How to “Pensionize” Any IRA or 401(k) Plan
By Steve Vernon, F.S.A., Research Scholar, Stanford Center on Longevity
I worked at Watson Wyatt Worldwide on the front lines of the transition from defined benefit and contribution plans in the private sector in the 1980s, 1990s, and the turn of the century. I always thought it was not a good idea to ask individual workers to be their own actuary and investment manager. However, I feel like we are making progress on adequate savings now through default options.
In my encore career now in the research role at Stanford, I have been focusing on de-cumulation, or how you can deploy savings in retirement. Moreover, we may have found one solution that is straightforward for many people to implement.
What is the “Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy”?
You start by optimizing Social Security. If necessary, you might need a portion of your savings as a retirement transition bucket, so that if you retired before you start Social Security, you could replace that Social Security benefit that you are delaying with savings. For middle-income people to do this strategy, Social Security might be all the annuity income that they need. The remaining savings, if you use the IRS required minimum distribution, can be in either a target date fund or a balanced fund which are quite common in 401(k) plans. This strategy actually compares favorably to more complex strategies.
Right up front I am giving away the solution, but then we will go into details. I want to say I acknowledge that there are many other viable retirement income strategies. I am not representing this as the perfect solution, which, by the way, does not exist. What we are proposing is that this is a straightforward solution that can work with many, many people, particularly middle-income retirees with less than a million dollars in savings, which describes lots of people.
When you are looking at financial strategies for retirement, there are at least two perspectives. One is a financial planning perspective, where a financial planner custom designs a plan to fit his or her client. For financial planners or people who can afford a financial planner or work with them, that is a great thing. What I am focusing on is this other perspective – the employee benefit perspective. This is the way retirees planned for retirement in previous generations. They elected a stream of retirement income from their retirement plan at work, and then they adjusted their budget to reflect the income that they got from the pension plan and Social Security. I am not saying this is ideal. As a financial professional I would rather use the financial planning perspective. However, we have to acknowledge this employee benefit perspective is how many people plan their lives in retirement. I want to help those folks.
Only about one-fourth to one-half of people work with professional advisors, and fewer than half try to calculate their retirement needs. This may not be ideal, but this is the way many people plan for retirement. Those people tend to fall into two camps, and we have surveys that support this. The first camp greatly fears outliving their savings, so they kind of hoard it and make minimal withdrawals. The second camp wings it; they are not even thinking about making their savings last for life. They use their savings like a checking account just to pay for current living expenses.
When you see the rate that those folks are taking the money out, it does not look sustainable to last the rest of their lives. The first camp might be able to spend more and still feel safe. The second camp actually needs to spend more safely so that the money lasts for the rest of their life. Few defined contribution plans offer more than installment payment plans or planning tools.
Plan sponsors to date have been hesitant to put retirement income options in their plan, worrying about fiduciary risk, costs, unsatisfactory market offerings, reluctance to offer just one solution, and complexity. The solution we are talking about today actually meets these common barriers. What I want to say to the audience today — I know some of you are financial planners — what we are showing is a technique that some of your middle-income clients might use, and you would offer your services to wrap around and do refinements from it.
Retirement planning involves tradeoffs. There is not a single perfect income retirement solution. The tradeoffs are what is the amount of income you expect to get throughout the rest of your life, how much wealth or liquidity you have — some people want to have bequests they can offer at the end of their lives — and implementation, simplicity, and costs. All of these involve tradeoffs.
We are not saying that there is a one-size-fits-all solution here. We are just acknowledging that there are many tradeoffs. For example:
- If you want to maximize the amount of income, that might be at the expense of reducing your accessible wealth or liquidity or reducing your bequests.
- Making sure the money lasts for the rest of your life — inflation, investment risk, also known as sequence of return risk, and death of a spouse — you want to make sure the money keeps going after one spouse dies.
- In later years cognitive decline or making mistakes or fraud — those are always problems.
- You want to minimize income taxes.
These are all the common risks that people might face. It is a lot to juggle, but I think that people are resilient. Moreover, if we can get simple solutions that address many of these risks and get people close to financial security, then it is reasonable they can adjust their living expenses budget from there. That is really the point of this strategy that we are talking about today.
What are Options for Spending Down Retirement Savings?
Most middle-income workers are going to be generating income from Social Security, pensions, spend-down from savings and possibly continued work. These are the mechanisms that employers can influence. However, people also have assets outside of employer-sponsored plans. They may be interested in reverse mortgages, small businesses, rental real estate, personal assets, such as life insurance, and other IRAs. We are just acknowledging that the first group is resources that employers can sponsor, but everybody is potentially going to draw from these other resources as well.
Spend-down methods that are common: you can have annuities with insurance companies, or you can have withdrawals from invested savings or some combinations. You also can take out just the investment income only and keep principle intact. That is a very conservative method that might work for someone who wants to leave a bequest and leave that income for a bequest. You can do a systematic withdrawal plan where you have some method that is withdrawing interest and principle systematically. Finally, you can do a payout just for a limited period. The challenge really is having a decision framework that will deploy all these retirement income solutions so that their savings and their income last the rest of their life.
We think the answer to this challenge is to apply modern portfolio theory concepts that we are so familiar with in the accumulation period to the payout period. When we are accumulating money, we talk about asset classes. In the payout period, we are going to talk about retirement income classes. We talk about asset allocation in the accumulation period, and now we are going to talk about retirement income allocation. In the accumulation period, we are focusing in on accumulating assets, and now we are focusing in on the amount of retirement income. Finally, while accumulating money, you really want to minimize investment risks, however you might define that. We want to, in the payout period, minimize the risk of income losses.
Retirement Income Studies by the Stanford Center of Longevity and Society of Actuaries
We believe that applying the language and concepts from modern portfolio theory, that has worked so well in accumulating money, those same concepts should apply in the retirement period. This has been a major focus of work at the Stanford Center of Longevity, and we have been collaborating with the Society of Actuaries.
Our 2017 study, “Optimizing Retirement Income by Utilizing IRAs, Retirement Plans, and Home Equity,” is the culmination of several other projects that we have done jointly with the Society of Actuaries. If you look at the statistics, roughly there is the same amount of money in employer-sponsored retirement plans as in IRAs. Then there is about as much money in retirement savings as there is in home equity. Everybody is a little different in that mix, but we think that Americans are going to need to learn how to integrate all three of these sources as they approach the retirement years. In this study we have taken a portfolio approach toward combining these different sources.
We put together a systematic comparison of different retirement income strategies and looked at viable solutions that are currently available in the DC marketplace, the IRA marketplace, and reverse mortgages. We are not dreaming up new solutions that are not available yet.
We assessed the tradeoffs that we talked about earlier to help us address what I call “what about” objections. What I mean by that is whenever I present retirement income solutions, someone raises his or her hand, and he or she says, “What about inflation?” or what about this or what about that. It can often stop the conversation. What we want to show is there are just tradeoffs. If you object, I say, “Okay, what is the solution that you are recommending? Chances are it is pretty good, but it is going to have its shortcomings as well.” To address these “what about” objections, we just need to look at many, many solutions and look at many goals that they might want to meet so that either the financial advisor or the retirement plan can help customize the solution to the specific goals of either the employee or the client.
In our study, we compared 292 different retirement solutions. We looked at three hypothetical employees who are age 65: a single woman with $250,000 in savings, a married couple with $400,000 and a married couple with one million. Now, let us say right here that these statistics are above the median for older workers; these are a more affluent group in the workforce. We acknowledge that there are many, many, people with savings less than this amount, and they are going to be challenged in their retirement years.
The 292 solutions we looked at included starting Social Security right away at 65 and delaying Social Security until age 70. We looked at single premium immediate annuities (SPIA), systematic withdrawal plans (SWP), including the required minimum distribution (RMD) from the IRS, and guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefits, which is a hybrid annuity. We looked at fixed index annuities (FIA), which is another hybrid annuity. We looked at combinations of SPIAs and SWPs and FIAs and SWPS. Finally, we included reverse mortgages. We looked at lots of different types of retirement income solutions. That was the point of this study, particularly to address the “what about” objections.
Every one of these different retirement income solutions has different shortcomings that some other method might address better. Then some other method might have its own shortcomings. In our analysis, we used stochastic forecasts of income and accessible wealth. From that, we developed an efficient frontier showing the amount of income versus liquidity. These are powerful tools that defined benefit plans used to define funding and investment strategies. Our assumptions reflected the current low-interest rate environment. We also compared institutional pricing that you might get through an employer or a plan sponsor.
If you want more accessible wealth, going along the horizontal axis, that is going to come at the cost of reducing expected retirement income. This is the first analysis that we used to look at the 292 different strategies. From that, we looked at strategies that were either close to or near the efficient frontier.
We developed eight metrics to assess these tradeoffs. The first one is the amount of retiree income. However, we also did a second metric for inflation protection. Is the amount of income expected to increase in real terms throughout retirement, stay level, or decrease? The third metric was the average level of accessible wealth. The fourth metric was how quickly that wealth is being spent down. The fifth metric is the amount of bequest that might be left.
The last three metrics are very important, but they are not intuitively obvious. We measured downside volatility, meaning when the income goes down in real terms, how far down does it go? We wanted to measure downside volatility because we contend that upside volatility will not be too troublesome. Some of these measures of standard volatility mix in downside and upside volatility. We suggest that if your retirement spikes, you are not going to be complaining too much. We want to worry about downside volatility.
Then the last two measures we looked at are the probability that your income might fall below some absolute minimum threshold and what is the magnitude of that shortfall. Using these eight metrics, we came up with a retirement income dashboard, and this just shows one portion of such a dashboard where we would compare six different retirement income solutions graphically. I am just showing this to give you an idea of the kinds of data at which we looked. However, in this case, the last three are the retirement income solution that we are talking about today. The last three just have different allocations to stocks.
The first three are combinations of SPIAs and the RMD. It is showing an example of graphically how we compared these different strategies. Here, the turquoise bar is actually the amount of income that is either equal or more than others, but not dramatically so. You will see that the direction of income is beating others in inflation protection, and also in the last one on this chart, it has got the highest amount of accessible wealth. We are not going to get into detail here, but I am just showing you the level of detail into which we went.
Also, if you go to the full report, you will see this in all its gory detail. Here is another key point to understand this strategy. For most middle-income retirees, Social Security represents a substantial portion of their retirement income. We show twelve different retirement income strategies, and the colored portion is the part that Social Security income represents of their entire portfolio. What we are seeing is that anywhere from two-thirds to more than 80 percent of your income might be represented by Social Security. This is why it is important to optimize your Social Security income.
When you think about it, Social Security is nearly a perfect retirement income generator. If you optimize it through a delay strategy, it helps optimize your total retirement income. It protects against most common risks: longevity risk — it is paid for the rest of your life. It is indexed for inflation. It does not go down when the stock market goes down, and there is a survivor’s benefit. Because it is paid automatically and goes into your account, it helps avoid cognitive decline mistakes and fraud. A large amount of Social Security is exempt from income tax for many people. No other retirement income generator has all of these advantages.
This is why we think optimizing Social Security for middle-income people is important. Our conclusion from our study was that optimizing Social Security before you purchase annuities or invest in fixed income SWP is best. You want to optimize your Social Security first because the return in optimizing Social Security expressed as an amount of retirement income is greater than if you purchase an annuity or invest in a fixed income SWP. Once you have optimized Social Security and you want more guaranteed income, then you want to consider buying an annuity or investing in bonds.
We are not saying do not buy annuities and do not buy bonds. We are just saying do not do that until you optimize Social Security. For middle-income folks, Social Security might be all the retirement income they need – anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of their total income is this Social Security portion – and it becomes the “bond” part of the retirement income portfolio. If you have 80 percent or 70 percent of your retirement income portfolio in guaranteed income, then the remaining could be invested in an easy to implement and systematic withdrawal plan with an aggressive asset allocation. Even though it is an aggressive asset allocation, you still have 60, 70, 80 percent in what I can “bond” parts in your retirement income portfolio.
How Does the “Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy” Work?
I have also called it the “SSRMD Strategy” for professional audiences. You want retirement checks that are reliable, guaranteed for the rest of your life, will not go down if the stock market crashes, and those you can use to pay for your basic living expenses or at least get close.
Then you want to have some bonuses that have some potential to grow, but also because they are invested in the stock market that might go down. That is money you might want to use for discretionary living expenses like travel, hobbies, or supporting your grandchildren. The Social Security portion and annuities — those are your retirement paycheck. SWPs that are invested primarily in stocks become your retirement bonuses. The Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy Part One is optimizing Social Security — that is the retirement paycheck.
Most of the time you optimize by delaying for the primary wage earner as long as possible but no later than age 70. The best way to implement this is to work just enough in your 60s to enable delaying Social Security. However, we acknowledge that many people do not want to delay retirement until age 70. If you are retiring before and you are starting your Social Security benefit, you might want to set up a retirement transition bucket. That is going to replace the Social Security benefit that you are delaying.
In a very simple example, suppose your Social Security benefit would have been $20,000 per year at age 65. You want to delay Social Security to age 70, so you put $20,000 times five years, $100,000, aside and that is what you are going to draw down between age 65 and 70 that allows you to draw down Social Security at age 70. You would invest this retirement transition bucket in funds that are common in 401(k) plans, such as stable value funds, short-term bond funds, money market funds. Because of your short investing horizon, you do not want to invest this money in the stock market. We think a short-term retirement transition bucket is a good way to protect your income in the period leading up to retirement and as you are transitioning from full-time to part-time to full retirement.
Part Two, then, is from your remaining savings you are going to take the IRS RMD to generate retirement income. That is what is characterized as your variable retirement bonus. Our forecasts are showing that if you get good returns from the stock market and you are invested significantly in stocks, you will get a real rate of return and a real bump in your retirement income.
However, we acknowledge that many people may not want to go 100 percent into stocks with this portion, even though our analysis support that. Investing in the QDIA, either a low-cost target-date fund or a balance fund, is also a good way to implement this strategy. This strategy, I think, works best for workers with no significant defined benefit pension and having between $100,000 and one million in retirement savings.
If you have fewer than $100,000 in savings and you are in your mid-60s, that is a tough spot to be in, and I will say that strategies to deploy retirement savings do not work very well when people do not have enough retirement savings. The best options they have are to work longer, delay Social Security, and reduce their living expenses. I am not glorifying that. That is a tough situation in which to be. All I am saying is that retirement solutions from savings do not work for people who do not have savings. On the other hand, if you have more than one million that can justify using more refined methods. Working with a qualified and unbiased advisor might be a good thing to do if you are fortunate enough to have savings well more than one million dollars.
The Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy, compared to 292 other strategies we looked at, delivers equal or greater income throughout the life of the employee or retiree. It has moderate liquidity in bequests. It produces more liquidity in bequests than most annuity solutions. On the other hand, it produces less liquidity or bequests compared with pure systematic withdrawal strategies that do not use your savings to optimize Social Security. It provides low downside volatility. One reason for that is because Social Security is such a large part of your retirement income portfolio, any fluctuations in the remaining portion from the RMD are dampened and mitigated by Social Security.
It is simple to implement and low cost, and it does provide equal or greater protection against the common risks that we talked about earlier. These are the risks shown here. Let us just show one example. This is with a married couple age 65 with $400,000 in savings. The first bar just shows that if they retired age 65 and started Social Security age 65, the dark blue represents what they will get from Social Security and the lighter blue represents what they will get from the required minimum distribution.
The next bar shows they supposedly are still retired at age 65, but they use a portion of their savings to enable a delay strategy and delay Social Security until age 70. Now their total income goes up to $51,396, a $4,000 increase compared to $47,302. They are getting a pretty big pop in their retirement income. If they can work part-time in their mid-60s to delay Social Security and enable drawing down their savings until 70 and not have to use a retirement transition bucket, then they get an even bigger bump to a retirement income of $60,234.
This kind of information can help people decide maybe if I can just find part-time work I do not need to save any more money. All I need to do is delay Social Security and delay drawing down my savings. This becomes a viable strategy for people in their 60s that could improve their lives by having more time to pursue their interests, only working part-time, and enabling their Social Security and their savings to grow.
This next chart converts the dollar amounts shown on the previous chart to replacement ratios.
The dark blue represents Social Security again. That represents what I will call the bond part of your retirement income portfolio, the guaranteed part. This is showing why the light blue, if you invest that even 100 percent in stocks, you are still investing a tiny part of your overall retirement income portfolio in the stock market.
Now there is another conclusion to draw from here. Look at these replacement ratios. Even if you optimize Social Security and delay until age 70, they only have a 60 percent replacement ratio, which is less than what most common retirement advisors recommend. This shows the dilemma that many people are facing as they are approaching their retirement years that they may need to reduce their standard of living significantly. Remember a married couple age 65 with $400,000 in savings is well above the median for workers that age. This is the challenge that is facing future workers that do not have significantly defined benefit pensions and only have savings. They are going to need to figure out how to live on a reduced standard of living. I am not saying this is desirable. I am saying this is the reality and collectively, this is one of the challenges that you are going to face with all your employees and your customers. I am thanking you for helping people face this challenge.
Refinements to the Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy
The Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy is a baseline or a guideline. There are refinements that you may find desirable. We are not advocating that it is a rigid strategy. It is really a way of thinking. From that strategy, you might have refinements.
For example, I think everybody should have some emergency fund that is not used to generate retirement income and that would be for unexpected expenses or maybe expenses you are expecting, such as you need to fix the roof or buy another car. You want to set that money aside and do not use it to generate income.
Think of a travel bucket. I hear some people say, “Yeah, I want to spend more money in the first ten years of my retirement while I am still healthy and able to do that. So, I would like to spend more money than what the RMD would throw off.” For example, suppose you want to spend $5,000 per year, in the next ten years, for travel. Set aside $50,000 and do not use that to generate income. Use your remaining savings to generate income, delay Social Security and do all the other things we have been talking about, and now you can travel in your first ten years of retirement. It is just an example, but it gives you an idea. Some people may want more guaranteed income, and so you might want to buy an annuity, either a SPIA or an FIA or a GLWB (guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefit).
Some people may want even more, particularly they want more income, and if they have enough home equity they might want to take out a reverse mortgage line of credit that can supplement their income. That becomes another source of guaranteed income.
Finally, I have been talking about delaying Social Security until age 70. That does produce optimal results, but you still get plenty of boost if you delay Social Security until age 66 or 67 or 68. It does not need to be a rigidly applied strategy. This strategy, for you employer sponsors, addresses the common barriers that we saw earlier. It is simple to implement — low cost, really. It is just a communications cost.
The default payout option can be the IRS required minimum distribution starting at 70.5 coupled with the QDIA for people of that age. I think this offers fiduciary protection to plan sponsors, which is important. They already have fiduciary protection with the QDIA. Now when you are looking at the IRS required minimum distribution, if that is your default payout option, all you are doing is complying with the law. You are required to pay this out. It is hard to imagine plan sponsors getting in trouble complying with the law.
I think offering this as a default payout option can be viable for plan sponsors. Then a participant would make a positive election if they wanted to use some other payout option. This strategy uses current offerings. We do not have to invent anything new. It uses target-date offerings and stable value funds. Another benefit of this strategy is that it is very straightforward to prepare retirement income statements. There is much interest in plan sponsors generating retirement income statements for their participants, and the controversy that comes up is that you have to make assumptions about what product they are going to buy or what interest rates are.
In this case, we know what the rules are for Social Security, so you can show projected Social Security amount up to age 70. We know the RMD rules. You can assume what investment return you might make, or not. You can just say no investment return. It makes it very straightforward to prepare retirement income statements.
Other refinements: plan sponsors might want to go beyond that and offer a retirement income menu. We have talked about the RMD plus the QDIA, but you could also do a systematic withdrawal plan with either a three percent, or four percent, or five percent payout rate and couple that with the QDIA.
That could be for people who want to customize their withdrawals. You could help enable setting up a retirement transition bucket by having a payout for a certain period. If you say, let me set aside money into the stable value fund and pay out $20,000 per year for five years, the plan sponsor could enable that by having certain period payouts. Finally, for plan sponsors who want to enable their employees to take more complex solutions but the plan sponsors do not want to offer them in their own plan, they can allow a withdrawal at age 59½. The employee could then roll his or her money into an IRA and then get more involved or complex retirement income solutions. This represents a very straightforward way that plan sponsors can change their 401(k) to many different retirement income strategies.
Key Takeaways for Older Workers and Retirees
The dilemma that many people are facing is limited retirement resources and the levers that they have to address their retirement situation are limited. They can work longer, or they can save more. However, once you are in your 60s, you are really not going to save your way out of a retirement shortfall. You can spend less in retirement.
You have got to stay healthy if you are going to work. You have got to make every dollar count. You really cannot afford a mistake or retirement income solutions that are inefficient. Key takeaways for older workers and retirees:
- It is smart to optimize Social Security through a thoughtful delay strategy.
- It is smart to automate the payment of retirement income so you minimize mistakes.
- It is smart to use low-cost index funds.
- For many people, it might be smart to phase into retirement for a period in your 60s until 70.
- It is also smart to adjust your withdrawals from savings to reflect your investment gains and losses so that if the stock market goes up you can increase your withdrawal and if the stock market goes down you decrease your withdrawal. That helps mitigate the sequence of return rate with which we are all familiar.
- Finally, it is smart to maintain some accessible savings. I think most people feel more comfortable knowing that they have savings that they can access.
For plan sponsors:
- It is smart to activate the RMD as the payment option on their plan.
- Offer period certain payouts to enable Social Security delay.
- Offer the RMD plus your QDIA as the default payout option.
- Offer low-cost payout funds — many plan sponsors are already doing that.
- Then provide educational tools and retirement income statements that we have talked about.
- Many plan sponsors are offering retirement planning assistance. I think that is an excellent thing.
However, let me add this last point. I think that as part of a retirement plan that a plan sponsor offers their older workers, part of that ought to be alternate career paths for their older workers, paths for them to downshift and not work quite as hard as they used to but still enable them to work and delay taking Social Security and delay drawing down their savings.
Let me just briefly go through the statistics that show levels of savings in America right now. This chart is just showing percentages of the RMD. That is just there to access if you want. However, this is the chart to which I wanted to get. This comes from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, the 2017 Retirement Confidence Survey. This is for workers age 55 to 64. On the right side, the blue side, almost half of workers have fewer than $100,000 in savings. They are the ones that I think are in trouble.
The lower left-hand corner is people who have between $200,000 and $500,000 in savings. They are going to need to plan very carefully.
Then the upper left-hand corner is workers who have between $500,000 and one million in savings and more than one million. They might have enough. This is just displaying what I was talking about earlier — that many workers are going to have to be very careful about how they transition into retirement. This is for workers age 55 to 64. There is a similar pattern for workers 65 and older.
This is a chart from the Boston College Center for Retirement Research showing different wealth quantiles for ages 65 to 69, and until you get to the fourth quintile, you do not have many savings. This is comparing home equity and financial wealth.
This is displaying why many workers, particularly in the second, third, fourth wealth quintile, are going to need to explore how to use their home equity in retirement. As a result of these statistics, you see the different measures of retirement adequacy. Boston College is saying roughly half of households are at risk. EBRI is saying a little less than half are at risk. Fidelity is saying more than half of households are at risk.
There are various measures out there saying that many people are going to be struggling in the retirement years. I think it is up to the people in the room to help those workers. I am dedicating my life to helping these workers as well. Thank you for helping people with these challenges.
About the author:
Steve Vernon, FSA, MAAA, Research Scholar, Stanford Center on Longevity, President of Rest-of-Life Communications
In both of his roles as Research Scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity and as the President of Rest-of-Life Communications, Steve is active with research, writing, and speaking on the most challenging issues facing retirees today, including finance, health, and lifestyle. For more than 35 years, he has helped Fortune 1000 employers design, manage and communicate their retirement programs.
Steve Vernon shares practical strategies and ideas for enhancing finances, health, and lifestyle for the “rest-of-life” life phase, also known as retirement. With an effective mix of humor, stories, video clips, pictures, music, and cold hard actuarial analysis, he provides hope for working Americans with pervasive fear and anxiety about retirement.
Steve is one of the most sought-after retirement experts in the country due to his surprising and inspiring insights. He is quoted frequently in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USAToday, BusinessWeek, Fortune Magazine, Kiplinger’s, and Money Magazine. He also writes occasional columns for Retirement Weekly.
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