Month: October 2016

Decumulation Planning: Risks and Key Questions to Ask

Most retirement planning advice focuses on the accumulation phase – how big a pension pot you need, where and how to invest, or how much you should save each month. However, there is also the decumulation phase, when you start to rely on your savings to finance part or all of your living costs. Savers (and advisers) often underestimate its importance and complexity.

Clear Objectives But Many Unknowns

There are two main objectives in the decumulation phase:

  • Make sure you don’t outlive your savings.
  • Enjoy the best quality of life possible.

Although these sound fairly simple, there are many uncertainties complicating your decisions.

Firstly, you don’t know how long you will live. This is called longevity risk.

Secondly, you don’t know how much income you will need in future years due to unpredictable inflation and lifestyle changes. For instance, you will probably spend less on travel or hobbies in older age, but the cost of healthcare may go up.

Last but not least, the remaining part of your savings will continue to be invested and therefore subject to market risk (and don’t forget currency risk, especially if you plan to retire overseas).

Key Questions to Ask (Yourself or Your Adviser)

With the above mentioned objectives and risks in mind, decumulation planning involves particularly the following decisions.

How much can you draw from your savings every month or every year?

The popular rule of thumb says that if you withdraw no more than 4% of your retirement savings in any individual year, you won’t run out of money before you die. Unfortunately, this rule ignores all the above listed risks (longevity, inflation and investment risk) and comes with assumptions which may be questionable in today’s world, when an increasing number of people live well into their 90’s, when interest rates are near zero and your portfolio is far from guaranteed to beat inflation, regardless of your investment strategy. Simple universal rules like this one can be taken as rough guidance or starting point, but you should never rely on them blindly and always consider your personal situation.

If you have multiple assets or accounts, which ones should you use first and which ones should you leave for further growth?

Most people retire with a number of different assets or savings vehicles, such as pensions, ISAs, stocks, mutual funds, savings accounts or property. Besides different risk and return profiles, these assets are also subject to different tax treatment or different rules with respect to inheritance. When deciding which ones to use for income now, consider not only the taxes payable in the current tax year, but also your future tax liabilities. Remember that tax allowances such as the Personal Allowance or the CGT Allowance can still be used in retirement.

What is the optimum asset allocation and investment strategy?

While the general recommendation is to make your portfolio more conservative than during your working life (due to shorter time horizon), there are no universal rules. Keep at least a portion of your wealth in very conservative instruments like short-term government bonds and even cash. These should cover at least your basic income needs for the next few years. At the same time, a part of your portfolio should remain invested in assets like stocks or high-yield bonds to allow further growth. Within your equity subportfolio, you may want to increase the weights of low beta or high dividend stocks to keep risk under control and boost income.

The exact weights and securities to choose depend on market situation as well as your personal circumstances – particularly your wealth and other assets you hold. In general, the poorer you are, the more conservative you should be, and vice-versa – if you have other assets to possibly use for income if some of your investments go wrong, you can afford more risk in your portfolio.

Should you buy an annuity?

Even with the new pension freedoms, buying an annuity is still an attractive option to many. When making the decision, treat it as a very conservative component of your portfolio. Its main purpose is to cover your essential income needs and to protect you from the already mentioned risks (longevity, market risk and – with some annuity types – inflation risk). Of course, this protection comes at a cost. Again, if you are wealthier and have other assets to use as potential reserves, you may not need an annuity at all.

Conclusion

One important thing to keep in mind is that decumulation planning does not start on the day when you retire. The two phases – accumulation and decumulation – are not isolated. Decisions made and actions taken during your working life can make your options wider and generally better in retirement.

Overcoming Home Bias: Why You Should Invest Globally

Not surprisingly, for vast majority of British investors, domestic stocks and particularly the FTSE 100 index represent a substantial portion of their portfolios – often to the extent of neglecting or completely ignoring other markets. Today we will have a closer look at this phenomenon, known as home bias, and discuss the benefits (and costs) of taking a more global approach to asset allocation, particularly in light of the uncertainties ahead.

Home Bias

The home bias, or the home bias puzzle, was first recognised in the early 1990’s. It has been observed that investors tend to over-allocate funds to their domestic market – more than what would be justified when taking a purely rational risk and return optimisation approach. Numerous research reports have been published by bank analysts and academics, examining the causes of home bias and its effects on investment performance and risk.

Costs of International Investing and Causes of Home Bias

In general, there are three groups of factors which discourage investors from investing internationally:

  • Financial, such as currency conversion costs, higher fund management fees or custody fees. The significance of these has declined (but not disappeared) in the last two decades due to technology and the rise of ETFs and other passively managed funds.
  • Administrative, such regulatory restrictions, paperwork or tax issues.
  • Psychological. For instance, for someone living in the UK it makes more sense to invest in shares of familiar companies like Tesco or Marks & Spencer, rather than their foreign counterparts. Being able to see actual products or stores behind a stock symbol helps with trust and comfort – essential ingredients of the psychology of investing.

Benefits of International Investing.

If your portfolio only contains a negligible portion of international equities, or even worse, if you have all your funds in the FTSE 100, your risk and return profile is far from efficient. It is very likely that in the long run you will see lower performance and higher volatility than you otherwise would with a portfolio containing just a bit more of international equities. Of course, the actual future performance of equity markets in individual countries is impossible to predict, but it is the probabilities and the outcomes across a wide range of possible scenarios which must be considered. In one word, diversification.

Geographical, Sectoral and Idiosyncratic Diversification

One argument against international investing is that shares in the domestically listed corporations already provide sufficient exposure to economic developments in other regions, as many of these companies trade worldwide. The FTSE 100 is a good example, as 77% of its constituents’ revenues come from outside the UK.

That being said, the FTSE 100 lacks sufficient exposure to important parts of the global economy which you may not want to ignore. It is traditionally heavy in consumer staples and energy, but severely underweight in the technology sector. If your portfolio mimics the FTSE 100, you have over 8% of your funds invested in a single energy company (Royal Dutch Shell), but you completely lack exposure to companies such as Google, Apple or Amazon, for instance. These are at least as important to the global economy, and to the British economy too.

How Much Is Enough?

According to a recent report by Vanguard, which refers to the latest available (31/12/2014) IMF statistics, British investors hold 26.3% of their equity investments in domestic stocks – on average. In line with the home bias theory, this is much higher than the UK’s share on global market cap (7.2%) or GDP (4% nominal / 2.5% by PPP).

Does this mean you should only have 7% or 4% of your portfolio in British equities? Of course not. After all, if you live in the UK and your general interests, liabilities and future expenditures are in this country, there is nothing wrong with British assets representing a significant portion of your investments. The exact optimum weight of foreign equities is subject to personal circumstances, such as your income, other assets and liabilities. For instance, the property you own represents substantial exposure to the future well-being of the British economy, justifying a higher share of foreign equities.

Does Brexit Change Anything?

The Brexit uncertainty does not enter the equation, unless you personally have a strong opinion regarding the future development and want to gamble on that. If you don’t, remember that in line with the Efficient Market Theory, the stock prices (and the pound’s exchange rate) are already reflecting the market’s consensus and thereby all the currently available information.

In the long run and under the “hard Brexit” scenario, looser economic ties with Europe might result in a decrease in correlation between the UK and EU in terms of economic and stock market performance, increasing the diversification potential of European equities. However, this effect will most likely be marginal, if any.