Common investment mistakes by retirees
Planning to live off dividends
Aiming to live off your investment income is a noble goal, but it may cause people to save more than they really need to for retirement.
According to Hartford Funds, 42% of the total return of the S&P 500 came from dividends from 1930 to 2017. Much less than that has come from dividends in recent decades, as dividends were a bigger contributor during the first half of that 88-year period
There’s no doubt that reinvesting your dividends to compound your returns is powerful, but if you aim to live off your dividends, your portfolio will likely continue to grow throughout retirement due to capital appreciation. If your goal is to leave a large estate, that’s a personal decision. But if you’re looking to become financially independent, you could be there long before you can live off your dividend income.
Investing for income
Another problem with a focus on dividends is it may cause your portfolio to become skewed.
As an example, the top 10 constituents, making up over 50% of the S&P/TSX Composite High Dividend Index currently, are listed below (c/o of S&P Dow Jones Indices).
The sectors represented are primarily energy and financial stocks (over 60%), with most of the remaining index comprised of utilities, communication, and real estate stocks. Missing are sectors like information technology (20% of the S&P 500), consumer (17% of the S&P 500), health care (16% of the S&P 500), and industrials (9% of the S&P 500).
A dividend stock investor, especially one with a Canadian equity focus, may be ignoring more than two-thirds of an otherwise balanced stock portfolio (using the S&P 500 as a good proxy).
Plus, capital gains may be more tax efficient than Canadian dividends in a non-registered portfolio depending on your income and province of residence, so there may be tax reasons to reconsider a high dividend strategy.
Bad asset allocation decisions
Ideally, an investor should aim to buy low and sell high, but quite often, retail investors as well as professionals do just the opposite.
Related article: Buy Low, Sell High
If stocks fall, disciplined portfolio management may suggest you should buy to increase your stock exposure back to your target weighting. But who wants to buy when stocks are falling? Who wants more of a “bad” thing? Quite to the contrary, stock market declines often breed more selling.
Ideally, a long-term investor should look at falling stocks as a buying opportunity. Stocks are on sale. And if a portfolio’s stock exposure has decreased as stocks have fallen, buying would bring your stock weighting back up to target. It can be easier said than done.
Likewise, as stocks rise. A disciplined investor should be selling stocks to get back to a target weighting and taking profits.
It’s important to treat your different accounts differently as well. A homogenous asset allocation across all accounts may not be appropriate. If you have a non-registered investment account, a Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA), and a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP), your asset allocation should probably be different. Possibly very different.
Related article: Asset Allocation Models
If your TFSA is an account you may be able to deposit to forever, or for a long time, it should probably be your most aggressive account. If you’re drawing down your RRSP/RRIF and non-registered accounts, these accounts should probably be invested more conservatively. Which account is more conservative may depend on how much you’re withdrawing from each, but you should have a bias towards fixed income in your registered accounts if possible.
This is because stocks are more tax efficient (capital gains and Canadian dividends) in a non-registered account compared to a registered account. And ideally, you want to have more growth in your non-registered and TFSA accounts than your registered accounts, given RRSP/RRIF withdrawals are fully taxable. Non-registered withdrawals are partially taxable (capital gains) and TFSAs are, of course, tax-free.
Not deferring pensions
Retirees often start their Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Old Age Security (OAS) pensions as early as possible. For CPP, that’s age 60, and for OAS, that’s age 65. Sometimes, the reason is that people are worried that they’ve retired, and their incomes have dropped, so they don’t want to draw down too much on their investments.
It’s a bit counterintuitive, and here’s why. If someone has a long retirement, and lives well into their 80s, the math tends to show they are better off deferring their CPP and OAS as late as age 70. That’s the latest you can defer these pensions. Deferring them results in higher payments – an 8.4% annual increase for CPP after 65 and 7.2% for OAS.
Related article: Should you take CPP Early?
So, if someone is worried about their investments lasting into their 80s and 90s, they may be better off deferring their pensions, even though that means drawing down their investments more initially in their 60s. You can then draw down less on your portfolio in your 70s, 80s, and 90s, and deferred CPP and OAS may make managing your investments easier as you age. That is, you will have more guaranteed, inflation-protected income, and less required investment withdrawals at a time where you may be a less competent investor or less willing to take investment risk.
The knee-jerk reaction of many retirees is to preserve investments early by starting government pensions, and that short-term thinking may increase the likelihood of drawing down investments more heavily in your 80s and 90s.
Deferring RRIF withdrawals to age 72 isn’t always the best option. Mind you, nor is starting withdrawals right away. But those who retire early and have modest income in their 50s or 60s are probably best suited to consider some early RRSP/RRIF withdrawals.
Related article: Developing a RRSP withdrawal strategy
It’s also important not to paint yourself into a corner by accumulating large non-registered capital gains on individual securities. It’s not uncommon for retirees to have stock positions they’ve held for years with increasingly large deferred capital gains. Hesitating to sell shares or realize gains could make the problem worse if you’re choosing to draw down on other investments, and cause the deferred gain holding to make up an increasing proportion of a portfolio.
This can lead to overexposure to a single security or cause you to hold a position not because it’s a fit for your portfolio, but because you’re reluctant to pay tax.
In some cases, there can be a benefit to strategic realization of capital gains over time. In other words, intentionally realizing small capital gains while staying in a low tax bracket. Ideally, if you’re rebalancing your portfolio and selling high and buying low, you will trim your winners as you rebalance anyway.
Investing mistakes are in the eye of the beholder. Some people may have differing views than mine on retiree investing, and because there are so many different investing styles and strategies, there is never a one-size-fits-all approach.
Investing success or mistakes also depend on the point in time you assess your choices. What seems like a wise decision today may be good or bad a year from now and could reverse itself again thereafter.
This helps reinforce the importance of planning ahead and being deliberate in your investment decisions, particularly when you’re in the process of decumulation. Saving each month, dollar cost averaging, and accumulating investments is the easy part. Retirement investing is that much more difficult, but hopefully my take on retiree investment mistakes can help.