- In “Financing Retirement: It’s All About Income,” I made the point that in retirement, you need to generate the income needed to cover your expenses. There are many ways to generate income—consulting, part-time work, Social Security, pensions—that may be overlooked in conventional retirement planning. Of course, income from your assets is an important ingredient in the recipe.
- In “Financing Retirement: What’s Your Real Number?,” I criticized the “maximize capital” approach to retirement planning, noting that the “number” to focus on is not the sales-lot value of your nest egg, but rather its annual income-generating ability. The two are often assumed to be proportional, but they are not. I used myself as an example, noting that according to conventional calculators, I was years and more than $1,000,000 from being able to retire, whereas in fact I have been retired for almost 9 years and live comfortably.
- Maximize your capital before you retire.
- Make your capital a lot safer as you approach retirement.
- In retirement, withdraw capital at a “safe” rate, typically figured to be 4% in the first year, then raised each year by 3% to account for inflation. That withdrawal converts what was capital into retirement income by the process of selling assets.
- Social Security
- Dividend stocks
The last three items, on the other hand, are investments purchased with capital. Once purchased, they confer an important right: The right to receive an income stream.
- Annuities allow you to purchase that right from an insurance company for a price and fees that depend on your age, gender, the payout plan you choose, etc. You never get your capital back, you trade it for the right to receive income for the rest of your life. (There is a useful annuity calculator at Immediate Annuities.com.) Assuming that the insurance company remains solvent, your right to the income is totally safe, except from inflation. The price you paid is totally gone.
- Bonds are also purchased with capital. Let’s assume that you invest only in “investment grade” bonds and hold them for income. The income they generate is as safe as with annuities. Instead of being for life, your right has a term limit stated on the bond, which is a contract of debt (you loaned your money to the bond issuer). Being fixed, the income stream is not safe from inflation. The capital you purchased the bonds with is safe in the sense that you will get it back at the end of the bond’s term, but its value will also have been eroded by inflation. So with investment-grade bonds, the income is safe, except from inflation. The principal is also safe, except from inflation.
- Stocks are also purchased with capital. Conventional wisdom is that they are far less safe than bonds, because their prices are volatile. Retirees who invested throughout their lifetimes mainly in stocks to maximize capital, and who then unfortunately suffer a significant loss in the value of their portfolio just before they reduced their stock exposure—because of, say, a bear market—are screwed. The income available from selling a percentage of their assets each year falls proportionately with their stock portfolio’s total price. Even after the stock exposure reduction, that percentage of your nest egg still in stocks is subject to the usual risks of the market.
- Dividend stocks generate income. Their value does not lie in their ability to be periodically sold off. Their true value lies in their ability to generate income on their own. In that respect, they are like bonds.
- But unlike bonds, dividend growth stocks are not fixed-income investments. Their yield on cost—which is comparable to the yield on bonds—goes up each time that they raise their dividend payout. They are rising-income investments. In fact, the income from investment-grade dividend growth stocks generally keeps up with or surpasses inflation.
- Unlike bonds, there is no term. Ideally, dividend-growth stocks can be held “forever.” You do not have to worry about the impact of inflation on your principal. An investment-grade dividend-growth stock whose price goes down does not ordinarily reduce its dividend nor even stop increasing it. Scores of stocks have been raising their dividends for 25 to 50 years or more. They have done this since the Eisenhower administration, through every kind of economic condition—wars, recessions, inflation, stagflation. See the Dividend Champions document here that lists them. While their prices have gone all over the place, their dividends have gone in only one direction: Up.
- Finally, unlike bonds, over long periods of time, investment-grade dividend-growth stocks are likely to increase in principal value too. Every study that I have seen shows that dividend-growth stocks have the best total returns of all categories of stock.
In the real world, most retirees gather their income from a variety of sources. While the goal for dividend investors may be to live off of the dividends without selling off any of the base, the dividend stream may not be large enough. So some of the base—but far less than the “4% + inflation” standard—may be sold off to close gaps. There is an excellent recent article by Morningstar author Christine Benz that addresses how real retirees achieve the right balance: “Income or Total Return? Retired Investors Weigh In.” I highly recommend it.
Disclosure: No positions mentioned.