Personal Finance, Part 11 — Your Personal Required Investment Earnings Rate

Everybody has a series of longer-term goals that they want to achieve financially, whether it is putting the kids through college, buying a home, retirement, etc.  Those priorities compete with short run needs, which helps to determine how much gets spent versus saved.

To the extent that one can estimate what one can reasonably save (hard, but worth doing), and what the needs of the future will cost, and when they will come due (harder, but worth doing), one can estimate personal contribution and required investment earnings rates.  Set up a spreadsheet with current assets and the likely savings as positive figures, and the future needs as negative figures, with the likely dates next to them.  Then use the XIRR function in Excel to estimate the personal required investment earnings rate [PRIER].

I’m treating financial planning in the same way that a Defined Benefit pension plan analyzes its risks.  There’s a reason for this, and I’ll get to that later.  Just as we know that a high assumed investment earnings rate at a defined benefit pension plan is a red flag, it is the same to an individual with a high PRIER.

Now, suppose at the end of the exercise one finds that the PRIER is greater than the yield on 10-year BBB bonds by more than 3%.  (Today that would be higher than 9%.)  That means you are not likely to make your goals.   You can either:

  • Save more, or,
  • Reduce future expectations,whether that comes from doing the same things cheaper, or deferring when you do them.

Those are hard choices, but most people don’t make those choices because they never sit down and run the numbers.  Now, I left out a common choice that is more commonly chosen: invest more aggressively.  This is more commonly done because it is “free.”  In order to get more return, one must take more risk, so take more risk and you will get more return, right?  Right?!

Sadly, no.  Go back to Defined Benefit programs for a moment.  Think of the last eight years, where the average DB plan has been chasing a 8-9%/yr required yield.  What have they earned?  On a 60/40 equity/debt mandate, using the S&P 500 and the Lehman Aggregate as proxies, the return would be 3.5%/year, with the lion’s share coming from the less risky investment grade bonds.  The overshoot of the ’90s has been replaced by the undershoot of the 2000s.  Now, missing your funding target for eight years at 5%/yr or so is serious stuff, and this is a problem being faced by DB pension plans and individuals today.

While the ’80s and ’90s were roaring, DB plan sponsors made minimal contributions, and did not build up a buffer for the soggy 2000s.  Part of that was due to stupid tax law that the government put in because they didn’t want pension plans to shelter income from taxes for plan sponsors.  (As an aside, public plans did less than corporations, even though they did not face any tax consequences.)

But the same thing was true of individuals.  When the markets were good, they did not save.  Now when the markets are not good, the habit of not saving is entrenched, and now being older, saving might be more difficult because of kids in college, interest on a mortgage for a house larger than was needed, etc.

Now, absent additional saving, when investment earnings lag behind the PRIER, that makes the future PRIER rise, to try to make up for lost time.  Perhaps I need to apply the five stages of grieving here as well… trying to earn more to make up for lost time is a form of bargaining.  It rarely works, and sometimes blows up, leaving a person worse off than before.  Most aggressive asset allocation strategies only work over a long period of time, and only if a player is willing to buy-rebalance-hold, which only a few people are constitutionally capable of doing.  Most people get scared at the bottoms, and get euphoric near tops.  Few follow Buffett’s dictum, “Be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy.”  Personally, I expect the willingness to take investment risk over the next five years to rise, but over the next ten years, I don’t think it will be rewarded.

Now, as time progresses, and the Baby Boomers gray, unless the equity markets are returning the low teens in terms of returns, there will be a tendency for the average PRIER to rise, absent people realizing that they have to save more than planned, or reduce their goals.  This problem will be faced in the ’10s, bigtime.  The pensions crisis will be front page news, and I’m not talking about Social Security and Medicare, though those will be there also.  The demographics will be playing out.  After all, what drives the funding of retirement at a DB plan, but aging, where the promised expected payments get closer each day.

Well, same thing for individuals.  Every day that passes brings a slow weakening of our bodies and minds.  Dollars not saved today, or bad investment returns mean the PRIER rises, making the probability of attaining goals less achievable.

Now, is there nothing that can be done aside from increasing savings and reducing future plans?  In aggregate, no.  You will have to be someone special to beat the pack, because few do that.  Better you should take the simple solution, which is a humble one: save more, expect less.  For those that do have the talent, you will have to take the risks that few do, and be unconventional.  Note: for every four persons that think they can do this, at best one will succeed.  My own methods are always leaning against what is popular in the markets, and I think that I am one of those few, but it takes work and emotional discipline to do it.

Then again, I have done it, as far as my PRIER is concerned — it is below the rate on 10-year Treasuries.  Most of that is that my goals are modest, aside from putting my eight kids through college, and I am not planning on retiring.

With that, I leave to consider a post I wrote at RealMoney two years ago.  It’s kind of a classic, and Barry Ritholtz e-mailed me to say that he loved it.  Given what we are experiencing lately, it seems prescient.  Here it is:

David Merkel
Make the Money Sweat, Man! We Got Retirements to Fund, and Little Time to do it!
3/28/2006 10:23 AM EST

What prompts this post was a bit of research from the estimable Richard Bernstein of Merrill Lynch, where he showed how correlations of returns in risky asset classes have risen over the past six years. (Get your hands on this one if you can.) Commodities, International Stocks, Hedge Funds, and Small Cap Stocks have become more correlated with US Large Cap Stocks over the past five years. With the exception of commodities, the 5-year correlations are over 90%. I would add in other asset classes as well: credit default, emerging markets, junk bonds, low-quality stocks, the toxic waste of Asset- and Mortgage-backed securities, and private equity. Also, all sectors inside the S&P 500 have become more correlated to the S&P 500, with the exception of consumer staples. In my opinion, this is due to the flood of liquidity seeking high stable returns, which is in turn driven partially by the need to fund the retirements of the baby boomers, and by modern portfolio theory with its mistaken view of risk as variability, rather than probability of loss, and the likely severity thereof. Also, the asset allocators use “brain dead” models that for the most part view the past as prologue, and for the most part project future returns as “the present, but not so much.” Works fine in the middle of a liquidity wave, but lousy at the turning points.

Taking risk to get stable returns is a crowded trade. Asset-specific risk may be lower today in a Modern Portfolio Theory sense. Return variability is low; implied volatilities are for the most part low. But in my opinion, the lack of volatility is hiding an increase in systemic risk. When risky assets have a bad time, they may behave badly as a group.

The only uncorrelated classes at present are cash and bonds (the higher quality the better). If you want diversification in this market, remember fixed income and cash. Oh, and as an aside, think of Municipal bonds, because they are the only fixed income asset class that the flood of foreign liquidity hasn’t touched.

Don’t make aggressive moves rapidly, but my advice is to position your portfolios more conservatively within your risk tolerance.

Position: none