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The Stock Market and Retirees

Perhaps the group most at risk during the current period of financial markets turmoil are retirees or near-retirees. Unlike younger generations, this generation cannot afford to wait for stocks to rebound in the "long-term".

For retirees, financial ruin means that they outlive their assets. The largest risk of financial ruin for retirees lies in the stock market. If a retiree is forced to liquidate assets during a down stock market cycle, the results could be devastating.

Here is why. Many financial advisors will use an average annual 4% withdrawal rate for retirees from their pool of assets, which is a reasonable assumption. Now using this assumption, let's look at the prior bear market cycle to the current one.

For 17 years, beginning in 1966, the stock market was flat and the economy experienced the highest inflation on record. There are few financial advisors who use this period for their glossy illustrations. Here is why they don't.

According to William Bernstein's 2002 book - "Four Pillars of Investing" - NO asset allocation model avoided bankruptcy when a 4% withdrawal rate is applied to a $1 million portfolio using stock market returns from that time period! Simply stated, if retirees were in the stock market at that time with a large portion of their assets, they were wiped out.

We may perhaps be facing a similar time period and most retirees were ill prepared for the current bear market. Data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute showed that more than 30% of rear-retirees or those in their early retirement years had more than 80% of their money invested in stocks at the beginning of the current crisis.

According to mutual fund firm T. Rowe Price, if a person gets negative returns in the first five years after retirement, the odds of outliving your money over the next 30 years more than double from 26% to 57%. Unfortunately, I'm sure there are many retirees who now fall into that category.

The problem is that both retirees and their financial advisors made a mistake which is very common in all human beings. Human beings have a tendency to extrapolate whatever the current trends are indefinitely into the future. Think California housing bubble.

People expected the good times to continue and for the bull market in stocks to go on and on. Obviously, it did not. Any person approaching their retirement years with a nest egg today should keep in mind the lesson from the last bear market - that any investor liquidating principal in a down market can't rely on the "long-term" to bail them out.

Please feel free to contact me directly with comments or questions about this article.


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