Follow the Leaders

January 27, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This week the investment community mourned the death of John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, the mutual fund giant. He had the crazy idea that mom-and-pop investors should buy a basket of stocks and not attempt to beat the market (Note #1). In 1976, he launched the first SP500 index fund, VFINX, a low-cost “no-brainer” or passive fund. Because people did not want to invest in the idea of earning just average stock returns, the initial launch raised very little money. “Bogle’s folly” now has more than fifty imitators (Note #2).

Vanguard has over $5 trillion under management. Let’s turn to them to answer the age-old question – what percent of my retirement portfolio should be invested in bonds? Bond prices are much less volatile than stocks and stabilize a portfolio’s value. Several decades ago, people retired at 65 and expected to live ten years in retirement. An old rule was that the percentage of bonds and cash should match your age. A 50-year old, for example, should have 50% of their portfolio in bonds and cash. Few advisors today would be so conservative. Many 65-year-olds can expect to live another twenty years or more.

Vanguard, Schwab, Fidelity and Blackrock offer various life cycle funds that have target dates. The most common dates are retirement; i.e. Target 2020, or 2030 or 2040. These funds are composed of shifting portions of stock and bond index funds offered by each investment company. The funds adjust their stock and bond allocations based on those dates. For example, if a 55-year old person bought the Vanguard Retirement Target Date 2020 Fund VTWNX in 2005, it might have been invested 75% stocks and 25% bonds when she bought it. As the date 2020 nears, the stock allocation has decreased to 53% and the bond portion increased to 47%. The greater portion of bonds helps stabilize the value of the portfolio.

In the chart below, I’ve compared the stock and bond allocations of various retirement funds offered by Vanguard (Note #3). Notice that the stock portion of each fund increases as the dates get further away from the present.

vantargetfundscomp

A 46-year old who intends to retire in 2040 when they are 67 might buy a Target 2040 fund which is 84% invested in stocks. The bond allocation is only 16%. Using the old rule, the bond portion would have been 46%.

What happens after that target date is met? The fund continues to adjust its stock/bond allocation towards safety. Over five years, Vanguard adjusts its mix to that of an income portfolio – 30% stocks and 70% bonds (Note #4).

These strategies can guide our own portfolio allocation. I have not checked the allocations of Schwab, Fidelity and others in the industry but I would guess that they have similar allocations for their life cycle funds.

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Notes:

1. History of Vanguard Group
2. More than fifty funds invest in the SP500 index according to Consumer Reports
3. Vanguard’s Target 2020 fund VTWNX , 2025 Fund VTTVX , 2030 Fund VTHRX, 2035 Fund VTTHX, and 2040 Fund VFORX
4. Vanguard’s Income Portfolio VTINX 

Dynamic Portfolio Allocation

March 27, 2016

Happy Easter!

Before I take a look at a dynamic allocation model for older readers, I’ll quote from a paper published in the last decade: “adequate savings is the primary driver of retirement success and is approximately 5 times more important than Asset Allocation.”  For readers who are not near retirement, what is called the accumulation phase of life, the one word that sums up a lot of financial advice is “Save.”

A reader sent me an article that recounts several common sense strategies for investors nearing or in retirement.  I was especially interested in a strategy for recent retirees: to have a cautious 30/70 stock/bond allocation in the first years of retirement and transition to a more agressive 60/40 portfolio over 10 – 15 years. Is this madness?  Conventional advice advocates more caution in the later years of life.

The initial conservative approach is designed to minimize the negative effects that a bear market would have on a portfolio in the first years of retirement.  At seven years old, the current bull market is long in the tooth, so to speak. One of the authors of the article is Wade Pfau, whose Retirement Researcher site I include in my blog links in the right column of this blog.  I have a lot of respect for Mr. Pfau’s work and his sensibilities so I was inclined to trust this recommendation.

In order to forecast, one has to backtest, and the authors have more sophisticated portfolio allocation testers than many of us have.  I have recommended before a free allocation tester at Portfolio Visualizer.  Their web site also has a free Monte Carlo simulation tool (MC).  What the heck is that, you ask?

For Dr. Who fans, an MC is like a time trip in the doctor’s Tartus.  First we set the thing jab on the whozee panel, spin the furbee wheel clockwise to go forward in time, then stand one pace to the left – do not stand on the right! – of the big lever as we pull the lever knob.

For those of you without a Tartus, an MC uses historical returns and creates a number of what-if possibilities based on variable parameters like the period of time to run the simulation, the inflation rate, the withdrawal amount or rate, the asset mix, etc.  If I start out with $1M in savings at age 65, for example, and I take out $40,000 each year adjusted for inflation, what are the chances I will have any money left after thirty years, at age 95?  Will the Daleks catch up with my savings and exterminate it?  No, not the Daleks!

The remaining balance, the money a person would have left, is ordered by percentile: 25%, 50%, the median, and 75% are common. Example:  A remaining balance of $500K for a certain allocation at the 75% percentile means that 75% of retirees will have less than that amount.

A success rate is computed; a 75% success rate means that you don’t run out of money in 75% of the simulations.  What about the other 25% of the time?  Care to roll the dice on that one? A 90% success rate is considered a desireable minimum in the industry.  I tend to focus on both the success rate and the median balance.

If using historical asset prices as a basis for computing future possibilities, an important assumption is the time period.  If the past forty years have included some really good returns for a few decades, then the MC results will be optimistic.  What if the next twenty years are not so good?  Move in with your kids?

Using the historical data of the past 20 years or 40 years as a basis for future returns is a bit optimistic, I think.  During this past twenty years, bond prices have been inflated by extraordinarily low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve.  The price of a composite of intermediate corporate bonds, Vanguard’s VFICX mutual fund, has almost quadrupled since 1995.  A 60/40 stock/bond mix has returned 9.5% over the past 20 years.  We are unlikely to see such returns in the future.  My gut instinct is to err on the side of caution and assume a 7.5% return on a 60/40 mix, and a 6% return on a 30/70 mix.

Here’s the assumptions:  $1M initial portfolio; 30 year future period; withdraw an initial $45K adjusted annually using a 3% inflation rate.

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Stock/Bond % Success Rate Median Bal
30/70 57 $278K
60/40 73 $1.6M
30/70 –> 60/40 92 $1.7M

Using a 30/70 mix for the first 5 years and a 60/40 mix for the following 25 years gives a median balance of $1.7M after 30 years, about the same as the 60/40 mix above BUT the success rate shoots up to 92%.   The authors suggest a gradual transition but this simple simulation shows the advantage of a dynamic allocation strategy.

In short, this does look like a good strategy.

Readers who want to use the more optimistic historical returns of the past 20 years would see these simulation results:

Stock/Bond % Success Rate Median Bal
30/70 92 $2.7M 10 times higher!
60/40 88 $4.3M
30/70 –> 60/40 92 $4.3M

Using historical returns for the past 20 years sure pumps up the median balance on the conservative allocation.

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Existing Homes

Existing Home sales fell 7% in February.  Mortgage rates are at all time lows.  What’s going on?
Below is a chart of the ratio of Existing Home Sales to New Single Family Homes.  As you can see, the ratio has remained fairly steady over the past several years.  The spike in the ratio in early to mid 2013 coincided with historically low mortgage rates (Money) .   In the last quarter of 2015, this ratio started sinking despite the stimulus of low interest rates.  Are home buyers at all levels being priced out of the market?

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The Immigration Carousel

The 1900 census counted a total population of 78 million, of which 13% were foreign born. Responding to a growing hostility toward immigrants, Congress passed strict quota laws for immigrants in 1921 and 1924. Regarded as lazy, shiftless, boorish, stupid, or criminal, southern Europeans were among the undesireable groups.  During the 1920s, the foreign born population began to decline and, beginning with the 1950 census, stayed below 8% for 40 years.

The 2000 census counted 11% of the population as foreign born. The 2010 census counted 13% foreign born, so that our population mix now matches that of the early 20th century.

It is hardly surprising then to see a growing antipathy towards immigrants in the past decade.  Donald Trump’s candidacy is partly fed by the same anti-immigrant sentiment prevalent in the America of one hundred years ago.  We like to think we have put some crude and cruel instincts behind us, but we are again confronted with our “herdness.”  We will tolerate “others” as long as their percentage of the herd remains relatively small. In America, that tolerance limit seems to be 10% foreign born. How does America compare to other countries?

Then and Now

January 25, 2015

Valuation

Blogger Urban Carmel has written a thorough article on current market valuation, focusing on Tobin’s Q as a metric.  This is the market price of equities divided by the replacement cost of the companies themselves.  During the past 65 years, the median ratio is .7, meaning that the market price of all equities is about 70% of the replacement cost.  At the end of December, the Tobin’s Q ratio was more than 1.1.

Are stocks overvalued?  Valuing the replacement cost of a company might have been more accurate when the assets were primarily land, factories and other durable equipment.  Today’s valuations consist of networks, processes, branding, and other less easily measured assets.  The valuation discussion is not new.  In 1996, before the U.S. shed much of its manufacturing capacity, economists and heads of investing firms argued about valuation, including Tobin’s Q.  You can punch the way back button here and read a NY Times article that could have been written today if a few facts were changed.

Currently, households have 20% of their financial assets in stocks, the same percentage as in 1996.  In December 1996, then Federal Reserve chairman made a comment about “irrational exuberance”  in market valuations.  Prices would continue to rise, then soar, before falling from their peaks in mid-2000.  At that peak, households held 30% of their financial assets in stocks.  At an earlier peak, 1968, households had the same high percentage of their assets in stocks.

On an inflation adjusted basis, the SP500 has only recently closed above the all time high set in 2000 (Chart here).  The Wilshire 5000 is a market capitalization index like the SP500 but is broader, including 3700 publicly traded companies in its composite. On an inflation adjusted basis this wider index is 40% above the peaks of 2000 and 2007.

Long term periods of optimistic market sentiment are called secular bull markets. Negative periods are called secular bear markets. (See this Fidelity newsletter on the characteristics of secular bull and bear markets).   These long-term periods are easier to identify in hindsight.  Some say that we are nearing the end of a long-term bear market, and that there willl be a big market drop to close out this bearish period.  There have been so few long term market moves in 150 years of market data, that it is possible to tease out any pattern one wants to find.  The aggregate of investor behavior is not a symphony, a piece of music with defined structure and passages.

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REIT

As Treasury yields decline, mortgage rates continue to fall.  The Mortgage Bankers Association reported  that their refinance application index had increased by 50% from the previous week.  The refinancing process involves the payoff of the previous higher interest mortgage.  Mortgage REITs make their money on the spread, or the difference, between the interest rate they pay for money and the interest on loaning that money on mortgages.  When a lot of homeowners prepay their higher interest mortgages, that lowers the profits of mortgage REITs like American Capital Agency (AGNC) and Annaly Capital Management (NLY).  Both of these companies have dividend yields above 10% and are trading below estimated book value.

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Housing

Back in ye olden days, around 1950, the world was a bit different.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics published a snapshot of incomes, housing, and other census data, including the data tidbit that people consumed fewer calories in 1950 than today, 3260 then vs. over 3700 today.

Housing and utilities averaged 27% of income in 1950 vs. 40% today.  Food costs were 33% then, 15% today.  The median house price of $9500 was about 3 times the median household income (MHI) of $3200.  For most of the 1990s, the prices of existing homes were slightly higher, about 3.4 times MHI.

The prices of existing homes rose 6% in 2014 – healthy but not bubbly.  However, the ratio of median price to median income is now at 3.8.  Historically low interest rates have enabled buyers to leverage their income to get more house for their bucks, but the lack of income growth will continue to rein in the housing market.

The ratio of median new home prices to MHI has now surpassed the peak of the housing bubble.

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Retirement Income

Wade Pfau is a CFA who has written many a paper on retirement strategies and occasionally blogs about retirement income.  Here is an excellent paper on the change in psychology, risk assessment and strategies of people before and after retirement.  Wade and his co-author summarize the critical issues, the two dominant withdrawal approaches, the development of the safe withdrawal rate, and the caveats of any long term planning.  The authors review the strategies of several authors, discuss variable spending rules, income buckets and income layering,  annuities, and bond ladders.  You’ll want to curl up in an armchair for this one.

Income and Poverty

September 21, 2014

A steadily rising market supports our theory that we are astute investors.  Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen reassured investors that the Fed intends to keep interest rates near zero till at least the middle of 2015. The stock market closed out the week at a new high, edging out the high set two weeks ago.  In an economy fueled largely by consumer spending, median household income is down 8% since 2007.  The Japanese yen broke below $90 this week, a seven year low.  At this week’s meeting in Australia, the financial heads of the G-20 countries are seeing increasing economic strains around the globe but particularly in Europe and Asia. (Bloomberg)  Housing starts and building permits are getting erratic, jumping up one month only to fall precipitously the next.  Using either idle cash or borrowing at historically low interest rates, companies are buying back their own stock at a steady clip to juice per share profits for stockholders.

In a candid moment, many researchers will admit the difficulty of overcoming their own biases.  Investors are subject to the same myopia that afflicts politics and compromises research.  Our biases lead us to ignore or discount some facts.  The most damaging bias most of us have is thinking we have made the right decision.  The justifications for our investment decisions are sound and logical – until later events reveal the folly underlying those decisions.  In the late 1990s, some envisioned the internet marketplace much like a chessboard.  The companies who dominated the center of the board, regardless of the cost, reaped hefty stock evaluations.  It made sense – until it didn’t. Costs matter.  Profits matter.

Soros Fund Management, founded in 1969 by George Soros, has a long track record of generating consistently high returns.  The secret to Soros’ success as an investor is not that he is right most of the time because he isn’t.  Several years ago, his firm estimated that his success ratio was only 53%.  George Soros’ success comes from the fact that he knows he is wrong about half of the time, recognizes when he is wrong, abandons his position and minimizes his losses.  While most of us are not active traders like Soros, we can pay a bit more attention to the balance in our portfolios.  Quarter ending statements will arrive in our mailbox or email inbox in the next few weeks.  It would be a good time to assess portfolio allocations and targets.  A composite bond index (BND as a proxy) is down a few percent since April 2013 while the stock market has risen 33%.  Have we adjusted the balances in our portfolios or is that one of the things that has been on the to-do list for several months?

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Census Report

The Census Bureau just released their annual estimate of household income and poverty in the U.S.  Measurements of household income must be taken with a grain of salt, so to speak.  Say that a married couple with $70K in household income split up.  The total income remains the same but the number of households is now two and household income is $35K.

Given those caveats, there are some real bummer stats in the report as well as some surprises.  Real or inflation adjusted median household income was little changed in 2013 and is 8% lower than in 2007.  Median income of white households was $58K in 2013 but for black households, the annual figure was $34K.  The ratio of incomes between these two groups has changed little over the past five decades.  Since the mid 1980s, the income of white households has lost ground when compared to Asian households. Since the mid-90s, the ratio of Hispanic to white household income has risen.

One of the strengths of American society has been the income mobility that our economy generates. The Census Bureau groups incomes by quintiles, like steps on a ladder.  Each step is in 20% increments so that households are ranked in the bottom 20%, top 20% or in between. From 2009 – 2011, 30% of those who were on the lowest rung of the income ladder moved up the ladder.  During that same period, 32% of those at the top of the ladder moved down the ladder.

The poverty rate declined slightly but one in seven households, about 45 million people, is below the poverty threshold.  A continuing complaint about the methodology used in computing the poverty level is that non-cash benefits like subsidized housing, medical care, child care and food stamps are not included in the calculations.  In the early 60s, before the introduction of social welfare programs, almost one in five households were below the threshold.   Remember, the 60s were a boom decade. Various estimates of those who were chronically poor at that time ranged from 10% to 16% of households. In 1969,  several years after the introduction of the Great Society programs, the poverty rate was close to 14% (Source), about the same as it now.

Conservative commentators will make the case that, over the past fifty years, the U.S. has spent some $22 trillion (2013 dollars) on social welfare programs with little progress in alleviating poverty. During the three year period from 2009 – 2011, years of severe economic stress and political games of “chicken,” the Census Bureau reports that almost 32% of households had a spell of poverty lasting two months or more.

The Census Bureau also reports that only 3.5% of households were chronically poor, living under the poverty threshold during the entire three year period.  The low percentage of chronically poor is often ignored by those who are antipathetic to social welfare programs.  In the aftermath of this past recession, one of the most severe economic downturns of the past century, social welfare programs have provided a temporary helping hand up, a shelter against the economic storm, and cut the long term poverty rate to a quarter of what it was during the booming 60s.

Liberals will ignore this success, of course.  Instead they will point to the higher figure of temporary poverty to make the case for more welfare spending. More programs and more spending is the liberal brand.  Conservative pundits should point at the rather low 3.5% figure of the chronically poor and make the point that we don’t need more welfare spending.   But they won’t.  Opposed to income transfers as a matter of principle, conservatives don’t want to acknowledge the success of social welfare programs.

For those readers who don’t have the time to read the full report, a NY Times article provides a summary.

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Lasting longer

When the Social Security system was enacted in the mid thirties, life expectancy for a 60 year old worker was 72.  (Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Labor Review, pg. 4)  Many of us don’t realize that the largest gains in life expectancy came in the first decades of 20th century with safer sanitation, drinking water and public health facilities. In 2006, the Census Bureau estimated life expectancy for a 60 year old at 82, an additional ten years of life – and retirement benefits and expenses. A 75 year old male today can expect to live to about 87.

In their 2014 survey of the costs of elderly care, Genworth Financial found that a home health aide in Colorado averages about $50K. A private room in a nursing home costs $92K per year.  At a 4% growth rate, that same private room could cost more than $130K in 2025, when the first cohort of baby boomers reaches 75.  How many seniors will be able to afford such an expense?  Many will push for ever more programs to subsidize the costs of living longer.  Seniors vote so politicians listen.  In Japan, the elderly segment of the population has grown from 5% of the population in the 1950s to 25% of the population. (Wikipedia)  This aging cohort commands an ever larger share of the nation’s resources, contributing to the stagnation in the Japanese economy for the past 20 years.

In the U.S. the growth of the elderly population has been less dramatic.  At 9% of the population in 1960, the elderly are expected to almost double to 17% of the population by 2020 (Census Bureau )

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Takeaways

Pay attention to portfolio allocations.  Save money.  You’ll need it one of these days.

Ka-Ching to the Future

“Sell in May and go away” is an old maxim for stock traders and is based on the sentiment that in most years the summer stock market either goes down or sideways.  For the long term investor, would the summer “doldrums” be a good time to make one’s annual IRA contribution? 

The S&P500 index is a familiar benchmark for the U.S. stock market as a whole.  I ran three scenarios: 1) investing $3000 on July 1st of each tax year; 2) investing $3000 on Jan. 31st of the following year for the previous tax year (year end bonus?); and 3) waiting till the last minute, April 15th, to make one’s contribution.

I expected a big KA-CHING! for those investing on July 1st of each year.  Not only would an investor capture a supposed lull in the market  in July but would have the additional benefit of having one’s money invested several months longer each year.  I was surprised at the relatively small advantage that a July 1st contribution gives the investor.  Below is the number of shares an investor would have accumulated during the 17 tax years 1993 – 2009. (Click to open in separate tab)

At the end of 2010, the value of the shares bought during those 17 tax years is shown below.  The investor contributing each July has 2.5% more value than the person waiting till the deadline the following April.  But no Ka-Ching!

For nine tax years, an investor contributing on July 1st, got a good deal.  There were six years in which the investor got a better deal by waiting till January or April of the following year to make their contribution.  In two years, it didn’t matter which of the three dates an investor made the contribution.

Then I examined the frumpy, boring method of IRA investing – a monthly contribution to a mutual index fund that mimics the performance of the S&P500 index. Below is a chart of the shares accumulated by investing $250 each month.

KA-CHING!  While the July investor accumulated 2.4% more shares than the April investor, the monthly investor has 7% more shares than the wait-till-the-last-minute investor.  At the end of 2010, those extra shares totaled $3400 more than the July investor, and almost $9000 more than the April investor, an extra return of  three years of contributions!

It may be possible for an investor to gain additional return by “timing” one’s contributions to a retirement account.  One could backtest any number of longer term trading systems, keep a vigilant watch on the market and possibly achieve higher returns.  That would be the exciting way to build an IRA nest egg.  Waiting till April 15th each year to fund an IRA is another dramatic approach.  These solutions make for good stories to tell family and friends.  The third approach – I’ll call it the Third Way to make it sound more exciting – may be the (yawn) monthly system.

Whatever system one chooses, the charts above illustrate the returns provided by regular investment.  An investment of $51K during the 17 years of this example returned an additional $30K to $35K if valued at the end of 2010.   Even at the market low of July 2010, the monthly investor would still have “made” $18K, or six years worth of contributions, on their savings. A good scout helps old people across the street, don’t they?  Regular, disciplined contributions to a retirement account is like being a good scout to our future selves, a helping hand across the street of retirement. No, there is no badge, just some ease of mind.

Trends

A few trends that have caught my attention in the past month:

Credit card offers in the mail are down 77% in the past year.
Gold, bonds, commodities, and stocks are up. It is unusual for all of these asset classes to rise at the same time.
Women now account for 50% of workers, up from 35% thirty years ago.
Only 25% of workers aged 55+ have saved more than $250K for their retirement (excludes house equity and pensions)
On average, the Employee Benefit Research Institute reports that Americans aged 65+ get almost 40% of their income from Social Security. In 2007, the median income for those 65 and older was $18K.
If you had 60% of your portfolio invested in a mix of stocks and 40% in bonds before the banking crisis, you have lost nothing in the past year.
In the past ten years, the Federal Reserve reports (click on debt) that consumer debt has increased 63% and mortgage debt has shot up 135%. Debt in the public sector has almost doubled. Both federal and state debts have risen 95%. For perspective, the Consumer Price Index has gone up on 30% in the past ten years.

Heirs Looking At You

In a (undeterminate date) 2005 WSJ article, Jonathan Clements shares some retirement advice from a Pittsburgh accountant and estate-planning lawyer, James Lange, author of “Retire Secure” and a web site devoted to IRAs and other retirement strategies. “Spend your after-tax dollars first, and then your IRA dollars and then your Roth dollars.”

Children inheriting a regular or Roth IRA have to start taking minimum withdrawals based on their life expectancy. For a regular IRA, they will owe tax on the amount of the withdrawal. Withdrawals from a Roth IRA are income tax free.

Most people will not leave estates large enough to trigger an estate tax (in 2009 the threshold is $3.5M).

Many employer sponsored 401K accounts require beneficiaries other than a spouse to cash out the account. In this case, it may be wiser to convert the 401K to an IRA.

Retirement Calculator

Retirement planning is for old people. Until then we can merrily skip through life singing that old Roman hit “Carpe Diem”. According to the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College, too many people have adopted that happy-go-lucky approach. In a 6/5/09 WSJ op-ed, Janice Nittoli, a vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, presents some sobering survey data.

The CRR calculates that 61% of workers are not saving adequately. At the end of 2007, the average 401K balance was under $19K. That was before the severe dip in equity prices last September. What about the boomers who will start retiring in the next few years? The median retirement savings for workers aged 55 – 65 was less than $100K. Again, that was before the recent downturn.

Ms. Nittoli writes “A full third of U.S. employers have reduced or eliminated their matching contributions to retirement accounts since January of last year and another 29% plan to do so before [2009] is over.” In a downturn like this, companies reduce employee benefits. This contribution reduction comes at a time when equities are priced at historical lows. In effect, 401K plans can lose the benefits of dollar cost averaging, i.e. buying more when prices are down, buying less when prices are up.

There are many online retirement calculators that offer to tell you whether your savings are on track for retirement. Unfortunately, there can be a wide difference of opinion in these calculators. They often seem like black boxes requiring a person to input a few variables, then magically spitting out an answer like “You will need $1.5 million in savings to retire.” Upon hearing this we may be tempted to go down to the nearest karaoke bar, get drunk and sing “Carpe Diem.”

A more concrete way to understand your financial future might be to look at an annuity calculator. For our example, we will use a type of annuity called an immediate fixed annuity, which is a contract with an insurance company, for example, where you give them a certain amount of money and they pay you monthly or annual amounts for a set period of time. This is not a recommendation to buy such a product, only an example to estimate the health of your saving plan.

Let’s say you are at retirement age and you figure you need to net $3000 a month to meet your expenses. You figure that the Social Security Administration (SSA) will take about 10% income tax out of your $1500 a month social security check, leaving you with $1350. In this example, let’s say that any Medicare B or other health insurance premium is already included in the $3000 per month expense figure. I’ll also assume that you don’t have any other fixed pension plan. So, you need an extra $1650 a month, or about $20K annually, to meet your expenses.
The key component in using these calculators is the percentage rate of growth or, in our example, the interest rate of the annuity. Federal Reserve data shows that the rate of return for 10 year Treasury bonds has been 5.4%. Using the calculator at a slightly more conservative 5% growth rate, you find that you would have to have an annuity of about $250K to get the payout you need over the next 20 years. So, is that your answer – $250K? Not quite.

Your $3000 monthly expense will grow larger with inflation, which has averaged 3.1% over the past 80 years. Your social security check will grow with that inflation rate but the “extra” you needed every month won’t. As the cost of living increases, that extra amount of $1650 that you need to cover this year’s monthly expenses will grow to be $3036 per month in 20 years.

A more realistic percentage rate of growth is to subtract the historical rate of inflation, 3.1%, from the historical rate of return on a 10 year Treasury bond, 5.4%. The result is 2.3%. Subtract from that about .4% of the return for the income taxes you’ll pay on the interest your money will earn and the result is about 2%. Putting that percentage into the calculator gives a result of $327K. That’s a more realistic minimum savings goal and one that, given the survey data, a majority of workers will have difficulty meeting.

While $327K sounds like a lot of money, a person aged 25 who saved $200 a month in a savings account paying 5% would have that approximate amount at age 65. When Einstein was asked what was the most powerful force in the universe, he replied “Compound interest.”