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6 Best Investments for Retirement Planning

By Michael Lewis

retirement savingsBaby boomers are the first generation of a new retirement era with the burden of saving the bulk of their retirement income and making those savings last 20 to 30 years. This responsibility is due to the decline in company pensions which shifted saving and investment responsibilities to employees, as well as an increase in life expectancy after attaining adulthood (almost 20% since 1950). The challenge of investing has been particularly difficult in the last five years; a study by Thornburg Investment Management calculated the annual “real return” for many classes of investment during the period as being negative.

The possibility of a future investment environment where inflation remains low and interest rates rise (the opposite of the 1960s to 1980s) producing slower economic growth, projected healthcare expenses not covered by insurance, and the uncertainty of program changes in Social Security and Medicare will result in people continuing to work as long as possible, accelerating their savings in their later years, and seeking maximum returns in their portfolios.

According to Chris Brightman, head of investment management at Research Affiliates, “Baby Boomers are going to work longer than they originally expected. They’re going to have to save more than they planned. And they’re going to have to consume more modestly in retirement.”

Your Investment Options for Retirement

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of different investment vehicles available. The following list describes the most popular choices, while some investments (such as gold and collectibles) are not listed because, according to Warren Buffett, they are difficult to analyze, lack any productive use, and their future price depends solely on the hope that the next buyer will pay more for the item than the owner paid.

Investments in private companies can be lucrative but are also not considered. If you invest in the stock of a private company, be aware that the investment may have significant undisclosed, higher risks than an investment in stock of a regulated, publicly-traded company.

1. Annuities

Annuities are contracts between an insurance company and the policy holder, with the former guaranteeing a specific or variable return for the invested capital and making payments to the policy holder and/or his beneficiaries over a specific length of time, even a lifetime. Payments can start immediately or be deferred until retirement or later.

An annuity can be structured to resemble a fixed income investment like a bond – adding to principle at a fixed rate – or as an equity investment where growth is uncertain and based upon the performance of a security index, such as the S&P 500. The benefits of annuities as investments include:

  • Tax-deferred growth of the principal until distribution. Most importantly, there are no limits to the size of annuity you can purchase, unlike the annual limits to an IRA or 401k.
  • Distributions are a combination of returned capital (no taxes) and growth (taxable at the then current rate), effectively increasing the net income you receive each distribution.
  • Investment flexibility. Purchasers can choose specific investments in a variable annuity at purchase and before distribution. This flexibility also extends to how to receive distributions which can be for a specific period of time up to a lifetime and can include survivor benefits.

Disadvantages include purchase commissions that can be as high as 10%, onerous surrender charges if you take withdrawals earlier than initially contracted, early withdrawal penalties and taxes if you withdraw prior to age 59 1/2, and high annual fees. Annuities should never be purchased in a tax-sheltered account, such as an IRA, with one exception: after you have retired and desire to have the certainty of income for the remainder your life.

2. Bonds

A bond represents a loan to either a government or a corporation whereby the borrower agrees to pay you a fixed sum of interest, usually semi-annually, until repaying your investment in full (maturity). Bonds are rated for credit risk – whether interest and principal payments will be made – by independent credit rating companies such as Standard & Poor and Moody’s, the best rating being AAA or Aaa, respectively. Bonds usually trade in units of $1,000, the amount being denoted as “par.” The interest rate is fixed at the time of issuance and remains unchanged throughout the life of a bond.

Market values of bonds vary according to the bond’s interest rate and the prevailing market interest rates at the time of the valuation. This variation is called “interest rate” risk.

For example, if interest rates today were 6%, a bond due in 10 years with an interest rate of 4% would sell for approximately $666, even though the older bond will be paid off in full ($1,000) when it matures. The discount occurs because a new buyer would invest in a new bond of an equal quality rating, which would pay interest of $60 per year, rather than buying the older bond which paid only $40 per year. In order to have marketability, the older bond must be discounted to provide the same annual return on the investment – in this case 6%. Simply stated, if the current interest rate is greater than the interest rate of the bond, the bond’s market value will be less than par ($1,000); if less than the interest rate of the bond, the market value will be greater than par.

The major advantage of bonds and similar fixed rate instruments is that their return is known and repayment of the principal is certain if held until maturity. This certainty is unlike equity investments, which have no specific or predetermined future value. Some issuers of bonds (such as states and municipalities) can issue bonds with interest which is not taxed by the Federal Government, but such bonds should never be purchased in a tax-favored retirement account since the tax benefits would be redundant.

Treasury bonds and bills issued by the United States Government are considered the safest investments in the world, with virtually no credit risk. In order to minimize interest rate risks, astute investors utilize “bond ladders,” an investment scheme that staggers bond maturities so that a portion of the portfolio matures each year and can be reinvested at the then-current rates.

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3. Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)

ETFs are portfolios of assets especially designed to track or parallel the movement of a stock or bond index, such as the S&P 500, the Nasdaq-100 Index, or the Barclays Capital U.S. Government/Credit Index. ETFs trade just like stocks, except there is the advantage of built-in diversification – they are not actively managed except to bring the fund’s performance in line with the index.

ETF administrative costs are low – as little as one-quarter the cost of administration for an actively managed portfolio, such as a mutual fund. Trading activity is considerably reduced compared to the typical mutual fund, producing less taxable capital gains (irrelevant in a tax-deferred retirement account) and a more efficient return on investment. ETFs are particularly useful in retirement portfolios, as investors have recognized the importance of asset allocation, rather than individual stock selection, and usually have an investment horizon of 10 years or more.

In the past decade, exchange traded funds have appeared which offer wide selection in the underlying index which the ETF is intended to track. The choices include various national and international stock indexes; different maturities and/or ratings of corporate and government debt; commodities such as gold, silver, and palladium; and world currencies.

Some ETFs attempt to replicate the performance of such investments as emerging-market stocks, futures-based commodity indices, or junk bonds. However, where trading is less frequent, there is the possibility that the ETF may not exactly replicate the performance of the underlying index, thereby introducing an uncertainty in their performance and a possible deterrent to investment.

4. Mutual Funds

Essentially, mutual funds are professionally managed portfolios of stocks and bonds. Each fund is intended to accomplish a specific investment objective such as high growth, balance between growth and risk, income, and every variation between these categories. Mutual funds are registered with the Securities Exchange Commission and regulated under the Investment Company Act of 1940, and have been available in the United States for more than a century, becoming popular in the 1920s. The Massachusetts Investors Trust, widely credited as America’s first modern mutual fund, was established in 1924 and has produced a lifetime annual return of 9.11%. Had you been lucky enough to have a grandfather invest $100 on New Year’s Day in 1925, the fund would be worth almost $250,000 today.

For such reasons, mutual funds have historically been an important part of Americans’ retirement plans. According to the 2013 Investment Company Fact Book , mutual funds of different types accounted for 68% of IRA assets and 48% of 401k balances at year-end 2011. However, the popularity of mutual funds in retirement accounts is on the decline.

In an August 28, 2013 article for The Motley Fool, certified financial analyst Amanda Kish flatly states that many funds are “too pricey, and a majority won’t be able to beat their index over the long run.” Kish also points out that, due to record-level changes in the managers of funds, past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

In addition, the value of a professionally managed portfolio has been questioned by numerous studies since a significant portion of their growth has been attributed to broad market movement, rather than the skill of the managers. The asset allocation model of portfolio management has become more popular, stimulating a transfer of mutual fund ownership to ETFs with lower management fees and commissions, a more simple process of buying and selling units, and better tax efficiency in taxable accounts.

5. Individual Stocks

Common and preferred stocks represent proportional ownership in a corporation, the latter being in a preferential position regarding dividends and liquidation. Owners of common stock benefit through a combination of appreciation – the increase in the price of the stock in excess of the price paid at purchase – and dividends. Stocks are usually bought and sold through representatives of brokerage houses acting as agents for their customers who receive commissions for their service.

The price of a common stock continuously changes as existing shareholders’ and potential investors’ perceptions about the company’s future change. When investors are optimistic about the future of a company, prices for its common stock increase. When they are concerned or worried, prices remain level or decline. The price movement of a stock is the consensus of hundreds or thousands of investors making individual decisions about the stock – whether to buy, continue to hold, or sell.

Trying to project the future price of an individual company’s common stock is extremely difficult, since so many factors can affect future results positively and negatively. As Peter Lynch, manager of Fidelity Investment’s Magellan Fund (which delivered a 29.2% annual return between 1977 to 1990), said, “In this business, if you’re good, you’re right 6 times out of 10. You’re never going to be right 9 times out of 10.”

Sometimes, prices fluctuate without apparent reason or justifiable cause. Jim Cramer, author of “Real Money: Sane Investing in an Insane World,” once complained, “Every once in a while, the market does something so stupid it takes your breath away.”

The advantages of publicly traded common stocks are that they are liquid (easy to buy and sell), transparent (since financial information is readily and easily available), and highly regulated. However, unless you are a knowledgeable, experienced investor willing to devote the necessary time to analysis and are able to restrain your emotions during periods of financial stress, investing in individual common stocks should be avoided. This is especially true during your retirement years, when a single bad investment could wipe away years’ worth of savings.

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6. Income Partnerships

Real estate investment trusts (REITS) and energy master limited partnerships (MLPs) are popular with retirees due to their high cash distributions as compared to corporate dividends. REITS can either own property directly, managing the assets and collection rents, or own real estate mortgages; some REITS own a combination of each. An energy MLP owns proven reserves of oil and gas that will be produced in the future. REITs and MLPs avoid the double taxation applied to corporate dividends.

REITs are required to distribute almost 90% of their yearly taxable income, and most MLPs pay out a majority of their income each year, the exact percentage being set in the partnership documents. Owners can profit from distributions and increases in the value of the underlying real estate or reserves. However, potential purchasers should also be aware that a portion of their distributions each year is theoretically a return of their capital in the form of depreciation and depletion. Units of REITs and MLPs are traded on the exchanges just as stocks and bonds.

Final Word

Building and maintaining sufficient resources to assure a comfortable, worry-free retirement is a constant struggle for most people, becoming even more difficult in recent years. Unfortunately, there is no single investment or investment method that guarantees success. Each of the options above can be effective depending upon the investor’s risk profile, ability to monitor and manage investments, and income needs.

What additional investment options would you suggest for retirement planning?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States.

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