January 30, 2023

6 Trends That Upend Past Thinking About Retirement Planning
Retirement Planning > Retirement Investing

As noted by Pacific Life’s Reed Lloyd in a recent conversation with ThinkAdvisor, it is a basic fact of life in the U.S. today that traditional defined benefit pension plans are in decline.
Data from the Social Security Administration — and many other sources — backs up the statement. The SSA’s data, for example, shows the number of DB pension plans peaked around the mid-1980s, with some 175,000 DB plans being offered at that time. By the early 2000s, the number of DB pension plans had fallen to 48,000 total plans, and the number as of 2019 stood shy of 47,000 plans.
“Fewer and fewer employers today are offering DB plans, while the popularity of defined contribution style plans has increased dramatically,” Lloyd, who is an assistant vice president in the retirement strategies group at Pacific Life, said. “As a society and as an industry, we need to be cognizant of this fact and work to ensure people can secure a stable, guaranteed income into the future.”
Lloyd’s comments came during a ThinkAdvisor webinar that also featured Jamie Hopkins, managing partner of wealth solutions at Carson Group; Carolyn McClanahan, founder of Life Planning Partners Inc.; and Wade Pfau, principal and director at McLean Asset Management and RISA LLC. The group discussed and debated the “Future of Retirement,” with a particular focus on retirement income issues.
Despite their diverse industry roles and responsibilities, the panel fully agreed that the systemic shift in the U.S. retirement system — away from pensions and toward defined contribution plans — is one key trend that is upending traditional thinking about retirement income planning.
But they also pointed to other trends pertaining to Social Security claiming behavior, annuity product development and behavioral finance research that are having just as much of an impact on the future of retirement as the decline of pensions.
Here are five more important ways in which retirement planning is evolving for financial advisors and their clients, according to the panelists.
In McClanahan’s experience working with clients and speaking with industry colleagues, a growing number of workers are simply not focused on the goal of “retirement” in the traditional sense of the word. This is especially true of younger clients, she said, but it is also true with older generations.

“Life is precarious, as the COVID-19 pandemic experience has shown us all,” said McClanahan (pictured above.) “Over the past few years, many people in our client base have come to the conclusion that it is important to balance the enjoyment of life today and the need to save for the future and to save for financial resilience and freedom. For us as advisors, this means we need to set aside the retirement-first discussions and put the spotlight on this concept of financial resilience.”

McClanahan said this trend is already having an impact in her discussions with clients, including those at and near retirement.

“Many of them have shifted their thinking away from trying to create a huge nest egg for a day they may never see,” she explained.

Even those clients who have generated a substantial nest egg often do not simply want to flip a switch and totally disengage from the workforce in one go. They may instead prefer to cut back on working hours or transition into another role or industry.

This shift in thinking means many clients are eager to reorient their planning discussions around lifestyle and income stability, and this fact demands that advisors do the same. An advisory approach that only speaks to the needs of accumulation will not be a cornerstone for success in this emerging environment, McClanahan and the panel agreed.

In comments echoed by the other panelists, Pfau (above) emphasized the critical role Social Security plays in many Americans’ retirement income planning, and he pointed to some statistics that suggest Americans are growing more savvy regarding optimal claiming strategies.

“Historically, the SSA’s data showed that close to 60% of people used to claim their benefit starting at age 62, but starting about a decade ago, that figure began to shrink,” Pfau said. “As of 2021, fewer than 30% of people began drawing their Social Security checks at the minimum age. At the same time, the percentage of people who wait beyond full retirement age has been going up significantly, from about 5% in 2010 to now above 20%.”

Pfau said better advice and education seems to be getting through to the public and having a positive impact on their claiming behaviors. Despite the improved behaviors, the panel said, advisors can and should continue to bring Social Security-oriented discussion and education to their clients — especially to those clients who may be eager, as McClanahan put it, to “get their hands on the money as quickly as possible.”

“Even among people with plenty of money who would clearly be better served by waiting to claim, there is a tendency to feel that pressure of just starting the payments as soon as possible. It’s an ingrained mindset,” she said.

“When we show clients the numbers, we can usually talk them into doing the right thing, which is often waiting to claim. Taking the time to explain the numbers to people is critical, and so is engaging them in a more nuanced discussion — for example by bringing in spousal considerations. One thing that opens people’s eyes is the fact that they may hurt their spouse significantly by claiming early, even if they feel their own personal longevity might not be that great.”

All of the panelists voiced a significant degree of skepticism about the 4% rule of thumb for retirement spending and encouraged their fellow industry professionals to push beyond such a simple framework designed to solve such a complex challenge.

Defined basically, this rule suggests a given client in retirement should add up all of their investments and simply plan to withdraw 4% of their total wealth during their first year of retirement, thereafter adjusting the dollar amount to be withdrawn to account for inflation.

I am concerned about the 4% rule of thumb,” Pfau said. “Very low inflation was the saving grace behind this rule for a long time, because the low inflation allowed for a higher sustainable spending rate. That is changing with substantially higher inflation, and especially if inflation remains high. It will be very difficult for people to actually follow this rule, because inflation can put a tremendous strain on a portfolio.”

Hopkins agreed with that warning and said such simple rules of thumb cannot accurately reflect the way people live their lives. He also pointed out that the asset allocation assumptions used in the research that popularized the 4% withdrawal rule no longer reflect the typical investors’ portfolio.

“Basically none of your clients today are going to be holding 50% in U.S. equities and 50% bonds, which is what the 4% research assumes,” he explained. “Today your clients’ holdings are likely to be more complex and spread across holdings in diversified mutual funds, ETFs, etc.”

McClanahan pointed out that the 4% withdrawal rule can leave savers with fewer assets exposed to longevity risk, while at the same time, wealthier clients following the rule may actually be spending too defensively and missing out on the opportunity to enjoy their accumulated wealth.

“We have had clients come to us who are already retired, and they are very focused on this 4% rule,” she said. “When we run the numbers, we can show them that in fact they can be spending significantly more. When we bring them into this spending-focused philosophy and give them permission to feel confidence about spend more in the early ‘go-go’ years of retirement, it is really a positive thing for them.”

(Image: Adobe Stock)

McClanahan said the shifting health care environment in the U.S. is another major factor affecting the future of retirement planning, both in intuitive and unintuitive ways.

“One thing I point out to my clients who are concerned about health care costs going up forever is that, if health care costs do actually continue to inflate as they have over the last several decades, the entire system will become unsustainable at the societal level,” she said.

“The numbers show us that we are going to need to see an overhaul that addresses the cost of care at some point in the not-too-distant future,” she said. “In this environment, we have to be clear with our clients about how much uncertainty there is about health care costs in retirement, and we have to be responsive to their unique situations.”

One basic reality of planning is that, if a client is in poor health and they refuse to make lifestyle changes, they are not going to have the same longevity as someone in much better health with a healthy lifestyle. This fact may be obvious, McClanahan said, but the planning implications stemming from it are not.

“One counterintuitive factor to point out, for example, pertains to those clients who have really strong life expectancy. This factor doesn’t mean their overall health care costs are going to be lower for the lifetime,” she pointed out. “Those who live much longer are at higher risk of eventually having conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, and this can entail great expense late in life. The picture will look very different for someone who, say, lives into their late 60s and then experiences significant health care problems on a shorter time frame.”

The panel concluded that many people worry too much about trying to predict an unpredictable health care future, when instead they should focus on building overall financial resiliency and smart behaviors.

(Image: Adobe Stock)

Finally, Hopkins (above) and the other panelists pointed to the significant product development that has occurred in the annuity marketplace, with an emphasis on the point that annuity usage by no means precludes a client from remaining invested in the equity and bond markets.

“Determining how a client might want to use an annuity, and what type of annuity suits them, is a key consideration,” Hopkins said. He noted that fixed indexed annuities, in particular, are enjoying a moment of substantial growth and proliferation.

In the current market environment, Hopkins pointed out, certain annuities might actually make more sense from a total return perspective than some of the bond categories that clients may traditionally rely on.

“For example, some of the fixed indexed annuities on the market today might be more attractive than some of the bond portfolios that are available, especially in the short-duration space,” Hopkins said. “Even if your client is seeking total return, you may consider swapping out some of the bond products for certain types of annuity products. A growth-oriented approach and the purchase of annuities are not mutually exclusive, depending on what you are trying to accomplish.”

The panel concluded that discussion about building a retirement income plan should start from a product-agnostic point of view.

“You shouldn’t start your planning from the product types,” Hopkins said. “You should start with the client needs and then backfill from there, based on options and costs. Then, the feasibility and usability aspect that needs to be considered. For example, while on paper it may be the best solution, it may be very hard for somebody to build a 30-year bond ladder in reality, especially older clients.”

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