Why Retirees Need Equity In Their Portfolios

by Mike Holman

One of the standard pieces of advice for retirees is that they have to have a very conservative portfolio since they are too old to take any chances with equities. There are “rules” around what percentage of fixed income (ie bonds) a retiree should have. “90 minus your age” is one that I’ve heard a lot.

These rules were probably pretty good guidance at a time when your average retiree finished work at 65 and could reasonably be expected to live for another ten years or so. With a short term investment horizon it didn’t make sense to invest a lot of money in equities because the retiree wouldn’t live long enough to recover from any major losses. Inflation was also not a major concern since the time line was fairly short.

Fast forward to now and there are two major differences in retirees – first of all they are retiring earlier which lengthens the retirement time and they are living longer which of course also increases the retirement time which in turn means that they have a longer investment time horizon so a higher allocation of equities is appropriate. Typically most financial planners will assume an estimate lifetime of around 90, so if an investor retired at aged 60 and lived until age 90 – that’s a 30 year time horizon.

You might be asking – who cares how long the retirement lasts for? Shouldn’t you just be conservative and buy guaranteed fixed income products or annuities and live off the payments? One problem is that while retirees might be living longer once retired, they aren’t working longer, in fact they might even have slightly shorter careers on average so current retirees might not have any more money saved (adjusted for inflation) than someone who retired a generation or two ago and they are less likely to have any kind of company pension plan to help fund the retirement.

The reality is that historically equities have outperformed bonds by a long shot. According to William Bernstein – author of “The Four Pillars of Investing”, two reasons to invest in equities are for the higher expected return and because equities can keep up to rising inflation. If you are retired and your portfolio is entirely fixed income (or annuity) you might run into the problem of a steadily lower standard of living if inflation increases.

Other reasons to invest in equities are that interest is taxed at a higher rate than dividends and capital gains (in Canada and USA) so you will probably be better off if you can only pay dividend and capital gains taxes rather than income tax on interest payments.

What to do?

The answer is two fold. First of all, retirees should have a significant equity holding in their portfolio. Bernstein recommends anywhere between 50% to 75% equities depending on your tolerance for risk. One of the key points that Bernstein emphasizes is that whatever asset allocation you choose, you have to stick with it so pick an allocation that you can handle in rough times. If you choose a higher percentage of equities and then sell when the equities drop and then buy back in when they go up, then you will be further behind compared to if you had just picked a more conservative portfolio and stuck with it. Even if you choose to have an equity allocation of less than 50% then stick with that allocation.

Tomorrow we’re going to discuss the 4% withdrawal rule which will help determine when you can retire.

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