The Retirement Distribution “Hatchet”: Using Risk-Based Guardrails To Project Sustainable Cash Flows

The Retirement Distribution “Hatchet”: Using Risk-Based Guardrails To Project Sustainable Cash Flows

One of the questions retirees often have is how much they can afford to spend each year over the course of their retirement without depleting their portfolio during their lifetimes, and financial advisors have many tools to aid in this discussion. One classic technique is the use of withdrawal rates; based on asset allocation and historical return data, advisors can calculate a safe annual portfolio withdrawal rate that retirees can use to guide their spending throughout their retirement. However, this approach does not account for the investment returns the clients actually experience in their retirement; for example, the safe withdrawal rate could increase over time if the client experiences strong investment returns in their first few years of retirement.

To solve this problem, advisors can use withdrawal-rate guardrails, which are guidelines to increase or decrease spending when portfolio withdrawal rates reach certain levels. For example, if an initial 4% withdrawal rate calls for $5,000 in monthly spending, the spending amount could be adjusted higher if it reaches 2% of the portfolio value or lower if it hits 6%. Yet, withdrawal-rate guardrails can be flawed because the relatively steady withdrawal rate patterns used do not necessarily align with how retirees actually pull distributions from a portfolio in retirement.

In reality, what is more commonly seen is a “retirement distribution hatchet” in which the initial retirement distribution rates from a portfolio are highest early in retirement, then significantly decline when deferred Social Security is claimed (as late as age 70), and falling further yet because of the tendency for retirees’ spending to decline in real dollars as they move through retirement. A dynamic portfolio withdrawal strategy should also consider other sources of income in retirement (e.g., pensions, rental properties, part-time jobs, house downsizing, and inheritances) that can impact the size of needed portfolio withdrawals to cover spending requirements.

To compensate for this issue, advisors can consider using holistic risk-based guardrails, which reflect current longevity expectations, expected future cash flows, expected future (real) income changes, and other factors. Probability of success via traditional Monte Carlo analysis can serve as the risk metric to guide the implementation of risk-based guardrails. There is a risk of causing anxiety for clients if the risk is presented in terms of the success or failure of their plan as a whole, but advisors can instead use the language of income risk, which may be less stress-inducing. For example, an advisor could explain that if risk increases (e.g., if investment returns are weak), downward adjustments to spending will be needed; alternatively, if risk declines (e.g., because the client has reached an advanced age with a strong portfolio) spending can be safely increased.

Ultimately, the key point is that a risk-based guardrails model can provide clients with a more accurate picture of how much they can sustainably spend than can models based on static withdrawal rates or withdrawal-rate guardrails. While risk-based guardrails can be less efficient to calculate manually than withdrawal-rate guardrails because of the many factors considered in the risk-based model, when properly assisted by technology, risk-based guardrails can be implemented and maintained as efficiently as withdrawal-rate guardrails. And, given how different the retirement distribution hatchet is from the distribution patterns assumed by withdrawal-rate guardrails, the movement from withdrawal-rate guardrails to risk-based guardrails represents a significant improvement in planning quality for retirees!

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