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Retirement Income Harvesting Strategy


Many people today are increasingly concerned about receiving enough income over their lifetime, beating inflation, and the possibility of a market crash destroying the well laid plans they have made for their future. Unprecedented market volatility, historically low interest rates, and increasing life expectancies have made it more difficult than ever to create a reliable retirement income strategy. A few of years ago I read a story in Kiplinger Magazine about a man’s struggle during the stock market meltdown in October 2008. A relatively new retiree at 60, he was gripped with fear and anxiety. He had no pension, he was too young to collect Social Security benefits, and he was relying completely on his savings. Intellectually, he knew he couldn’t cash out his stocks because he might live another 35 years and he would need the higher investment returns that come from stocks. But emotionally the market crash was really scary.

As retirees watched their account balances plummet, many were advised to reduce their withdrawals or go back to work to preserve their nest eggs. This retiree decided that he would rest easier if he mentally separated his investments into two groups: cash and bonds that could sustain him through his initial years of retirement, and stock funds that he would leave untouched until they could recover and grow. Without realizing it, this retiree had stumbled on an alternative income model. It struck us to be similar to another story many of us learn as children about a slave who becomes the ruler of Egypt by saving up from the years of plenty for seven lean years predicted to follow. In comparison to the old “let it grow and take out 4% strategy”, this alternative model allows investors to be more emotionally detached and helps to protect portfolios from periods of dramatic decline.

The “Retirement Income Harvesting Strategy” is derived from our agrarian past. It fits in with how a tree farmer may grow his orchard including the harvesting and storage of his fruit crop. Storage of the crop is needed for the potential lean years ahead, fruit producing trees are needed for providing a crop in the present, and younger growing saplings are needed to provide the fruit in the future as the mature trees die out. If it weren't for inflation, cash and bonds would be all you need in a portfolio. But even with modest inflation of 3% a year, your buying power would be cut in half in about 25 years, so you need to invest for future growth too. However, when you add stocks to your portfolio you also add risk.

Phase One

The first phase of the “Retirement Income Harvesting Strategy” focuses on protected assets to provide needed funds in the event of unforeseen lean years. Some people after the market downturn of 2008 consider up to two years of living expenses to be adequate while others are fine with much less. The key is making sure that each individual can handle uncertainty both financially and emotionally. This first phase can be described as the storage facility for the orchard which provides nourishment for the family in the event of drought or famine.    

Phase Two

The second phase focuses on income production. With interest rates as low as they are now, the income needed during retirement has become much harder to produce. The days of relying solely on a laddered CD or bond ladder may be behind us for the time being. For this reason we have developed income models and utilized other tools to provide the type of current income that clients need now, reducing the probability of depleting the principal. We can relate this phase to the mature trees in the orchard that produce the most fruit. They provide what we need now and may for some time, but we also have to be concerned about spells where we might have a reduced crop. This is the time when we rely on the crop we have saved up in storage.

The other issue to be concerned about is when the trees are no longer just mature trees. At some point these trees, like some investments, become less fruitful. They stop producing fruit altogether or just do not keep up with the increasing demand (inflation). For this reason we need to be able to replenish our less productive trees with more productive trees over time. We do this by planting younger growing trees which will mature and may become our strongest producers of the future.

Phase Three

This growth phase in the “Retirement Income Harvesting Strategy” focuses on investments which are more likely to increase in value and may produce some income today. This can consist of stock and other types of investments that may provide better protection against inflation, future increased needs, and diversification of the portfolio. With the planting of younger trees in the orchard, the next generation is provided with trees that are going to produce fruit for them in the future. This growth phase in the strategy may also provide a legacy for the next generation. In retirement, many people are more concerned about reliability of income than about return on investment. It is exceedingly difficult to provide both at the same time. But you can achieve both goals if you compartmentalize your money based on short-term, medium-term, and long-term needs. The “Retirement Income Harvesting Strategy” is designed to help minimize the impact of emotion, reduce risk, overcome the impact of market volatility, and provide inflation adjusted income for life.