Ask An Ex-Banker: 100% Equities Even In Retirement?

retirementHi Michael,

I enjoy and look forward to your advice every week. I am about to do as you (and a lot of other smart people) recommend and move our investments to several diversified equity index funds. My question: would you still suggest no index bond funds for someone in our age bracket? I am 71, and my wife is 65. We have a comfortable railroad pension and this year I started my Required Minimum Distribution (RMD.)  We have modest money to transfer ($145,000) from Morgan Stanley to I was thinking Vanguard.

–Bob in San Antonio

Thanks, Bob for your question, which refers to my recent exhortation that 95% of people should have 95% of their money invested 95% of the time in diversified 100% equity index funds, and never sell.

The quick answer to your question is yes.

I still would give you the same advice, although with a few caveats. The first caveat of course is that this advice is free, and you get what you pay for!

Also, I don’t know your full situation so I’ll make base-case scenario assumptions and you can fill in the details. The key to the choice to remain 100% in equities (instead of bonds or some other fixed income) is your time horizon. Above a 5-year time horizon (my minimum for ‘investing’) then people should be in diversified equities rather than ‘safe’ bonds or savings.

Now, you are 71 and your wife is 65, which puts your expected remaining lives (according to this Social Security actuarial table) at 13.4 and 20.2 years respectively. Given the way probabilities work, you should want to maximize your investment account for 20 years or longer, at least to support your wife (who is likely to outlive you). If you have heirs, your time horizon will be longer than even 20 years, and might really be measured in many decades.

required-minimum-distribution table
Divide retirement assets by the divisor to calculate RMD

I’m assuming all along that you will not have to sell the funds in your account, and you won’t be spooked by market volatility, which can and will be substantial over the next 20 years. At the worst moments, sometime in the next 20 years, risky assets like stocks could lose 40% of their value from their peak, the sky will look like its falling (it won’t be), and you have to know yourself well enough to know whether you could stomach that kind of volatility without selling.

Pensions & Social Security act like a bond anyway

Another factor specific to your situation that makes 100% equities even more acceptably prudent is that your railroad pension looks and smells and acts like a bond. Meaning, it probably pays the same amount every year without any volatility, or maybe it adjust slightly upward for cost of living changes. Social Security works the same way. The fact that a huge portion of your income is fixed income and bond-like and safe and snug should make you even more comfortable with the idea that you can remain exposed to volatile equities.

Without your pension & social security – If you had only your equity portfolio to cover your expenses – you might be forced to sell some equities to cover your costs at an inopportune time, and then 100% equities would be less of a slam dunk.

Adjust for RMD?

Speaking of selling, the RMD could change your decision (and my advice) slightly.

You know you’ll have to withdraw some required minimum distribution (RMD) each year, based on the IRS rules and your expected lifespan. A reasonable case could be made that you should keep at least one year’s RMD in cash, since you know your time horizon on that amount of money is very short. Many reasonable people might advocate a few years’ RMD in cash for the same reason.

I think its just as reasonable, however, to decide instead to keep the account fully invested in 100% equities, betting that equities will outperform bonds more years than not, and that your twenty year time horizon still justifies the decision.

I totally disagree with this suggested asset allocation

The deciding factor between these reasonable scenarios, in my mind, is how ‘comfortable’ the ‘comfortable railroad pension’ really is. If your lifestyle costs are fully covered by the pension, and the retirement account subject to RMD rules is just extra money, then you can think of that investment account as intergenerational money. If you have heirs or a favorite philanthropy to pass money to, for example, then the time horizon for your account can be measured in decades, and you should undoubtedly stay 100% in equities. I’m confident that with a 20 year time horizon or greater, there will be more money in the end via equities than there would be if you invested in bonds.

With plenty of interim volatility, of course.

Good luck!



Please see related posts:

Hey Fiduciaries: Is It All Financially Unsustainable?

Stocks vs. Bonds – the probabilistic answer




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The New MyRA – From the Department of Bad Retirement Ideas

The federal government – following an idea proposed during Obama’s January 2014 State of the Union address – will role out a new simplified IRA plan later this year, designed as a starter retirement account, known by the catchy name MyRA.


Geared to lower- and middle-income earners, the accounts will have the following features:

1. Automatic deduction of contributions from payroll (that’s a good thing).

2. Same income limits, contribution limits and tax treatment as the Roth IRA – post-tax contribution, $5,500 total per year, $129,000 income per individual (that’s fine).

3. A maximum size of $15,000 total before investors need to roll it over to a private IRA (that seems arbitrary).

4. A single investment option, in a variable-rate “G Fund,” that matches the Thrift Savings Plan Government Securities Investment Fund. (that’s a terrible idea).

Why that’s a terrible idea

I understand the federal government designed the MyRA to solve a set of identified problems, explained in this White House Press Office blog post.

First, one half of all Americans have zero retirement savings.

Second, half of all full-time workers have no access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan (like a 401K or 403b), and that number climbs to 75% for part-time workers.

Third, lots of people who had retirement accounts invested in public markets lost money in the last financial crisis.

These are all admirable problems to tackle, although the existing IRA accounts are already available to anyone not covered by an employer’s plan.

Will the MyRA actually force small business owners to enroll employees?

The most interesting innovation appears to be the automatic enrollment by employers and automatic deduction of employee paychecks feature of MyRAs, although I can already hear the cries of “Nanny State” and “Government Don’t Tell Me How To Run My Small Business Or How To Save Money.”

Not one of his best ideas

I cannot tell from the White House memo how coercive the MyRA enrollment will be. Does every small business have to enroll their employees if they don’t offer a retirement account? I just can’t believe the current Congress would pass anything that resembles coercion against small businesses. So my guess is that this MyRA becomes an optional program, and this most innovative part of the MyRA program disappears.

What remains after Congress eliminates automatic enrollment, however, is a disservice to lower- and middle- income employees.

Without automatic enrollment, the MyRA seems to address the first two problems – zero savings and zero employer-sponsored retirement plans – by creating an account with tremendously similar features as the existing Roth IRA plans, but with one terrible feature.

The terrible feature

Your only option is to invest in US government debt.

The interest rate will vary over time according to prevailing interest rates, but, by design, this will be most secure dollar-denominated investment available, and therefore the lowest yielding.

The current 1 year rate offered by the “G Fund” is 1.89%. After inflation, the return on your money in a MyRA is close to zero.

Although the G Fund rate – and therefore your expected return – will go up or down with changing interest rates over time, the way the income yield on US government debt works is that it will only ever barely exceed the rate of inflation over time, almost by definition, as a result of market forces.

The fact that your income will be available upon retirement ‘tax-free’ like a Roth IRA is close to meaningless, since there will be hardly any income to enjoy, tax-free.

This is unacceptable as a product for retirement savings, and unacceptable to market as a vehicle for lower- and middle-income employees, who badly need the benefit of higher compound returns, even more than other retirees.

The memo describing the MyRA boasts that MyRA investors may rest assured that they cannot lose their principal. They can be confident that their retirement savings will not be subject to the kind of volatility that we’ve seen in recent years.

What the memo does not spell out, but that make the MyRA troubling, are the following key ideas about retirement investing:

1. Over longer time horizons – say between 5 years (70% of the time) to 15 years (95% of the time) to 20 years (99.5% of the time) – stocks win.  The volatility of the stock market ceases to be a risk when compared to investing in bonds. This is because despite the volatility of stocks in the short run, stocks always offer a superior return in the long run. Retirement savings – the most long-run investing that individuals  do – must skew toward higher-risk, higher-return products like stocks, and away from bonds [For more on this idea, see this post on “100% equities for the long run.”]

2. The long-run risk of investing in bonds in a retirement account is the terrible loss of purchasing power due to inflation, as well as the missed opportunity of long-term wealth accumulation from higher-risk, higher return investments.

In sum, if the MyRA only lets investors earn the “G Fund” rate of return, it’s totally unsuited for anybody’s retirement account.

An even more cynical view

Now let’s apply a paranoid Wall Street skeptic’s eye for a moment.

I do not believe the Obama administration has an evil master plan here.

They are not proposing to automatically deduct a portion of salaries from poorly paid, unsophisticated folks with no other retirement money and thereby extract the limited savings of the country’s underclass to fund the nation’s debt, at a good-for-the-government-but-bad-for-the-poor long-term interest rate. I don’t believe that comes from a Dr. Evil plot deep inside the Treasury Department.

On the other hand, that would be the actual result of this MyRA plan.

One man’s investment is another man’s debt

What is obvious to Wall Street folks but less obvious to Main Street folks is that the bonds we buy for investment are the borrowing mechanism of the companies and governments who issue bonds.  My bond investment = the (company/government) bond issuer’s borrowing.

When I earn a 3% return on a Coca Cola bond over ten years, that just means Coca Cola borrowed money from me at a 3% interest rate for ten years. When you buy a municipal water company bond at 4%, that just means the municipal water company took out a loan at 4% from lenders.

When the US Government offers a 1.89% “G Fund” return to lower-income workers in a MyRA, that also means the US Government borrows money from its lower-income workers at 1.89%. Which, while not intended as such, creates an evil result.

I will offer you 1.89% on your One. Million. Dollars.

While it’s not an evil plot, it is a terrible plan.

To encourage lower-income (and presumably less-sophisticated) workers to earn a paltry 1.89% return on their longest-term investment is unconscionable retirement planning for the nation’s poorest, that just happens to, simultaneously, fund US government debt at a cheap interest rate.


Please see related posts on the IRA account investing:

The Humble IRA

IRAs don’t matter to high income people

A rebuttal: The curious case of Mitt Romney

The magical Roth IRA and inter-generational wealth transfer

The 2012 IRA Contribution Infographic

The DIY Movement and the IRA

Angel Investing and the IRA


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