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  • Writer's pictureMarcus P. Miller, CFP®, MBA

Benefits of Stress Testing Retirement Portfolios

The benefits of stress-testing retirement portfolios are clear. By using a Monte Carlo simulation, an investment advisor is able to get a sense of how likely it is that the future retiree will ever run out of money.


This kind of analysis puts the portfolio's assets and projected income through multiple "what-if" scenarios, allowing for greater insight into the potential outcomes of different economic scenarios. The result is expressed as a percentage, giving an indication of how likely it is that the portfolio will hold up in the face of different economic conditions.

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Different Economic Scenarios to Test Against

When stress-testing a portfolio, it is important to take into account different economic variables. For example, changes in Social Security, market drops, increases in taxes, living longer, inflation, increased healthcare costs, and decreased market returns are all factors that should be tested against.

Changes in Social Security

Social Security is a key component of many retirement portfolios. As such, it is important to take into account potential changes in this area when stress-testing a portfolio. Changes in Social Security can significantly impact the returns that an individual will get from their retirement investments, so understanding how these changes will affect the overall portfolio is essential.


Given the current underfunding of Social Security and the projected exhaustion of its funds by 2033, it's vital to consider the potential impact of reduced benefits on the overall financial plan. A decrease in Social Security benefits would likely require a significant adjustment to one's retirement strategy. This could include saving more in personal retirement accounts, seeking additional sources of income, or adjusting lifestyle expectations in retirement. Stress-testing these scenarios helps future retirees better understand and plan for these potential changes.

Market Drops

Market drops can have a significant impact on retirement portfolios, and it is important to understand how these drops will affect the portfolio over time. This should be stress tested in multiple locations, including a severe market drop immediately, or one happening closer to the retirement date. By testing against a variety of market drops, future retirees can better understand the implications of these events and make more informed decisions about their investments.


It's crucial to not only understand the potential fallout of a market drop, but also to devise strategies to mitigate its impact on your retirement portfolio. One popular strategy is diversifying the investment portfolio. This involves investing in a mix of various types of investments such as stocks, bonds, and commodities, to reduce risk. Another strategy is keeping a certain amount of your portfolio in cash or liquid assets. This provides a cushion to fall back on during market downturns, and also offers the flexibility to take advantage of investment opportunities that may arise during these periods.


To illustrate, let's consider the current Schiller PE, which stands at a historically high 32 compared to a historical average of 17. This implies that even if the market were to drop by 50% tomorrow, we would still be within the normal range of overall market pricing.


Stress testing for such a drastic scenario helps investors to assess their risk tolerance and adjust their portfolios accordingly. They may, for instance, choose to shift their assets towards more stable investments or boost their cash reserves.


Increase in Taxes

Changes in taxes can have a big impact on retirement portfolios, and it is important to understand how any proposed changes will affect the overall returns. Stress testing can help identify areas where tax increases may have a negative effect on portfolio performance and provide insight into ways to minimize such effects. One known tax change is the end of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, set to expire in 2026. Further tax increases may be likely due to the impending shortfall in Medicare and Social Security funds.


Living Longer

Living longer than expected can cause a significant strain on retirement portfolios, as the individual must sustain their income and savings for an extended period. Stress testing can help identify areas where returns may be insufficient to support longer retirements, and provide insight into additional investments that can supplement incomes over the long term.


As medical advancements and healthier lifestyles continue to extend life expectancy, planning for a longer retirement period becomes crucial. According to recent actuarial tables, many individuals will live well into their 90s, which significantly increases the years they'll need to cover in retirement.


This extended lifespan can pose a potential risk of outliving financial resources, making longevity a critical factor to consider in stress-testing retirement portfolios. For instance, if retirement savings are predominantly invested in fixed income securities, the returns might not keep up with inflation over the longer retirement period. This could lead to a gradual erosion of purchasing power, prompting the need for adjustments in investment strategies.


Therefore, it's essential to stress-test retirement portfolios against various longevity scenarios to ensure they remain robust and responsive. We often recommend a blend of income-generating investments, growth-oriented securities, and a reserve fund for unexpected expenses. This mix aims to balance the need for current income, the growth of investments to counteract inflation, and the necessity of a financial buffer for unforeseen circumstances or opportunities.


Inflation

Inflation has a huge impact on retirement portfolios, as it reduces the purchasing power of savings over time. Stress testing can help identify areas where returns may not be sufficient to combat inflation, and provides insight into the types of investments that will protect purchasing power over time.


Inflation, often described as the 'silent thief', erodes the value of money over time, making every dollar less effective at purchasing goods and services in the future. This means that even if your portfolio's value is growing, inflation may be diminishing its real worth. As a retiree, this is a significant concern, since your income is typically fixed but your expenses—particularly healthcare and living costs—may continue to rise.


Over the course of a long retirement, which could span 20 to 40 years, it's highly probable that retirees will experience at least one period of high inflation. During these times, the purchasing power of retirement savings can be significantly reduced, potentially jeopardizing retirees' standard of living.


For instance, if inflation averaged 3% per year for 30 years, the purchasing power of a given sum of money would be cut by more than half. Hence, it's crucial to factor in inflation when stress-testing your retirement portfolio. This involves examining how different rates of inflation could impact your portfolio's performance over time, and considering investment strategies that can help hedge against inflation risk.


Inflation-protected securities, real estate investments, and certain types of stocks may offer some level of hedging against inflation. Precious metals like gold, commodities, and certain types of bonds can also provide a degree of protection. A diversified portfolio, comprising a mix of these asset types, can help maintain purchasing power during periods of high inflation.


Nonetheless, the need for inflation protection must be balanced with other considerations, including your risk tolerance and income needs. Reassessing your portfolio regularly and making necessary adjustments can help ensure that your retirement savings remain robust, despite the challenges posed by inflation.


Increased Healthcare Costs

Healthcare costs can have a significant impact on retirement portfolios, as healthcare expenses often rise with age. Stress testing can help identify areas where healthcare costs may exceed savings, and provide insight into additional investments that can help protect against such costs over the long term.


In the United States, healthcare costs are a significant expenditure for most retirees. A couple retiring at age 65 might spend an average of $285,000 on healthcare costs alone during their retirement. This figure, stark as it might be, doesn't even account for long-term care costs, which can dramatically increase expenses for those requiring specialized nursing or assisted living.


Healthcare cost increases generally outpace inflation, meaning each year, medical services become relatively more expensive. This trend can significantly erode the value of retirement savings over time. Consequently, stress testing retirement portfolios for healthcare costs is a critical exercise.


For instance, you might model a scenario where healthcare costs rise by 7% annually instead of the historical average of 5%. This could provide a more realistic assessment of potential future healthcare expenses, especially considering the rising costs of prescription drugs and long-term care.


Additionally, it's important to explore various investment strategies to counter these escalating costs. Some pre-retirees might consider investing a portion of their portfolio in a Health Savings Account (HSA) or diversifying their investments to include assets that tend to grow faster than inflation, such as stocks.


Moreover, proper insurance coverage, including policies for long-term care, can provide a safety net against unexpected health-related expenses. However, the potential benefits of such insurance must be weighed against the cost of premiums, which can be high for older adults.


In conclusion, healthcare costs are a significant risk to retirement portfolios, and it's crucial to stress-test against various scenarios to ensure your savings are robust. Diversification, proper insurance, and regular portfolio reviews can help manage this risk and ensure a more secure retirement.

Decreased Market Returns

Decreased market returns can have a significant impact on retirement portfolios. Stress testing can help identify areas where returns may not be sufficient to sustain the portfolio's value over time, and provide insight into investments that can help protect against such risks.


Market returns can fluctuate significantly due to a variety of factors, such as economic downturns, geopolitical events, or industry-specific trends. These fluctuations can, in turn, affect the value of your retirement portfolio. For retirees, this risk is particularly pertinent, as they are often highly reliant on their investments for income.


For instance, if the average annual return on your portfolio were to drop from 7% to 4% over the course of your retirement, this decrease could significantly reduce the value of your savings and jeopardize your financial security. Therefore, it's crucial to stress test your portfolio for decreased market returns. This involves modeling scenarios where your portfolio's returns are lower than expected and assessing the potential impact on your financial health.


Diversification is one effective strategy for mitigating this risk, as it involves spreading your investments across a variety of asset classes to reduce exposure to any single investment. For instance, a mix of equity investments, bonds, real estate, and potentially even alternative investments can help buffer against fluctuations in any one area. Moreover, maintaining a portion of your portfolio in more conservative investments can provide a steady income stream, even during periods of lower overall market returns.

Benefits of Stress Testing Your Retirement Portfolio

Stress testing your retirement portfolio is crucial for long-term financial security. It helps identify potential risks and suggests protective strategies. Regular assessments and adjustments ensure a robust portfolio amidst changing economic conditions. It offers peace of mind and confidence in your retirement savings.


Taking a proactive approach to stress testing prepares retirees for unexpected events and avoids overemphasizing any single factor. Overall, stress testing maximizes financial security and should be a part of your planning process.


***If you are looking for help with stress testing your portfolio, give us a call!***

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The opinions expressed in this website are for general informational purposes only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or on any specific security. We cannot provide financial advice if we do not know your specific financial situation. Please talk to your financial advisor or do your own research before making financial decisions. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing on this website constitutes investment advice, performance data or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Any indices referenced for comparison are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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