Making the right assumptions about future rates of return is critical.
Investment returns assumptions can be an Achilles' heel in retirement analysis, and standardization is yet to emerge, even in the academic research. For instance, Gustafson, Boldt, and Bird (2005) base their discussion on historical returns from 1926-2003, with unexplained adjustment, and Ervin, Faulk, and Smolira (2009) make similar assumptions with a later version of the Ibbotson's Yearbook. Others go back even further, like Basu and Drew's 2009 study which uses the 1900-2004 interval. Phau (2011) also analyzes this longer period, but notes that the consideration of only US data perhaps results in overly optimistic assumptions when compared to results from other countries' markets, which may perhaps presage the next US equities era, to retirees' detriment.
Other, later work uses more modern periods (Schleef&Eisinger, 2011, 1970-2008), and some (Phau, Jan. 2012) suggest methodology for advisors to insert their own market returns assumptions into their retirement planning calculus.
There are several profound problems with using historical data as a projection foundation. The first is data quality. It seems quite likely that the further back one reaches, the greater the chance that error, incompleteness, or quanta definition (how are earnings defined, for instance, or was that a dividend or return of capital back in 1916?) incomparability has crept in. The second issue embraces similar concerns with (even modern) non-US data. The third is period cherry-picking: using more or even very recent data (such as 2009-current) can distort projections disastrously. A forth is a lack of correlation of market results with underlying, complex, and constantly morphing economic trends, which, for instance, deeply distort bond market expectations if based on the past thirty years.
In the end, future returns' magnitudes and sequences are unknowable, a phenomenon not likely to change (if it did risk premia would likely collapse and the word return might lose much of its meaning). In light of this ignorance, prudence dictates more conservative assumptions, or at least those in which the client is fully engaged in the potential disaster engendered by more aggressive assumptions. In a constantly changing world, a regularly-adjusted, iterative planning approach is probably best, at least for the portion of retirement security tied to risk-based assets. Hopefully in the future, a standardized economic consensus forecast may emerge, that planners could be expected to incorporate into their client work.
Dr. Jeff Camarda is a financial advisor located in Fleming Island & Ponte Vedra, FL. Dr. Jeff has over 33 years' experience working with local businesses and investors. More information about Dr. Jeff can be found at www.camarda.com.
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