Life After Full-time Work Blog

Learn about preparing for life after full-time work through posts from Don's upcoming book.

#33 Decumulate: Four Ways To Generate Sustainable Income

So here we are, we’ve saved and invested, and we’re ready to stop working and convert our assets from a lump sum into a flow of retirement income that can be sustained for the rest of our life. How can we do that?

 

Yes, “decumulate” is a real word. With a car you accelerate and then decelerate. With a pension pot you accumulate and then decumulate: you draw money out of the pot to enable you to live the retirement lifestyle you desire.

In retirement all of us want some combination of three fundamental goals. Longevity insurance: we don’t want to outlive our savings. (That’s the biggest fear of retirees, according to consistent survey results over the years.) Safety: there’s no further opportunity to add to the pot, so bad investment news is tough to overcome. Growth: for most of us, our desired lifestyles are richer than we are, so we still would like some opportunity for investment growth.

In this post I’ll explain four different approaches to generating an income that is designed to be sustainable over the rest of your lifetime. I’ll add some pros and cons, so that you can decide which of them suits you best psychologically, before you get down to the actual numbers that result from them.

  1. Buy an immediate lifetime income annuity.

Preferably inflation-linked; if not, the annuity starts off higher, but your purchasing power will decline by the amount of inflation each year. Many retirees accept the decline, with the implicit logic that their “propensity to consume” (as Keynes put it) declines as their age increases.

The big advantage of a lifetime annuity is that it provides longevity insurance: you won’t outlive your savings. And typically it provides the highest guaranteed income from any given size of pension pot.

But it has disadvantages. It’s a once-for-all contract, with no further flexibility. It’s essentially a 100% fixed income investment, with no growth potential. Early death makes it a gamble. (That’s what risk pooling is all about.) And of course, in principle the insurance company could go bust, though there would still probably be a high proportion of the payments made.

This kind of contract, with an income guaranteed for life, is not available in every country.

  1. Draw down an amount each year that is based on your future longevity at the start of the year.

This approach overcomes some of the disadvantages while retaining the longevity feature. It’s the basis of the American “required minimum distribution” rule. It’s very simple, in concept.

If this year your future life expectancy is E, and your pension pot is P, then withdraw P/E. Next year, see what P and E have changed to, and withdraw next year’s value of P/E. And so on. Since, if you’re still alive, you always have some future life expectancy, E is always a positive number, and doesn’t reach zero until the end of the mortality table (which is typically some age like 110 or 120 that you aren’t likely to have to worry about). And that, combined with the fact that you’re never withdrawing the entire balance of your pension pot, means that you won’t outlive the pot.

Meanwhile, you can invest the pot with whatever combination of safety and growth prospects fit your situation. (Talk to your financial professional about what’s appropriate for you.)

Typically this approach generates higher income early on than a lifetime annuity. But the annual drawdown isn’t a totally predictable amount; it varies as investment returns vary, and is therefore subject to some uncertainty. Also, the annual drawdown has a strong tendency to decline sharply as your age approaches the end of the mortality table.

  1. Assume death at some advanced age, and draw down an amount each year that is designed to last until that advanced age.

This approach is sometimes called “self-insurance.” Never mind expectancy-related calculations, just pick some advanced age, which becomes the goal for your lifespan. Typically these days financial professionals advise using something like age 100. You might want to refer to Post #12 for a discussion of this issue (https://donezra.com/12-how-long-should-you-plan-to-make-your-money-last/).

Invest the pot with the appropriate combination of growth and safety. Withdraw, each year, some systematic amount: for example, whatever amount your financial professional calculates each year as likely to be sustainable until the advanced age.

This approach typically generates higher initial drawdowns than an annuity purchase or longevity-based drawdowns. Of course, the amounts drawn down vary over time, because the investment returns vary. And there are tough spending decisions to be made if you approach the selected advanced age, because now the prospect of outliving that advanced age needs to be introduced.

A variation is to combine drawdown approaches #2 and #3. Draw down half the capital based on future longevity, and the other half based on the age at the end of the mortality table (for example, 110 or 120). The rationale is that this combination ensures that there are still growth prospects, while reducing the sharp decline in the drawdown at advanced ages.

  1. Buy pure longevity insurance (a deferred annuity), and draw down an amount each year from your remaining assets that is designed to last until your longevity insurance kicks in.

This is the approach I have chosen for myself: to buy a deferred annuity that kicks in if you survive to age 85 (the cost being typically in the range of 10-15% of an immediate annuity). With the rest, self-insure to age 85 (or whatever age you choose).

The rationale is that longevity insurance is secured inexpensively, and most of the pension pot is available for the appropriate safety/growth combination, with drawdowns that aren’t projected to inevitably decline.

A big practical problem is that deferred annuities of this sort aren’t typically available, except in the USA. I hope insurance companies will start to offer them. The US government recently authorised this approach as an acceptable one for US-based pension pots: it’s referred to as a QLAC (which stands for “qualified longevity annuity contract”).

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All of this will, I hope, give you a logical and sensible basis to discuss your financial future with a qualified adviser. It’s important for you to choose between the approaches, because they have very different characteristics. My goal has been to explain each approach on a stand-alone basis, leaving the combined implementation to you and your financial professional.

Of course it goes without saying (but I’ll say it explicitly anyway) that you may find that you’re unable to decide conclusively between, let’s say, two of these ways. Or that you prefer one and your partner prefers another (because there’s no reason why partners should have identical mindsets, even though the risk profiles used by financial professionals typically gloss over this difference). In which case you could use both ways, dividing your assets between them.

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Finally, for greater depth and insight, google two outstanding papers: NEST’s “A retirement income blueprint” and the true-to-title “The only spending rule article you will ever need” by Siegel and Waring. For the record, I know them all but have no connection with any of them.

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Takeaway

There are four ways to generate retirement income from a lump sum: buy an annuity; draw down an amount each year that depends on your future life expectancy; calculate a sustainable drawdown until some fixed advanced age; buy longevity insurance and use the fixed period until it kicks in as the period over which you calculate a sustainable drawdown. It’s important for you to choose between them because they have very different characteristics.

6 Comments


I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.


6 Responses to “#33 Decumulate: Four Ways To Generate Sustainable Income”

  1. Ted Harris says:

    An alternative to a deferred annuity, which may also assure an inheritance but doesn’t necessarily provide a given assured income for the remainder of your lives, is a block of capital that is set aside and is not used to generate current income for spending. It may also be used as supplemental health insurance if the need arises. Keeping your home for as long as possible is one way of doing this, and helps avoid the temptation to chip away at the designated asset.

    With regard to inflation and longevity, I have immense admiration for those who live beneath their means and reinvest a portion of their income.

    • Don Ezra says:

      Yes, setting aside capital, whether or not in the form of a home, solves several problems, for those who can afford to do so. (My personal funded ratio calculator, which I’m working on preparing for the website, will indicate if liquid assets alone are likely to be sufficient for lifetime income, or whether the home is also necessary.) Remember my context, though: I’m writing in this post about income for life, and so anything that doesn’t provide income for life isn’t an alternative to a deferred annuity.

  2. Sean Churchward says:

    Another great article – thanks Don. You may be interested to know that Deferred Annuities are starting to emerge again here in Australia, as our Government becomes focused on supporting an aging, retiring population.

    And you may recall, we also have a fifth option here, which is a Group Self-Annuity, a new generation of longevity protection that is slowly gaining traction here!

    • Don Ezra says:

      Thank you! And thanks for mentioning the Group Self-Annuity, which I wasn’t aware of. Is there a convenient reference that readers can get access to?

  3. Eric says:

    Good article Don! In my case the complication is a nine year younger wife, who most likely will outlive me. Therefore I invested most money in debt free real estate that will generate income and could be sold in case of great need. Maybe you have insights that could help?

    • Don Ezra says:

      Thanks for your comment! I too have a wife noticeably younger, so I too expect her to outlive me. (That’s what got me started on explaining things in a way an intelligent but non-financial person could understand.) Debt free real estate is a sound and frequent income-generating choice, for exactly the reasons you mention. If this provides adequate income, the only caution I can think of is that it’s an undiversified investment; most people would consider that to be an academic comment. If it doesn’t provide adequate income, then it needs to be monetized in some way. (I’m preparing a post on a home as part of a retirement portfolio, as it has been selected as a topic by some readers.) You’re already aware of the possibility of sale in extreme circumstances. In short, I have nothing to tell you that you don’t already know!

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