A couple of days ago, I took some time off from working my worry beads about the Euro fiscal crisis, our own impending fiscal cliff and the upcoming, no doubt, contentious election season. I figured all the parties to these events could get along without my fretting them along for one day at least. Instead I just drew a line in the sand at that date and looked back a bit. I am fully aware that it’s not a good idea to use the rear view mirror to anticipate what’s ahead with respect to investing but, once in a while, looking back can provide a certain perspective.
State of The Retirement Nest Egg
Actually, the look in the rear view mirror can be pretty ugly when it comes to the investing landscape. It’s been a rough century so far for those trying to accumulate enough of a nest egg to fund future retirement income. And it’s been even rougher for those already retired, whose portfolios are dependent upon the market value of their investments to safely withdraw income during retirement.
S&P 500 Since 2000
At the turn of this century, at the end of December, 1999, the S&P 500 index stood at 1469.25; at the end of June, 2012 that index closed at 1362.16. That’s a 7.3% decline in value over the most recent 12 ½ years. And the average investor probably spent about another 1% a year in mutual fund and/or advisor fees to achieve something close to that dismal negative result.
Twelve plus years is almost half of the total average retirement period for people. It’s a long time to go without any growth in the value of our investments.
There is one area of investing that is absolutely booming, however, and that facet should be of importance to both retired and soon-to-be-retired investors. Dividends. Boring, old, periodic cash payouts from companies with profits and with managements committed to sharing those profits with all the owners.
Dividends on the S&P
For the 12 years ending December, 2011, dividends on that S&P index, actual cash money paid out by the companies in the index, increased about 56%. And so far this year, dividends by these same companies have increased another 14% over last year. Dividends are on track for an all-time record high year.
Just think about it for a minute. We’ve got a situation where the earnings of the companies have greatly increased over a fairly long period of time and the dividends from these same companies have also correspondingly increased greatly (and actually so has the ratio of dividends paid out to market value) . . . . . BUT the market’s evaluation of your investments has actually decreased.
Now, I ask you, what should we be focused on?
In the S&P 500, there are currently 399 companies that pay a dividend, even though some of those dividends aren’t all that impressive. So far this year, only six months,
- 200 of those companies have raised their dividend an average of 14.5%
- 9 companies have initiated a dividend
- Only three – 3! – have decreased their dividend
- Only one – 1! – has eliminated its dividend.
That’s a pretty significant track record. Those who study market moves say that, over the long run, the market goes up about two-thirds of the time. It doesn’t seem that way to me over the last dozen years but, even if we accept that thesis, the record of dividend payments is a lot steadier and the direction is almost always up. This last half-year is more typical than not.
Many studies have been done on the so-called ‘safe withdrawal rate’ – that’s supposed to be the annual percentage you can withdraw from your retirement nest egg starting on the day you retire such that your money lasts longer than you do. There is some consensus that a withdrawal of 4% of the value of your portfolio in your first retirement year, with that dollar amount increased by 3% each year thereafter for inflation, has a very high probability of lasting 30 years.
Could be. Maybe. It depends.
Income Withdrawal During Retirement: Example Comparison
Consider two different retirement situations where a 4% withdrawal of the starting nest egg is desired and where the market declines 10% in year 1 for both and then increases 10% in year 2 for both.
Case #1: Relying On Equity Growth
Joe has his nest egg invested in equities that pay no dividends. At the end of year 1, his nest egg has declined 10% and he then takes out the $8,000 he needs for income (4% of $200,000). He’s now down to $172,000. But the next year, his stocks go up 10% (to $189,200) and then he withdraws his $8,000. At the end of two years, his nest egg stands at $181,200.
Case #2: Dividend Pay-Outs As Income
Jill has her retirement nest egg invested in equities that pay her a 4% dividend yield. At the end of year 1, her nest egg has declined the same 10% as Joe’s, but the $8,000 she withdraws has been paid to her in dividends throughout the year. She’s now down to $180,000. But the next year, her stocks go up 10%, the same as Joe’s, to $198,000. And because the $8,000 of income she withdraws during her retirement was paid to her in dividends, her nest egg at the end of two years is $198,000.
Big difference. Joe isn’t in nearly as good shape as Jill.
There are those that will say ‘that’s not a valid case study you’ve looked at, you need to assume that the total return of the two different portfolios has the same total return – that is, the percentage total of the increase/decrease in market value plus dividends needs to be equal.’
Don’t you believe it.
Check the numbers. Check the recent history. Check your rear view mirror and see where the real growth has been.
There are rocks. And there are hard places. And then there’s us.
The ‘us’ right now are investors of a certain age who, some years ago, thought that they’d be able to invest in relatively safe vehicles that would provide income, real spending money that could be used in conjunction with social security and maybe a pension to provide for our needs and wants in retirement.
The rock and the hard place we’re now between is the zero interest rate environment – promised to us for at least several more years – and the need for many to supplement their guaranteed retirement income, whatever those sources are.
So, what to do?
We’ve got some choices, certainly. We can’t reduce our needs if we’ve realistically established those, but we can reduce our wants. It may not make us particularly happy to do that but it’s an option.
We can seek additional income by taking a part-time job or engaging in some other free enterprise. That may or may not be in the cards for all of us, depending upon health and our own circumstances. But it’s an option for some.
Once we’re beyond the obvious options of reducing our outgo or increasing our income through our own labor or enterprise, we’re back to figuring out how to squeeze more income out of our nest egg.