payouts for females are slightly lower given longer life expectancies (6.35% for a fixed lifetime annuity and 4.58% for one with a 3% annual increase), but the analysis is essentially the same.

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Can I Retire Cover

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  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

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Investing Blog Roundup: Investing During a Presidential Campaign

I’ve always made a point to keep my political views out of my writing. Still, some readers have asked me over the last few months what they should do to protect their portfolios in case an undesirable candidate is elected in November. Allan Roth’s recent answer is spot-on, in my view:

Investing Articles

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Thanks for reading!

Should I Put Stocks in My Roth IRA and Bonds in My Traditional IRA?

A reader writes in, asking:

“If I have a Roth IRA and traditional IRA, is it better to put my stock funds in the Roth and the bond funds in the traditional IRA? That seems preferable, because as long as stocks do earn more than bonds it would leave me with more money down the road because the Roth is tax-free.”

Yes, it is often preferable to put your investments with higher expected returns in Roth accounts rather than tax-deferred accounts — but not for the reason you mentioned.

Loading up your Roth accounts (as opposed to tax-deferred accounts) with investments with higher expected returns will (assuming “expectations” pan out) leave you with more money to spend after taxes than if you had taken a different approach. But that’s simply because you took on more risk.

By putting your high-risk investments in a Roth, you expose yourself to more risk than you would if you had an equal allocation in both tax-deferred and Roth. The reason for this is that you feel the full effect of fluctuations in the balance of your Roth IRA, whereas you only feel a portion of the effect of fluctuations in the balance of tax-deferred accounts.

For example, imagine that you expect to have a marginal tax rate of 25% during retirement. If your Roth IRA’s value changes by $20,000, that changes the amount of money you have available to spend by $20,000. In contrast, if your traditional IRA’s value changes by $20,000, the amount of money you have available to spend only changes by $15,000 (because $20,000 in the traditional IRA is only worth $15,000 to you, given a 25% marginal tax rate).

In other words, using your Roth IRA entirely for high-risk investments is very similar to just bumping up your allocation to high-risk investments in the first place — it will likely result in more money in the end, but at the cost of higher risk.

Now, having said that, it does typically make sense to prefer to use the Roth for investments with higher expected returns.

Why?

Because Roth IRAs Have No RMDs

As long as a Roth IRA is owned by its original owner (as opposed to being owned by a beneficiary after the death of the original owner), RMDs do not have to be taken from the account at any point.

So, in that sense, you would prefer to have a Roth IRA of a given size rather than a proportionally-larger traditional IRA, because the Roth gives you better control over your money.

For example, you would rather have $75,000 in a Roth IRA than $100,000 in a traditional IRA with a 25% marginal tax rate, despite the fact that the two amounts are functionally equivalent in terms of how much they leave you with after taxes.

For that reason, it does typically make sense to use your Roth accounts for the investments with the highest expected return. But you should be aware that in doing so, you increase your overall risk, so you may want to compensate by reducing risk slightly in some other manner.

Investing Blog Roundup: Actuaries Longevity Illustrator

One of the most critical questions in retirement planning is how long you expect to live. Longevity expectations affect everything from how much you can spend per year, to tax planning decisions, to Social Security decisions.

It’s easy to look up your life expectancy in a table. But all that tells you is the average outcome. It’s also very helpful to see somewhat more detailed information (e.g., how likely it is that you — and/or your spouse, if married — will live to various ages).

This week, via Walter Updegrave, I encountered a new, easy to use tool from the American Academy of Actuaries and the Society of Actuaries that can give you such information:

http://www.longevityillustrator.org/

Investing Articles

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Thanks for reading!

Social Security is a Year-by-Year (or Month-by-Month) Decision

For simplicity’s sake, writers and financial advisors often compare claiming Social Security at 62 to claiming at 70, in order to show the difference between the two extreme strategies. But in reality, the decision should be made step-by-step along the way. (“Do I want to wait a year? Do I want to wait another year?” And so on.)

This is important because many people look at waiting until age 70, decide that 70 is too far in the future, and therefore default to claiming as early as possible at 62. That’s unfortunate because, even for people for whom claiming at 70 doesn’t make sense, claiming at 62 is still usually a mistake.

For example, if you are an unmarried person, currently age 61 and trying to decide whether or not to claim Social Security ASAP at 62, you don’t want to compare claiming at 62 to claiming at 70. You want to compare claiming at 62 to claiming at 63. When we do that, we can calculate that the breakeven point is age 78. (That is, if you live to age 78, you are better off having claimed at 63 than having claimed at 62.) Using the 2011 actuarial tables from the SSA, we can calculate that for an average 62 year old male, there is a 67% probability of living to age 78. For a 62 year old female, there is a 76% probability. Conclusion: For most unmarried people, it makes sense to wait at least until 63, because there is a much greater than 50% probability of living to the breakeven point.

Then, at age 63, we would want to see if it makes sense to wait until 64. The breakeven point between claiming at 63 and claiming at 64 is age 76. Using the same actuarial tables, we can calculate that for an average 63 year old male, there is a 74% probability of living to age 76. For a 62 year old female, there is an 82% probability. Conclusion: It probably makes sense to wait another year.

And then you would repeat this analysis every year. (In theory, you should actually do the analysis every single month to see if it makes sense to wait one more month. But that would be a heck of a lot of work. In my opinion, it makes sense to reassess annually — or whenever you get new information about your life expectancy.)

For somebody with a full retirement age of 66, the year-by-year breakeven ages would be as follows:

Claiming Ages
Breakeven Age
62 vs. 63 78
63 vs. 64 76
64 vs. 65 78
65 vs. 66 80
66 vs. 67 79.5
67 vs. 68 81.5
68 vs. 69 83.5
69 vs. 70 85.5

And for somebody with a full retirement age of 67, the year-by-year breakeven ages would be as follows:

Claiming Ages
Breakeven Age
62 vs. 63 77
63 vs. 64 79
64 vs. 65 77
65 vs. 66 79
66 vs. 67 81
67 vs. 68 80.5
68 vs. 69 82.5
69 vs. 70 84.5

To be clear, the above discussion is a simplification, meant to illustrate the general concept that the decision should be made year-by-year rather than simply asking “Should I claim at 70 or at 62?” A real-life analysis of your personal situation should ideally include a few other factors:

  • Investment return earned on early-received benefits. In the above discussion, we’re assuming that early-received benefits earn a 0% real return (i.e., they precisely match inflation). Given that the yields on TIPS (i.e., the investment with a risk level most similar to that of Social Security) are currently at or near zero, that’s a pretty reasonable assumption. If real interest rates were higher, the breakeven points would be pushed back somewhat.
  • Tax planning. The specifics vary from person to person, but in most cases tax planning is a point in favor of waiting to claim benefits, because of Social Security’s tax-advantaged nature.
  • Spousal and survivor benefits for married couples. (As we’ve discussed before, for married couples, at least one spouse usually should be using one of the “extreme” strategies of filing at 62 or at 70.)
  • Longevity risk. For anybody who is concerned about running out of money due to a very long retirement, delaying Social Security is often a good decision, even if there is a less than 50% probability that they will live to the breakeven point in question.

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  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

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