The rules of financial health are simple, but remarkably hard to follow. Be frugal in order to save, use your savings to buy the whole market not parts of it, if this system ain't broke, don't fix it. And don't underestimate your longevity.
Old Age, Re-designed
A grumpy analysis of future trends from a member of the Grumpy Generation.
Right Angle Club: 2013
Reflections about the 91st year of the Club's existence. Delivered for the annual President's dinner at The Philadelphia Club, January 17, 2014. George Ross Fisher, scribe.
|Flexible Spending Accounts|
For many years, Health Spending Accounts (now called Flexible Spending Accounts) were confused with Health Savings Accounts. In the previous section, we have just proposed the $500 annual roll-over be made permanent. Naturally, that raises the question of whether a permanent rolled-over account could be made into a supplementary retirement account, but unfortunately, the mathematics of that is not nearly so good. Let's consider the most favorable case. As stated, that would be a $500 annual contribution, starting at age 18, paying 10% income return. That would generate a retirement fund at age 65 worth $436,000. That sounds pretty attractive until you start picking it apart.
In the first place, most people can't start work at age 18 and expect to be continuously employed until 65. There will be periods of unemployment for most people. In the second place, money invested in large-cap common stock will indeed return 10% over a long period of time, but there may well be gaps and periods of catch-up. And if you are not careful, you won't get 10%, even though your money is earning it. The experience with 401(k) accounts has been the financial industry will likely reduce your returns by roughly 2% with an internal assessment called 12b(1), allegedly a reimbursement for sales promotion, but really just 2% for themselves. So, you are down to 8% before you encounter $250 charges per transaction. Some brokers only charge $5.00 for purchase, and some banks charge nothing to give you your own money back. Very likely, the $250 purchase charge will disappear before the $250 withdrawal fee does because the withdrawal fee is harder to spot on the receipts. John Bogle recently remarked on television that the financial industry takes 85% of the returns on retail investments before it gives anything back to the consumer, which seems to include rather more than an 8.5% gross margin, so there's probably more fee here than I can account for, which is about half of that. To be conservative, let's say your original return of 10% has been reduced to 5%. So, the expected retirement fund for our hypothetical wage-earner is not $436,000, but $89,000.
Even that haircut is more than our hypothetical is likely to get. With Medicare as a backup, paying for healthcare has been protected during its most expensive period. Retirement, on the other hand, is usually more costly in a retiree's sixties than his eighties. So, while $89,000 might well cover health costs in old age, it will probably fall short of covering retirement. For instance, the average Medicare recipient costs Medicare $11,000 a year. How many retirees do you know who can live on $11,000 a year? We're going to have to leave it at that. By stretching and luck, by arm-wrestling the investment community and counting on continuous employment for forty years, we might scrape together a plan that would cover healthcare as we hope it will cost when we get there. But retirement? My warning is that I don't see how it can be managed, except for one strategy. People are going to have to work longer and retire later. To make ends meet on retirement, the emphasis must shift from demanding retirement as an entitlement -- to demanding our employers themselves get to work, providing more of the jobs old folks can perform, in spite of infirmities. We've got to build houses cheaper to repair, and cars cheaper to drive. We've got to live in houses with elevators and wear clothes that moths won't eat. But squeezing it out of investment accounts? After we've wrung it dry, paying for healthcare, I doubt there will be much left.
Originally published: Friday, November 01, 2013; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019