Guaranteed income even more valuable in times of market chaos: Alexandra Macqueen

Save with SPP recently had a chance to ask retirement expert Alexandra Macqueen, co-author of Pensionize Your Nest Egg  and a frequent financial blogger, for her thoughts on the state of retirement in Canada.

Q: Can you expand a bit about why annuities may start looking more appealing to retirees and and those who are soon to be retired? Is it because the markets are so volatile and negative due to the pandemic? And the idea that you have a steady lifetime income (with an annuity)?

I have two reasons for thinking annuities might start looking more appealing to today’s and tomorrow’s retirees ­– one practical and one more theoretical.

The first, practical reason is just that when markets decline precipitously – like we’re seeing now with the COVID-19 pandemic – then the value of a secure, guaranteed income that is protected from market risk is more appealing.

My own feeling is that over time, the economic effects from the COVID-19 pandemic will be viewed differently than the last big market event, the global financial crisis.

The 2008-09 financial crisis was much more constrained to a single (albeit big) sector: “finance.” The pandemic, in contrast, stands to upend so much more than the financial world and I think that, over the long term, it could reorient how we think about income and risk in retirement. Of course, it’s easy to make predictions; only time will tell!

The second, more theoretical reason is that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed what you might call the “volatility of longevity” – and somewhat counterintuitively, if longevity is MORE uncertain, people should be willing to pay MORE to hedge that risk.

If your house was at increased risk of burning down, for example, you would pay more for fire insurance – but you would also value that insurance more, because you know you were at increased chance of actually needing it!

So even though the COVID-19 pandemic might actually “decrease” life expectancy “on average,” it also increases the range of possible outcomes (I might live fewer years than before the pandemic, and the uncertainty about how long I may live has increased).

In theory (but maybe not in practice), this means people “should” be more willing to “insure” against the uncertainty, and annuities are the most efficient way to do so.

Q. Do you think people may stay away from equities and look more at bonds, GICs, and that sort of thing for the same reasons – fear of market volatility?

Yes, but with rates near zero – and potentially going even below zero – it’s hard to make bonds and GICs work for retirement income. You get security, but very, very low yields.

For people who are risk-averse (many of us!), the solution isn’t to load up on more equities. What are the alternatives? If you’re looking at products with similar guarantees to GICs, then annuities again should be on your radar screen – and annuity yields, especially at more advanced ages, compare very favourably to GICs.

Q. The ideas in your recent MoneySense article about people working later, and being less likely to retire early, were great. Do you feel work will be harder to find, jobs harder to keep, so it’s less likely that folks will leave at 55 because they may have nothing to go back to in this market? Could you expand a bit on why you think folks won’t retire the way they have been?

Here, what I’m thinking about is that for years I’ve heard people say, “if my retirement doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to work in some capacity.” But what if you’re not able to “go back to work,” because there’s no work to go back to?

It will take a long time for the effects of the pandemic to be felt in all areas of society, including work – but my thinking is that the “easy” fallback of “I’ll find work” will no longer be available. And if that’s the case, people may think longer and harder about leaving the work situations they’ve got. More uncertainty – about work, about income, about home values, about longevity – equals fewer changes and less risk-taking.

Q. We love the idea of more focus on debt, and less assumption on “harvesting” the value of the house. Hopefully this won’t lead to more reverse mortgages, but do you think we are seeing the end of the tendency for boomers to fund their lives with home equity lines of credit (HELOCs)? 

It feels like all eyes are on “what will happen with home values” right now!

There are two ways that “funding our lives with HELOCs” might end: home values might drop, so that the value isn’t there to “harvest,” and lending standards might tighten, so that HELOCs aren’t available even if the value theoretically is.

I’ve been hearing about tightening lending standards for HELOCs in recent weeks – meaning lenders may be “calling” the loan, or “tightening” the lending terms (often this looks like reducing the amount of available credit).

There doesn’t seem to be any consensus about the future direction of home prices. I feel as though for every article I read suggesting values will drop, I read another saying values will hold steady. And keep in mind that in Canada’s large markets, even a reasonably large “drop” in value will just take prices back a few years.

The rise in home values that we’ve seen in the last decade or so – particularly in the GTA and the GVA – have no historical precedent. I don’t think we, as a society, have collectively grappled with how to integrate what economists might call this “shock” into our personal financial plans. The growth in home equity is a positive shock, but a shock nonetheless! In this area, like in so many others, I think we will need to wait and see what trends emerge. It may be that lenders make the decision for homeowners to put an end to using your house “like an ATM.”

Q. Do you have any other thoughts?

My main thought is that it’s really important to recognize the diversity of situations that people entering retirement are in.

It’s very tempting to provide generalized advice based on preconceptions about what retirement is and what “retirees” are like. But retirees and soon-to-be retirees are an incredibly diverse group, with varying views on what they need and want in life, and retirees enter the retirement stage of life with highly varied situations, from their health status to their expectations about how long they’ll live and what they’ll do in retirement.

“Retirement” as we know it is a fairly young concept, and so much has changed since the idea of retirement was first introduced. We’ve collectively never been here before, with so many people transitioning into the retirement phase – which is itself changing under our feet. Thinking about and digging into what “retirement” means is what gets me up in the morning! I’ll never get tired of wondering what life has to offer.

We thank Alexandra Macqueen very much for taking the time to answer Save with SPP’s questions!

If you haven’t thought about including annuities in your retirement plans, a fact to be aware of is that if you are a member of the Saskatchewan Pension Plan, you will be able to choose from a number of life annuity options when it’s time to turn your savings into income. Check out SPP today!

Written by Martin Biefer
Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. A veteran reporter, editor and pension communicator, he’s now a freelancer. Interests include golf, line dancing and classic rock. He and his wife live with their Shelties, Duncan and Phoebe, and cat, Toobins. You can follow him on Twitter – his handle is @AveryKerr22

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