First the Disclaimer: This is a thought-provoking article that draws upon real world examples, articles, books and websites that are readily available to the public. This article is not intended to offer investment advice. Any actions that you take in the market place should be the result of your own financial education and consultation with a licensed professional. Financial calculations were accomplished using the savings goal calculator found at Bankrate.com unless otherwise indicated.
When I entered the work force, I was offered a retirement plan, actually I was offered two. My employer was transitioning out of defined benefit plans, i.e. pensions and opting into defined contribution plans, i.e. 401ks. Because I was hired during the transition I was given a choice. I could not see working for any employer for 20 years and since the pension as I understood it was all or none, I opted for the 401K. Little did I know, I became part of a phenomenon initiated by the Federal Government in 1974 when it enacted the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
ERISA was created in the wake of the failure of the Studebaker Corporation in 1963. When Studebaker failed it left a pension that was so badly funded it could not provide benefits for all of its employees. ERISA did two things: 1) It provided regulation of any existing and future pension plans; 2) It provided government insurance of those pension plans in the form of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. ERISA also did something else, it virtually guaranteed a shift away from corporate-sponsored pensions and toward employee-sponsored savings plans. The 401K, intended to be a tax-advantaged benefit to corporate executives, has become the major savings vehicle for retirement for the average worker in America.
Let’s look at that statement. The 401K, intended to be a portable, tax-advantaged benefit to corporate executives, people whose income is generally north of six figures, has become the major savings vehicle for the average American worker, people whose median income is $46,326. ( This figure for median income comes from the US Census and the General Accounting Office.)
Assume the average retiree will need cash assets of one million dollars. One million dollars invested at 5% will earn an income of $50,000 per year without having to draw down the principle. This goal of one million dollars assumes the $300,000 to $500,000 dollars retirees will have to have set aside to cover health care costs. (CNNMonday February 19, 2008 “Most Americans Unprepared for Retirement”) Even if a worker earning the median income only desires to live on sixty percent of his or her working income, he would still have to save $555,912 invested at 5% to earn an income of $27,796. Add in the amount needed for health care and the goal is still one million dollars. The Savings goal calculator at bankrate.com shows that even if a worker earning the median income managed to save $10,000 per year or 21.6% of his gross income, it would take 100 years to reach the estimated million-dollar target needed for a comfortable retirement. In other words this retiree will die of old age while trying to save for retirement. Using bonds or a “high-yield” savings account with an annual percentage yield of 3.6% will put the average American worker within reach in 77 years 11 months almost beyond the average American’s lifespan. He would still die of old age while trying to save for retirement. Add a 50% employer match and the goal is reached in 34 years and 3 months. Well within the estimated forty year working life of the American worker. But an employer match of 50% is virtually unheard of. A true 50% match of 50 cents per employee dollar invested does not exist. The 401Khelpcenter reviews the common matching plans available to people who save through their 401Ks.
Because amassing the funds necessary for a comfortable retirement is virtually impossible through savings alone, employees must seek vehicles capable of higher returns in order to reach their retirement goals.
In steps the Stock Market, promising higher returns than stodgy old bonds, and money market accounts; hence, the stock market became the destination of choice for retirement savings and Wall Street responded by increasing the offerings to retail consumers through Mutual Funds. Before the year 2000 it was not uncommon to hear that the S&P returned 16% over the previous 10 years. Looking at the returns of one of the best known indexed mutual funds, the Vanguard 500, returns since its 1976 inception are 11.75%, impressive until you look at the 1 year return, -2.41%, the 5 year return, 11.89% and the 10 year return 5.06%. These are average returns not real returns. As an example let’s look at the growth of 1 dollar in the mythical High Fly Fund. High Fly posts a 50% gain in one year and your dollar grows to $1.50. The next year it posts a 25% loss, now your investment is worth $1.125. The average return for High Fly reported by the mutual company is 12.5%, but that is not your actual return. Your actual return or compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is in the neighborhood of 6% per year worse if you factor in inflation.
Is 6% acceptable given the risk that investors take on by investing in the stock market? David F. Swenson, CIO of the Yale Endowment explains investor risk in his book, Unconventional Success, when he states: “Because equity owners get paid after corporations satisfy all other claimants, equity ownership represents a residual interest. As such stockholders occupy a riskier position than, say, corporate lenders who enjoy a superior position in a company’s capital structure.” He goes on to say “the 5.0 percentage point difference between stock and bond returns represents the historical risk premium, defined as the return to equity holders for accepting risk above the level inherent in bond investments.” Mr. Swenson’s comments and calculations of the risk premium were based on a compound annual return of 10.4% in the stock market compared with 5% bond yields. 10.4%-5% equals a risk premium of 5.4%. Unfortunately I have yet to find a calculation of CAGR (compound annual growth rate) that matches Mr. Swenson’s. I found many examples of average returns that match the 10.4% average growth rate but not the CAGR. The reason that this is important is that all other savings vehicles are quoted by the CAGR. Your savings accounts, bonds and money market account are all quoted by the CAGR or its equivalent, the annual percentage yield (APY). In order to determine where to allocate your funds, you must compare apples to apples not apples to oranges. As you might guess the CAGR for the stock market is lower.
A quick look at the CAGR calculator for the stock market on moneychimp.com shows the average return from January 1, 1975 to December 31, 2007 to be 9.71%. You only realized that return if you were invested in the market the entire time. What if you began investing in 1980? The numbers look about the same. If you started in 1985 your returns look a little better. By 1990 the CAGR drops to 8.21%. If you started in 1995 your CAGR jumps to 9.32%. If you began investing in 2000 your CAGR drops to minus 0.06%! If you eliminate the results of the past 7 years from the S&P performance and track performance from January 1, 1975 to December 31, 1999 the CAGR was 13.03%. When the stock market is good it is great, when it is bad, it is pretty darn miserable. For the record, there has been only one 9 year period from January 1, 1950 to December 31, 2007 in which the average return for the S&P was 16.14% and the CAGR was 15.32%: the period from January 1, 1990 thru December 31, 1999.
It should be clear from these numbers that your returns are dependent not only on how long you are invested in the markets but when you started investing. In fact the stodgy old bond investor has outperformed the stock investor over the past 7 years.
The 1990’s investor will have a very different view of market performance than the 2000’s investor.
Mr. Swenson’s book is a must read for anyone investing in mutual funds, he makes a compelling case, explaining why actively managed mutual funds are generally a money losing proposition for investors and why a balanced portfolio based on six solid asset classes constitutes the winning combination for investors.
How can I call the stock market the second biggest financial scam of the twentieth century if I am quoting numbers that are on the face of it pretty good? For four reasons: 1) because the true CAGR going back to 1950 is much lower 7.47%. It will take the average American worker 25 years and one month saving $10,000 per year to accumulate one million dollars in wealth as long as the market achieves CAGR of 9.71% and in 29 years 2 months if forced to accept the longer term returns of the market. These numbers leave very little margin for error for the average American worker. Retirement projections for the most part are based on returns that have existed at only one point in the stock market’s history since 1950; 2) because the same laws that facilitate the transfer of individual investor money into the stock market also mandate its withdrawal at a specific time which is tantamount to what all financial pundits have called a money losing strategy, Market Timing. In other words the laws governing tax-deferred savings mandate that withdrawals begin at age 70 and a half at the latest forcing retirees to time the market to determine their exit; 3) the time horizon for capturing meaningful gains from the market is long indeed, at least 30 years. To quote Mr. Swenson, “Returns of bonds and cash may exceed returns of stocks for years on end. For example from the market peak in October 1929, it took stock investors fully twenty-one years and three months to match returns generated by bond investors.”
Charles Farrell, an adviser with Denver’s Northstar Investment Advisors, used data from Morningstar’s Ibbotson and Associates to analyze 52 rolling 30-year periods, starting with 1926 to 1955 and ending with 1977 to 2006 “But here’s what’s interesting: The Majority of your wealth would almost always have come in the last 10 years. Mr. Farrell calculates that, on average, you would have notched 8% of your final wealth after the first decade and 32% after the second. In other words, 68% of the total sum accumulated was amassed in the last 10 years.” (Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Clements November 21, 2007); 4) because current marketing strategies by financial pundits, gurus and Wall Street treat stock market investing as a money in, money out proposition obscuring the true risks of investing and the true time horizon needed to accumulate wealth. In other words, the money needed for retirement must be invested for an extended period of time, roughly 30 years. It cannot be borrowed against. It cannot be used to buy a home, car, pay for college or a child’s wedding.
It can only be used for retirement 30 years hence. Any other needs must be paid for from an additional source other than retirement savings. Most people lack the financial education to understand this and blindly chase market returns hoping for a big score.
Fortunately there is a simple solution, but like most simple solutions this one requires work and financial education. I will introduce this simple solution in part 3 of this series.