Annuities

No “magic formula” for decumulation, but frugality and realism help retirees: Dr. John Por

April 29, 2021

Recently, Save with SPP got an opportunity to speak with long-time pension expert Dr. John Por, whose 40-year career in pensions includes consulting work with large U.S. and Canadian pension boards and offering expertise on pension risk policy. He has also researched the tricky “decumulation” stage in which savings are turned into retirement income.

Our far-ranging interview covered decumulation, spending in retirement, frugality, advice on saving for retirement, and annuities.

Decumulation

Dr. Por says common mistakes with decumulation – the stage where retirement savings are used to provide retirement income – can include problematic asset allocation, lack of appropriate goal setting, high investment costs and, often, setting a withdrawal rate that’s too high or taking out too much money early in retirement.

So is there a correct withdrawal rate?

“At one point in time, maybe 20-25 years ago, four per cent was said to be the right withdrawal rate,” he explains.

Decumulation “depends on future interest rates, the stock markets, inflation, life expectancy and income needs,” says Dr. Por. A “correct” rate “is therefore unknowable.”

“It depends on the reigning circumstances, both personal and market,” he explains. “Who could have predicted, even five years ago, the current existing zero or the negative real rate of bond returns?”

“The problem is, though we desperately want to find a magic formula, how can you do this – we don’t know how it will be (in the future); no one knows.”

Noting the volatility in the stock markets in just the last couple of years, he notes that “even a Nobel Prize winner professed not knowing where the markets will go in the next 10 years, or how to invest your money after retirement.”

“This, of course, has not kept the retirement or investment industry from providing copious, and often prudent, advice, it simply means that looking for a, or the, magic bullet, or the infallible sage, will not be successful,” he adds.

Spending in retirement

While decumulation carries a lot of unknowns, much more is known about how much retirees actually need, Dr. Por says.

He says research by noted pension actuary Malcolm Hamilton shows that people need far less “replacement income” in retirement than the 75 per cent figure bandied about by the industry. 

Hamilton has for many years said the research suggests not everyone needs to save “heavily” for retirement, because of the existence of government income programs for retirees and lower costs once you are retired. (Here’s a link to a Globe and Mail interview with Malcolm Hamilton.)

Dr. Por agrees, calling an overall 75 per cent rule “misguided.”

“While this may be true for low-income people, they are supported by the above-mentioned government programs, so for them the 75 per cent is not a stretch, people at higher income levels are not likely to need 75 per cent of their earned income to pursue an age-appropriate lifestyle,” he says.

“One of the most important steps to understanding (retirement spending) is… knowing how much money you need to survive,” Dr. Por explains.

Rather than going through “painful” pre-retirement budget forecasting, he recommends a simpler approach.

“How much do you save in a month? If the answer is zero, your retirement budget will be what you spend now, minus what you won’t have to pay in retirement.” This can include things like your mortgage, tax savings when you earn less, childcare and education expenses, Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance, and so on. 

It’s a common-sense issue, he says. Individuals must decide “how much is necessary (spending) versus how much you would like to have.”

This knowledge is crucial for retirees, who have extremely limited options in dealing with income shortfalls, he explains. 

Working Canadians needing more money could “work harder – get a job that pays better, spend less, save more, take more investment risks, etc.… but when you are retired, you don’t have the same tools,” he explains.

 “Lifestyle becomes the main tool, you can cut back on your lifestyle (to save money), which is difficult,” he says. “Another tool still at your disposal is taking on more investment risk in retirement, but, if you’re not successful, it would easily lead to a further diminished lifestyle,” Dr. Por adds.

Frugality 

At 74, Dr. Por says he is “still engaged” and “living frugally.”

In this context, he defines frugality as bringing your lifestyle and realistic earning capability (and not your hoped-for future earnings) into a healthy balance. 

Living frugally is a key way to make your money last longer, and also that when in financial trouble, the cutback would be smaller thus less painful. Big expenses in the early years of retirement should be avoided, he says, because you may need your retirement savings for decades. “

While at age 65 it is hard to envisage how long you may live” he explains, “you may easily live beyond age 90.”

For example, he adds, if you are married, “the probability that either you or your spouse will live to age 93 is about 50 per cent. You can live for a very, very long time.” 

Working after retirement is a way to support your retirement spending and to keep your mind active, he says.

“Some people still work part-time after they stop working full time. You don’t realize how important your work is … not that many people spend their time well in retirement,” he says.

“Apart from the income work provides, it also structures your day, can add meaning to your existence after retirement (admittedly not everybody needs it), and equally important, it helps you maintain your links with the outside world and friends,” he says. His observation is that most people (especially men) form the majority of their extra-family relationships through work, and once they retired such contacts tend to fade away over time,” he says.

Dr. Por recommends that everyone consider living frugally at any age; he sees it as a great lifetime habit to get into.

Saving for retirement

While some people suggest you should save for retirement from early in life until the end of your career, Dr. Por says that view isn’t usually realistic.

“You can’t save in your 30s and 40s – you are paying for your kids’ education, your mortgage. So, save what you can, if you can, but (know) you may not be able to,” he advises. “No heroism is called for, as you also have to live a reasonable life.”

The optimum time to save “is in your 50s, and then, you can save 20 to 40 per cent,” he says. By then, “your children will be out in the world, your mortgage is paid… you can save.”

For savers, equities add the most value, but of course, it depends on the environment you happen to fall into. Bonds don’t provide as much income and growth, Dr. Por explains.

Pay close attention to investment fees, he advises. “With exchange-traded funds (ETFs), you can control costs – the management expense ratios are low.” However, financial advisers may not suggest this investment because they can make higher commissions on other products, Dr. Por says.

“Even a fee of one percent can, over 30 years, reduce your available assets significantly,” he says.

What you want to avoid is being forced to sell securities when the market is down, thus Dr. Por likes the concept of having a cash reserve to tide you through periods of market decline. 

“If you take on extra risk… by putting more money into equities, you should also have a cash reserve fund worth three to five years of spending,” he says. If equities perform well, you may wish to extend such cash reserves to cover longer periods. Overall, Dr. Por says, a chief problem with retirement saving is that most people “look at it as an investment issue,” and become focused on today’s investment risks, interest rates, equity return rates, and so on. Instead, you should be thinking about the income your investments will generate when you stop working. 

What’s going on today with investment risks and other factors “is not relevant 30 to 50 years out,” when you will be drawing income from your investments, he advises. Your focus should be on that long term, and not on volatility or return rates in a given year, Dr. Por says.

Annuities

Dr. Por talked about the “annuity paradox”. While financial experts like annuities, most people refuse to follow such advice. Most people shy away from the idea of taking a large lump sum of money – say $1.5 million – and turning it into an annuity that pays $60,000 a year. He noted that when he mentioned the concept to his wife (a highly educated professional, an MD), she refused the idea saying that “… if we die soon for whatever reason the children will get nothing.”

Also, retired people want to have cash available for future expenses, and, not always unreasonably, are afraid of inflation, and the potential extinction of the financial institution, which issued the annuity. 

But, he added, “annuities later in life is a good idea”. When you are getting too old to run your money – say by your late 70s or 80s – that’s the time to consider an annuity, he says. The older you are when you convert to an annuity, the cheaper the annuity is to buy. And today’s low interest rates make the conversion to annuities expensive. “The interesting phenomenon is though”, he added, “that when interest rates were exceptionally high, say in the late 1990ies, people still did not buy annuities, nor did the advisers promote the idea.”

Finally, he noted the importance of discipline. He speaks from experience, and says that had he followed all the major precepts mentioned in this piece, he would be now in a much better financial position himself. “Know your needs, be prudent in your expectations, live frugally, create a plan or direction and stick to it while making adjustments, if needed,” he advises.  

We thank Dr. Por for taking the time to speak with us.

Celebrating 35 years of operations, the Saskatchewan Pension Plan is a full-service retirement plan. SPP will invest the money you contribute, and at the time you retire, gives you the option of converting your invested savings into a lifetime annuity. Why not 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, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.


Nov 23: Best from the blogosphere

November 23, 2020

An old idea makes a comeback – annuities

An investment idea for retirees that you don’t hear about as often as you used to seems to be making a comeback.

A recent article in Investment Executive suggests that today’s volatile markets and uncertain economy may be perfect conditions for some of us to consider buying annuities.

An annuity is a product you purchase with all or part of your retirement savings. Once purchased, the annuity pays you a monthly amount for the rest of your life – a guaranteed amount that doesn’t change, even if markets decline. They were much more common decades ago when interest rates were high.

“Annuities are one of the best ways to plan for retirement if you are worried about volatility in the market, feel you will run out of money before you die and do not want to manage the investments,” states Markham, Ont. financial planner Ahilan Balachandran in the Investment Executive article.

He does point out that the current low-interest rate environment is not generally favourable for annuity purchases, since you basically “lock in” at a low interest rate. Annuities provide higher payouts when interest rates are higher, he explains in the article.

But it’s not all about interest rates, points out another financial expert.

“After 35 years of being in the business of selling annuities, I conclude that rates are not the primary consideration for a person to purchase an annuity,” states White Rock, B.C. annuity broker John Beaton in the article. “People are not as worried about interest rates as they are about establishing a lifetime stream of income.”

He tells Investment Executive that annuities offer “peace of mind” for retirees.

“Some people understand that a time will come when they will suffer from diminished capacity to handle their affairs. Not having to worry about how things will be paid is more important,” Beaton tells the magazine.

And Burlington, Ont. investment advisor Jim Ruta says while interest rates may be low, there are other reasons to think of an annuity.

Now that markets are so uncertain, he states in the article, “you can guarantee yourself a multiple of what interest rates are with an annuity.”

This is a somewhat complex topic. We tend to confuse retirement savings with wealth generation – for many of us, our retirement savings are the biggest chunk of cash we have. It’s never easy to think about trading some or all of that nest egg for the security of a monthly, set income.

But an annuity is a way to “pensionize” some of your savings. You saved all this money to provide future income, an annuity allows you to get a monthly pension – for life – from your savings. If you invest your retirement savings and draw it down each year, there’s a risk you can outlive that lump sum amount. That risk disappears if you have purchased an annuity.

The Saskatchewan Pension Plan (SPP) offers you a wide variety of annuity choices when the time comes to convert savings to an income stream. The SPP pensions page has details on SPP’s annuity options.

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, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.


The “baffling unpopularity” of annuities

January 31, 2019

What if there was a way to convert some or all of the money you’ve saved up for retirement into cash for life – monthly payments for as long as you live?

And once you made this conversion, you’d no longer have to make any investment decisions for this money; you’d just have to trot over to the Super Mailbox each month to collect a cheque.

There is just such a product, the annuity, but for some reason, it’s not something people choose very often. Writing in MoneySense, David Aston calls annuities “the best retirement product that hardly anyone buys,” adding that they amount to a sort of do-it-yourself defined benefit (DB) plan.

“Like DB pensions, (annuities) provide guaranteed income for as long as you live. But while employer pensions are considered the gold standard of retirement income plans, few Canadians ever think about annuities,” writes Aston, calling their unpopularity “baffling.”

Aston says that for some people, such as those with wealth or who have DB pensions from work, an annuity is probably not necessary. And others don’t like the idea of “their finality – once you give your cash to the insurance company, you’re locked in for life.” There’s no more “growth potential” for this investment and you can’t tap into it for lump sum amounts, he explains.

But, says Aston, they are ideal for cash flow. Many people buy an annuity which, along with government pensions, “meets all your non-discretionary needs,” such as keeping the lights on, the furnace going, and the rent paid via the steady, predictable and guaranteed income. And if you convert part of your retirement savings to an annuity, you can “afford to take more risks with the rest of your portfolio.”

One would imagine that those who took out annuities prior to the market downturn in 2008 are happy with their choice, because while you may miss out on investment gains, you also miss out on investment losses with an annuity.

In a video posted to Save with SPP, Moshe Milevsky, Professor of Finance at York University’s Schulich School of Business, calls annuities “insurance against something that is really a blessing, longevity.” Because the annuity pays you for life, you can never run out of money, he notes.

Writing in the Globe and Mail financial columnist Rob Carrick notes that unlike withdrawing money from a RRIF or other vehicle, the withholding tax on an annuity is not automatically deducted but is taxed the same as regular income, he explains.

He reports that a good time to consider buying an annuity is when you are older. “The later you buy, the shorter the period of time the insurer selling an annuity expects to have to pay you. As a result, payments are higher than they would be if you bought at a younger age,” he explains.

The cost of an annuity depends on current interest rates, which have been quite low for a while but are rising, which is good news for annuity buyers.

The Saskatchewan Pension Plan (SPP) is somewhat unique in that it can convert your savings into an annuity. They offer four different kinds of guaranteed annuities, and your money continues to be invested by SPP while you sit back and wait for the monthly cheque. For full details, check out the Retirement Options chapter in the SPP Retirement Guide.

Written by Martin Biefer
Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. After a 35-year career as a reporter, editor and pension communicator, Martin is enjoying life as a freelance writer. He’s a mediocre golfer, hopeful darts player and beginner line dancer who enjoys classic rock and sports, especially football. He and his wife Laura live with their Sheltie, Duncan, and their cat, Toobins. You can follow him on Twitter – his handle is @AveryKerr22

Another Look At Life Annuities (Part 2)

December 25, 2014

By Sheryl Smolkin

If you are considering purchasing a life annuity using funds in your registered (RRSP, RRIF, LIRA, RPP) or unregistered accounts (Savings Accounts, GIC, TFSA, etc) you will need to consider what features to select and how your decision will impact the level of benefits you receive.

For example, a life annuity may be:

  • A single life annuity based only on the age of one annuitant.
  • A joint and survivor annuity that pays a portion of the benefit (i.e. 60%) until the death of the surviving spouse.
  • A single or joint and survivor annuity that guarantees payments for a specific period (i.e. 10 years).
  • A deferred annuity that does not start paying monthly benefits in the same year the annuity is purchased.

Other more specialized annuities include term certain or fixed term annuities, guaranteed annuities with cash back features, impaired and child inheritance annuities. You can read about them here.

To give you an idea how the nature of an annuity can impact your monthly benefits, I got a series of quotes from the RetirementAdvisor.ca Standard Annuity Calculator on October 28, 2014 which I summarized in the table below. In all cases it is assumed that a lump sum of $100,000 was used to purchase an annuity and when invested by the insurance company, the lump sum earned 4%.

While these quotes assume the primary annuitant is female and the second annuitant is male, when a male and female of the same age purchase individual life annuities, the male will receive a slightly higher periodic payment than the female because the male’s life expectancy is shorter.

Table 1: Annuity Purchase quotes

Single life Joint Single Life, COLA Joint, COLA Single, 10 yr, COLA
Gender of primary annuitant F F F F F
Age purchased 65 65 65 65 65
Age payouts begin 65 65 65 65 65
Gender of joint annuitant M M
Age when annuity purchased 65 65
Cost of living increases (COLA) X X X
10 yr. guaranteed payments X
% Payable to 2nd annuitant when 1st dies 60% 60%
MONTHLY BENEFIT $637 $592 $522 $481 $503
Joint, 10 yr, COLA Single, 10 yr, COLA Age 71 start Joint, 10 yr, COLA Age 71 start Single, 10 yr, COLA Age 80 start Joint, 10 yr, COLA Age 80 start
Gender of primary annuitant F F F F F
Age purchased 65 65 65 65 65
Age payouts begin 65 71 71 80 80
Gender of joint annuitant M M M
Age when annuity purchased 65 65 65
Cost of living increases (COLA) X X X X X
10 yr. guaranteed payments X X X X X
% Payable to 2nd annuitant when 1st dies 60% 60% 60%
MONTHLY BENEFIT $473 $762 $719 $1,401 $1,355

Source: RetirementAdvisor.ca calculator as of October 28, 2014. Assumption: $100,000 lump sum purchase earns 4%.

It is apparent that the stripped down single life annuity pays a higher monthly amount ($637) than single or joint annuities with various combinations of guarantee periods and COLAs.

Benefit payments also increase significantly if the annuity payouts are deferred to age 71 ($762, single; $719, joint) even with a 10 year guarantee and COLAs. The payments are even higher payment if an annuity with the same features is deferred to age 80 ($1,401 single; $1,355 joint).

Furthermore, annuity payouts also vary as between insurance companies. For example, you can find current quotes from a series of insurance companies for single life annuities on a premium of $100,000 based on a guaranteed period of 5 years for both males and females on the Morningstar Canada website.

Receiving monthly annuity benefits in retirement can give you peace of mind. However, the monthly benefit you can purchase for any given lump sum varies considerable depending on the type of annuity you select, the age when you purchase the annuity, the age you begin collecting benefits and the interest rate assumptions.

Your financial advisor or an annuity broker can get quotes tailored to your situation that will help you to get the features you need for the best possible price.

You can also use your SPP balance to purchase a life annuity directly from the plan. For more information about SPP annuities, take a look at Understanding SPP annuities. Because you purchase the annuity directly from SPP, there are no commissions or referral fees and you can be sure you are getting competitive rates.

 


Another Look At Life Annuities (Part 1)

December 18, 2014

By Sheryl Smolkin

Receiving a regular paycheque makes it easy to budget. The amount that appears in your bank account every month is what you have available to spend on necessary and discretionary items.

But once you retire and have to figure out how to make your lump sum savings last for the rest of your life, budgeting isn’t as easy. How much can you afford to spend? What if your investments earn less than you expected when you set up a withdrawal plan?

One way to add financial certainty is to buy a life annuity with all or a part of your retirement savings. A life annuity is purchased from an insurance company for a lump sum amount and it guarantees that you will receive a set monthly amount for life (unless the annuity is indexed).

While payments from a basic life annuity typically end when you die, at an additional cost you can add provisions like a guarantee period (i.e. payments will be made for a minimum of 10 years even if you die) or a joint and survivor feature that will continue to pay out until the death of the last spouse.

Annuities are purchased from licensed life insurance agents representing insurance companies. Life insurance agents are compensated by commissions that are factored into the cost of the annuity.

Life annuities have got a bad rap in recent years because with lower interest rates they are more expensive to purchase. Also, many people do not like the idea that they lose control of their money and that upon the death of the last annuitant or the expiry of the guaranteed payment period, the principal will not revert to their estate.

However, the upside of an annuity purchase is that if you live beyond the age that it is assumed you will live to when the original annuity purchase is made, your return on investment could be much higher than if you invested the money yourself.

If you purchase an annuity with funds from a registered plan (i.e. SPP, RRSP, DC pension plan) you must begin receiving payments by the end of the year you turn 71. Because all of the money in your account has been tax-sheltered, the full amount you receive monthly will be taxed at your incremental rate.

In contrast, you can purchase an immediate or deferred annuity from a non-registered account. For example, at age 65 you could opt to manage a portion of your money for the next 15 years, but use a lump sum to purchase a life annuity beginning at age 80. Your monthly payments will be higher than if the annuity started at age 65. Furthermore, only a portion of the benefit representing investment earnings after the purchase will be taxed.

You can use the RetirementAdvisor.ca Standard Annuity Calculator (or other similar online calculators) to model either the size of the lump sum it will take to generate a specific monthly benefit or the amount of the monthly benefit a specific lump sum will generate.

Monthly benefits you receive from the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security or a defined benefit pension plan are in effect, life annuities. Depending on your expected expenses and the amount of savings you have available, you may decide you do not need additional annuity income.

In the conclusion to his 2013 book “Life Annuities: An Optimal Product for Retirement Income”[1], Moshe Milevsky, Associate Professor of Finance at York University’s Schulich School of Business notes the following:

“Behavioural evidence is growing that retirees (and seniors) who are receiving a life annuity income are happier and more content with their financial condition in retirement than those receiving equivalent levels of income from other (fully liquid) sources, such as dividends, interest, and systematic withdrawal plans. Indeed, with growing concerns about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in an aging population, automating the retiree’s income stream at the highest possible level—which is partly what a pension life annuity is all about—will become exceedingly important and valuable.”

If you have rejected an annuity purchase in the past or if you have never seriously considered investing in a retirement annuity, it may be time to take another look.

You can also use your SPP balance to purchase a life annuity directly from the plan. For more information about SPP annuities, take a look at Understanding SPP annuities. Because you purchase the annuity directly from SPP, there are no commissions or referral fees and you can be sure you are getting competitive rates.

[1] This book can be downloaded in pdf and ebook format at no cost.