Thursday, April 29, 2010

Responsible planning for retirement

Business Times - 28 Apr 2010


An asset solution should not purely maximise returns but should be relevant for all investment climates and have the highest probability of meeting retirement liabilities, with due consideration given to liquidity and inflation


INDIVIDUALS are becoming increasingly responsible for the outcome of their retirement solutions, as the world moves away from Defined Benefit towards Defined Contribution schemes. It is essential that individuals are equipped with the adequate tools to make appropriate decisions when constructing retirement solutions, to ensure that they maximise the probability of delivering a sufficient and stable income.

As we have always emphasised, simply recommending 100 per cent equities for an individual with more than 10 years to retirement is not a responsible solution. Attention needs to be given to the potential range of outcomes this asset mix can deliver - some favourable or, as the past 10 years have shown, some very poor. A more responsible approach needs to be taken to make sure that the solution can perform in all market environments - not just an equity bull run.

A useful starting point is to consider the liabilities that the individual will encounter in retirement. There will be significant variation between individuals, depending on the expected lifestyle. But the basic exercise requires making assumptions on potential future payments for discretionary and non-discretionary items. Cash flows for needs such as housing, food, clothing, health, transport, entertainment and travel can all be estimated and, from the aggregate sum, an assumption can be made about the individual's expected liabilities for each year after retirement.

This can be a cumbersome exercise. A quick look through the plethora of 'retirement calculators' available on the Web shows the short cut commonly used is to simply consider future liabilities as a percentage of current income. This is a fairly neat solution to a complex problem, based on the logic that an individual's current salary is a good representation of the amount required to meet living expenses.

However, the key point to then recognise is that the present cost of these payments will not be representative of the real cost. It is not reasonable to expect a movie ticket in 2030 to cost the same as a movie ticket in 2010. Any assessment of future liabilities needs to consider inflation.

Once the expected liabilities are determined, the next step is to establish the appropriate asset mix that maximises the probability of meeting these liabilities. It is worth remembering that this is the money that an individual will live on in retirement, so the level of risk taken in the asset mix should consider the implications of significant under-performance relative to the expected liabilities.

A prominent US academic recently advocated placing 100 per cent of assets in inflation-linked bonds. This solution has virtually no risk as the bonds are government guaranteed with an implicit link to keep pace with inflation. It is difficult to argue against the logic - but the unfortunate reality is that for the majority of individuals, this solution will not deliver sufficient funds in retirement. This is simply because most people do not have enough current capital, or ongoing contributions, to invest in low-risk - and subsequently low-return - assets to generate enough funds to meet retirement liabilities. Most people need to take some level of risk, with the expectation of capital growth helping to offset the deficit.

So here is the rub: How do we get enough returns to generate sufficient funds to meet retirement liabilities - without taking so much risk that the whole solution blows up and leaves the retiree substantially under-funded? Financial advice in the past may simply have been to load up on equities. Hopefully, we have moved on from there. The more innovative approach that is evolving is to supplement a core holding of sovereign and inflation-linked bonds with a diversified basket of risky assets that may include equities, credit, property and commodities. The goal is to create an asset solution with the highest probability of meeting the liabilities, with due consideration given to liquidity and inflation.

A simplified example is laid out in Table 1 below. Take a 45-year-old individual currently earning $60,000 a year, with the expectation of 2 per cent annual salary increases until the retirement age of 68. This will result in a terminal salary of around $91,000 at retirement. The individual has chosen to contribute 10 per cent of his salary each year and feels he will need 60 per cent of his terminal salary to meet his expected liabilities after retirement (which will increase by an assumed inflation rate of 3 per cent). The other fortunate input for this individual is that he already has $100,000 invested in his retirement account.

The following solution assumes an investment return of 6 per cent in the growth phase (before retirement) and 4 per cent in the drawdown phase (after retirement). In the past, retirement solutions sought to take significantly more risk in the growth phase (possibly recommending 100 per cent equities) without sufficient analysis of the potential shortfalls that this may produce in the drawdown phase. Solutions now are more risk-conscious in the growth phase, mindful of protecting an investor's capital to allow compounding to work its magic and provide sufficient funds for the drawdown phase.

As Table 1 shows, this solution will fund the individual into his 80th year. The important question now to be answered is: What is the appropriate asset mix to deliver the return assumptions for the growth and drawdown phases? There is generally a consensus on the drawdown phase, where individuals are recommended to invest in liquid and low-risk assets - like annuities - to protect the capital that they have accrued. The contention is generally centred on the correct mix for the growth phase.

Table 2 shows the analysis for a Singapore dollar-based investor. Based on some fairly conservative assumptions, this portfolio is expected to deliver a 6 per cent return each year with significantly lower risk than equities. This increases the probability of generating sufficient funds to satisfy the liabilities expected, giving the individual greater certainty in being able to meet his retirement needs.

This analysis is based on a hypothetical example and should not be construed as financial advice. But it seeks to demonstrate the evolution of constructing an asset mix for retirement that maximises the potential of achieving the expected liabilities rather than purely maximising return without due consideration to the impact of under-performing the liabilities.

As an industry, the responsibility lies with financial advisory practitioners to provide sound advice to individuals, with an increasing level of choice when it comes to their retirement solutions. The advice needs to be relevant for all investment climates, with due consideration given to inflation, to ensure that the investment strategy of the individual has the highest probability of meeting its objective - a sufficient and stable income for retirement.

The writer is Asia-Pacific head of multi asset, Schroder Investment Management

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