The Ballooning Cost of Growing Old

Senior Couple Enjoying Beach Holiday Running Down Dune
The reality about retirement is that this bit can be fleetingly short compared with the scope of being elderly. 

Getting old is something that comes to us all and is rightly considered a blessing of our modern world. Free from most wars, crime and disease the average age of Canadians continues to rise, with current life expectancy just over 82 years.

But being old is no fun. From your late 70s onward quality of life begins to decline in a multitude of ways. From a media perspective we tend to focus on outliers, like the oldest marathon runner, or the oldest male model, men and women who seem to exemplify youth well past their physical. In truth though the aging process is simply a battle that we have gotten good at slowing down.

20696006In his excellent book Being Mortal, author and practicing surgeon Atul Gawande goes through the effects of aging, the limits of science to combat it and how we could be using medicine better to improve quality of life for the elderly. It’s a great and sometimes upsetting read that I recommend for everyone.

One of the great challenges that looms on the horizon is the cost of an aging population. The dependency ratio for the elderly (the metric of people over 65 against those between the working ages of 20-64) is rising, putting higher living costs on a smaller working base. In Canada the dependency ratio is expected to climb to 25% by 2050, and is currently at 23.77% as of 2015. That may not seem like much, but in 1980 (the year I was born) the ratio was 13.84%.

ch1_graph3.0-eng

Since old age is also the point where you consume the most in terms of health care costs we should be aware that Canada’s population isn’t just aging, but that our retiring seniors are poised to become the biggest and most expensive demographic; financially dependent on a shrinking workforce and more economically fragile than they realize. That’s a problem that nations like Japan have been struggling with, where old age benefits are extensive, but the workforce has dwindled.

In other articles we’ve touched on the various aspects of the rising costs of old age. I’ve written about: the importance of wills, the impact of an aging population on our public health care, how demographics shift both investing patterns and warp our economic senses, why seniors may be getting too much of a break economically, how poor land management has made cities too expensive and that’s hurting retirement, and how certain trends are making retirement more expensive. Often these are written as issues in a distant (or not too distant) future. But increasingly they won’t be.

This past week eight long term care facilities have said they will be leaving Toronto. As part of a bigger project, long term care spaces are being rebuilt to meet new guidelines. A new facility is larger, more spacious and designed to maximize medical care. However land costs within Toronto are proving to be too high to be considered for the updated facilities. Why is that? The government pays $150 a day per bed in a facility like the ones leaving. From that subsidy costs for maintenance, nurses, janitors, medicine and food as well as the profit of the business must all be extracted. Margins are thin and building costs in the city are huge. Six more facilities are also considering leaving the GTA for cheaper land.

 

Toronto's City Hall, Nathan Phillips Square. (Shutterstock)
Toronto is a wonderful city, but we’ve done a bad job of making sure that we can still afford to live here. 

 

Eric Hoskins, health minister for the province, is arguing that the subsidy the government provides is enough, but he is already embroiled in other fights with the medical community. In 2015 the ministry cut doctors fees and began clawing back previously earned money as well. Currently lots of people in Ontario struggle to see their family doctor, and there are 28,000 elderly waiting to get access to long term care facilities, and only 79,000 beds. Coincidentally this is also the year that the Ontario Liberals balanced the books. Something about that should give us pause.

This is the reality of getting old in 2017. Costs are rising and are expected to continue growing. Some of this you can’t avoid, and many of us will end up in private retirement homes, assisted living situations, dependent on the government or even family. But there are steps that can be taken to protect assets and insulate against protracted medical or legal disputes.

Here’s a list of eight things that can help you with retirement and your estate:

  1. Keep an updated will and a named executor young enough to handle your affairs. I know it goes without saying, but its extremely important and many of us don’t do it.
  2. Ensure that you’ve got a Power of Attorney (POA) established and that it is current.
  3. Make sure you have a living will and discuss with your family your expectations about how you want your life to end.
  4. Look into your funeral arrangements while you can. It seems macabre, but funerals can be wildly expensive and burdensome to thrust onto grieving family.
  5. Create a space where all important documents can be found by your next of kin and with a detailed contact sheet so people can help settle your estate.
  6. Look into assisted living options early and consider what you might be able to afford. Have your financial plan reflect some of these income needs.
  7. Consider passing along family heirlooms early. Is there a broach, or a clock that you would like to see in someone’s hands? These conversations are easier to handle when you are well than when you aren’t, and downsizing frequently involves saying goodbye to long loved possessions.
  8. Big assets like houses and cottages should be discussed with family, especially if there is a large family and the assets might need to be shared. A lot of family strife comes from poor communication between generations and among siblings.

There will be much more to say about getting old, about protecting quality of life and managing the rising costs of living on fixed incomes. We gain little from sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that we will be healthy and strong to the day we die. In reality our retirement plans should better reflect not our most hopeful ideas of retirement but instead our greatest concerns and seek ways to preserve our quality of life.

Pessimism is in! You Can Keep Your 2016

markets_1980043c

At the end of December we pointed out the themes of 2015 were unlikely to disappear into 2016. It’s just that in 2016 we would be more likely to think of those themes as established rather than new. And while that’s certainly the case I didn’t expect 2016 to so openly embraced that principle.

On our first day of business in 2016 the Chinese stock market had tumbled so steeply that market trading had to be shut down. Canadian manufacturing data also showed that Canada had hit its lowest manufacturing point in years and that manufacturing was continuing to decline. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia looks almost poised for war with Iran as tensions continue to heat up over flagrant human rights abuses that finally seemed to cross the line for someone. At the very least we might assume that oil prices would have risen on the growing tensions of the Middle East, but even that has yet to be the case. And while the Canadian dollar continues to tumble, even the United States is starting to show signs of wear on its economy.
So what to do? Eternal optimist might be excited by the prospect of discounted markets, but given the nature and severity of the problems that we currently face, it is difficult to endorse the idea of simply jumping into last year’s losers. Consider China as an example. There have been expectations that China would face serious economic consequences for its boundless growth for a long time. Optimists that predicted that China’s top-down economy was more clever and more sound than our own have clearly now been proven wrong. With so much to unravel does it make sense to invest in China right now? The answer is possibly, but not without taking on considerable risk.
FT China
The same can be said for Canada. Over the last six months the TSX has returned in excess of -12%. Are things cheaper than they were before? Certainly. Is the Canadian economy so healthy and discounted that it presents an irresistible opportunity to invest? Even the optimist would have to concede that’s unlikely. Falling oil, weakening banks, and declining manufacturing all speak for longer term problems that are yet to be resolved.
TSX last year highlight
In a past life when I worked for a mutual fund company I heard some smart advice about these types of situations. It involved corporate mergers, but is useful here. A particular fund would buy into companies that were merging but only after the merger was announced. Mergers are preceded by rumours which pump up share prices, and those gains can be huge. But it’s not until a merger has been announced and the plan outlined that the likelihood of the deal can be understood. The big jump in share prices represent opportunity but all the risk. They’d have missed the big money, but rather than gamble with money on the rumour of a merger that could be successful, they instead chose to bank the guaranteed gain between the time of the deal was announced and when it closed.
BRICs Trouble
There’s a lot of sadness underlying this photo…
This advice is good for investors generally as well, and is useful guidance when looking at distressed markets like we see today. Lots of markets have had significant sell offs. From the emerging markets to Europe and Canada returns over the past year have all been negative. But as people approach retirement it would make sense to not be to anticipatory of recoveries, and ensure that when we see market recoveries they are built on solid ground, that economic growth has secular reasons for occurring before running in and investing in discounted markets. It will not hurt investors to miss some of a gain in favour of a more certain perspective.
Let’s not squander this new year’s pessimism! Resist the temptation to chase last year’s losers, and be content to be a little pessimistic as our year takes shape.

Is It Time To End The “Senior” Citizen?

Margaret Wente is both enjoying the perks of her
Margaret Wente is both enjoying the perks of her “seniority” and worries that we may be undermining the future.

Over the weekend one of my clients posted an article from Margaret Wente about the many privileges bestowed upon seniors in Canada. Listing an almost unbelievable number of perks for “elderly” Canadians, which ranged from discounts at drug stores and movie theaters to government pensions and new federal tweaks to retirement programs, in every way seniors in Canada have it pretty good.

So good in fact that Margaret Wente has begun to despair. Not for herself, but for the future. The younger generation is definitely having a tougher time than their parents. And while none of this predicts that the Millennial’s will be poor, it does go to the heart of the uneven balance about finances that exists between generations.

Who has the most money and assets in Canada?
Who has the most money and assets in Canada?

One of the big changes in the federal budget was a reduction in the mandatory RRIF withdrawals that will effect everyone over 71. Putting the final nail in the coffin of the often heard and mostly pointless “RRSP/RRIF tax trap” the Conservative government has slowed the income coming to retirees from their long term retirement savings. This is being lamented as little more than “tax avoidance” for one generation by Carleton economics professor Francis Woolley, who has her own piece in the Globe & Mail about RRIF and Taxes. It’s a good read but if I may, her essential point is: “people don’t like to pay taxes.”

What’s happening is that we live in unprecedented times. Unprecedented in the life span of those living, the material wealth we have available to us, and the inverted demographics that comprise many countries around the globe. Everywhere people are richer, living longer and getting older. Many of our concerns about the economy, the cost of living, or the security of programs like CPP, or Social Security in the United States, are born directly from our success at creating a higher standard of living. Higher wages, better medicine and  a declining birth rate make us materially richer, until they don’t.

Courtesy of Gapminder
Courtesy of Gapminder

What you are looking at in the above chart is the changing nature of both Canada’s and the worlds age. From 1950 on Canada briefly saw a boom in the birth rate that has since reversed itself. The number of Canadians over 60 (the y-axis) is now better than 20% of the total Canadian population, while the number of children (on the x-axis) has been steady at about 5%.

“So, we’ll give them a little money to tide them over until they die, which will only be in a couple of years anyway, no long term financial entitlements for us!”

All the goodies that benefit the senior class of Canadians are getting more costly both because Canadians are living longer, but also because the tax-base needed to support many of those services is shrinking. But are seniors “too rich” as Margaret Wente thinks? Probably not. While Canadian poverty rates for the elderly are some of the lowest in the world, people who retire at 65 need to make all their savings last them until they are ninety, or older. You try and figure out what you are going to spend for the next 20-30 years. When Otto Von Bismark introduced the worlds first old age pension, it was for people who were 70 years old and their life expectancy was for maybe two more years. Today people retire and they live another lifetime. As we’ve previously said, when you’ve retired you’ve earned your last dollar. That can be a pretty scary thought.

The solution? There isn’t one. As I said these are unprecedented times. We still treat retirement like those who hit 65 are “old”. When my grandfather was 12 he had finished school, worked in

This book was written in 1997. 1997! It's taken 20 years for it to be relevant.
This book was written in 1997. 1997! It’s taken 20 years for it to be relevant.

a factory and eventually fought in the Second World War. By the time he was 65, suffering from lung deterioration after a life time of smoking, his face bore every year like the rings of a felled tree. My father on the other hand just had his 70th birthday and looks barely 60. That isn’t good genetics, that’s the product of good living. This trend is global, affecting everyone from China to Canada, and it will be with us for a long time. For many years people have been sounding the alarm about the demographic storm that is approaching, but such storms are slow moving. This is the beginning of a much larger set of conversations that will begin to address how we perceive retirement, savings, economic growth and government programs like the CPP. How we ultimately address and resolve the burgeoning conflicts about age and wealth will put many of us, and our retirement plans, to the test.

You Won’t Believe How RRSPs Can Ruin Your Retirement!

h64ocNo seriously, you won’t believe it. That’s because RRSPs really can’t ruin your retirement, and yet every year someone, somewhere writes an article about the RRSP Tax Trap! This year’s contribution is from the Globe and Mail, which was also the source of last year’s main entry (also by the same author). The argument in these articles is that your RRSPs can become a taxation nightmare, forcing up your annual income and making you pay a higher marginal tax rate in retirement than you did in your working years! Cue panic.

Wondering why you don’t hear this complaint more? Why you don’t see lots of special reports on the nightly news of some sad-sack sitting at his kitchen table opening letters and then explaining to the camera how he “never foresaw the tax nightmare he’s in” happening? That’s because this particular issue is often overlooked as being one of having too much money, and is not widely regarded as a significant problem by most people (in fact the opposite for most Canadians is true). And while it’s true that being wealthy can create more complexity in investment strategies the “mo’ money, mo’ problems” aspect here has yet to stir a vast number of people to forgo their wealth and move to a commune.

The crux of these regular articles however (the reason why your average middle class Canadian should worry) is because RRSPs don’t save you taxes, but DEFER them. This emphasis on deferral, that your taxes will come back to haunt you is the kind of half truth that the media cheaply peddles without much thought for whether it does any real harm to the investor reading the article. It’s also bad math, because in addition to the taxes you deferred by contributing to your RRSP, there is also all the taxes you didn’t pay over the lifetime of the investment.

Let’s create a simple scenario to better illustrate what I mean. Assume the following things:

  1. You are 50.
  2. You currently earn, and will never earn more than $125,000 from now until you are 71.
  3. That you contribute every year $22,000 to your RRSP
  4. That your investments will return an average of 6% per year.
  5. That you start your RRSPs at age 50 with $100,000
  6. You invest $5500 of your tax refund into a TFSA with a 6% ROI

Let’s also create a second scenario, identical to the first, but instead of saving in an RRSP you do it in an unregistered savings account, splitting the $22,000 contribution between that and a TFSA, with a taxable rebalance triggered every 5 years. In all other respects the scenarios would be identical. What would happen?

Well thanks to excel it would look something like this:

20 Year Savings Plan

That gap in returns is the compounding difference of avoiding ongoing taxes from rebalancing and investing a portion of your tax refund into your TFSA. In essence you made each dollar travel farther over that twenty years by utilizing your RRSP more than you did without out, to the tune of nearly 25% additional savings.

There are a lot of ways to play with this, with numerous avenues to improve or refine this scenario, but no matter how you slice up these hypothetical scenarios there will never be a version where having less money is inherently better than having more. Having more is the whole reason you’ve been saving in RRSPs in the first place.

h64pl

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be mindful of taxes in retirement, or that your retirement strategies shouldn’t include things like debt reduction or trying to maximize different investment pools, like TFSAs. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to be more sensible with your savings for retirement. What it does mean though is that realistic threats to your retirement are unlikely to come from having saved too much, and that concerns over your taxes being too high because you were good at saving your money is the literal definition of a first world problem. In short, don’t worry that your RRSPs are going to ruin your retirement when they will likely underpin a successful retirement plan.

What Your RRSP Should Have In Common With The CPP

rrsp-eggTo many Canadians the CPP is something that you simply receive when you turn 65, (or 70, or 60, depending on when you want or need it) with little consideration for how the program works or is run. That’s too bad because the CPP is successful, enlightening and puts its American counterpart, Social Security, to shame.

You’ve probably heard American politicians decrying the state of Social Security, claiming that it is broken and will one day run out of money. That’s a frightening prospect for those who will depend on it in the future. Social Security is a trust that buys US debt, and its use of US Treasuries (low risk debt issued by the US government) is crippling that program and even puts it at odds with attempts to improve government financial health (it’s more complicated than this, but it’s a useful guide). In comparison the CPP isn’t bound by the same restrictions, and operates as a sovereign wealth fund.

A sovereign wealth fund is simply a fancy way to describe a program that can buy assets, which is exactly what the CPP does. The Canada Pension Plan may be larger and more elaborate than your RRSP, but it can look very similar. The CPP has exposure to Canadian, American, European and Emerging Market equity. It invests in fixed income both domestically and abroad, and while it may also participate in private equity deals (like when the CPP bought Neiman Marcus) in essence the investments in the CPP are aiming to do exactly what your RRSP does.

CPP Breakdown

The big lesson here is really about risk though. The CPP is one of the 10 largest pension plans in the world. It’s wildly successful and is run in such a way as to be sustainable for the next 75 years. The same cannot be said for Social Security. But by taking the “safest” option Social Security is failing in its job and will run out of money by 2033. But by buying real assets and investing sensibly the CPP is far more likely to survive and continue to thrive through all of our lifetimes.

What’s also notable is what the CPP isn’t trying to do. It isn’t concentrated in Canada. It doesn’t need to get a substantial rate of return, and it doesn’t need every sector to outperform. It needs consistent returns to realize its goals, and that’s how it’s positioned. By being diversified and not trying to time the market, the CPP finds success for all Canadian investors.

I’ve said in conversation that if there was an opportunity to invest directly in the CPP I would take it. However until then the best thing investors can do is take the CPPs lessons to heart!

4 Reason Why Planning for Retirement is Getting Harder

How expensive is this Big Mac? More expensive than you might think...
How expensive is this Big Mac? More expensive than you might think…

For the enormous wave of Canadians that are on course to retire over the coming few decades, retiring and planning for retirement is getting harder.

Here are the four big reasons why!

1. Inflation

Inflation is the scary monster under the bed when it comes to one’s retirement. People living off of fixed pensions can be crippled by runaway costs of living, and naturally retirees dread the thought that their savings won’t keep pace with the cost of their groceries. But while historic inflation rates have been around 3.2% over the last hundred years, and have been around 2% (and less) over the past few years, inflation has been much higher in all the things that matter. Since the inflation rate is an aggregate number made up of a basket of goods that include big things like computers, fridges and televisions that have been dropping in price over time, those drops offset the rising price of gas, food and home costs. Since you buy food all the time and fridges almost never, the rate of inflation is skewed lower than your pocket book reflects.

You can show this in a simple way by comparing the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac over time. When the Big Mac was first introduced to Canada the price was .45¢, today that price is $5.25. Inflation has fluctuated a great deal since then, but let’s assume the historic rate of 3.2% was an accurate benchmark. If you apply that rate the price of a  Big Mac today would be $1.91, in reality the inflation rate on a Big Mac has been  much closer to 5.5%.

Canadian Inflation Rate from 2008 - 2014
Canadian Inflation Rate from 2008 – 2014

2. Interest Rates

The business of central bankers has gained greater attention since 2008, but for many making the connection between interest rates, the broader economy and their retirement is tenuous at best. The short story is that weak economies means low interest rates to spur borrowing. Borrowing, or fixed income products, have been the typical go-to engine for creating sustainable income in retirement, and low borrowing costs means low fixed income rates. The drying up of low risk investments that pay livable, regular income streams have left many retirees scratching their heads and wondering how they can keep market volatility at bay while still drawing an income. But as rates have stayed low, and will likely do into the future, bonds, GICs and annuities won’t be enough to cover most living costs, forcing retirees into higher risk sectors of the market.

Source: Bloomberg and FTSE TMX Global Debt Capital Markets, monthly data from July 31, 1989 to September 30, 2014, Courtesy of NEI Investments
Source: Bloomberg and FTSE TMX Global Debt Capital Markets, monthly data from July 31, 1989 to September 30, 2014, Courtesy of NEI Investments

3. Living Cost Creep

Guess what, the cost of living is going up, not just in real dollars, but because what we consider to be a “normal” number of things in our life keep expanding. Don’t believe me? When your parents retired they probably had a tv and an antenna for it. The cost of their tv was whatever they paid for it, and whatever it might be to replace it if it broke. By comparison most people today have moved into the realm of digital television, PVRs, and digital cable subscriptions. It’s almost unheard of today to not have a smartphone with a data plan and our homes are now filled with a wide assortment of goods and products that would have been inconceivable to a previous generation. The same is true for cars. While cars themselves cost less, prices are kept high by the growing feature creep that have slowly moved into the realm of necessity.

4. You Aren’t Dying Fast Enough

This appointment is wayyyy out in the future...
This appointment is wayyyy out in the future…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in a rush or anything; but the reality is that you are going to live a long time, and in good health. Where as retirement was once a brief respite before the angel of death swooped in to grab you maybe a year or two later, living into your 90s is going to be increasingly common, putting a beneficial, but very real strain on retirement plans.

In short, retirement is getting harder and harder to plan. You’re living longer, with higher costs and fewer low risk options to generate a steady income.

What Should You Do?

Currently the market itself has been responding to the low interest rate environment. A host of useful  products have been launched in the past few years that are addressing things like consistent and predictable income for those currently transitioning into retirement. Some of these products are able to reduce risk, while others explore non-traditional investments to generate income. But before you get hung up on what product you should have you should ensure that your retirement plan is meeting your needs and addressing the future. There is no product that can substitute for a comprehensive retirement and savings plan, so call your financial advisor today if you have questions (and yes, that includes us!)

Want to discuss your retirement? Send us an email and we’ll be in touch right away!

Forget Scotland, Canada is Playing Its Own Dangerous Economic Game

house-of-cardsIn a few hours we will begin finding out the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom, and we may be witness to one of the most incredible social and economic experiments  in the history of the Western World.

But while many suspect that a yes vote for Scottish independence may cast an uncertain economic future, it shouldn’t be forgotten that as Canadians we are also going through our own uncertain economic experiment. According to a survey conducted by Canadian Payroll Association and released this month, 25% of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque, with nothing left in their accounts once their bills have been paid for.

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 4.57.44 PM

In addition, the majority of Canadians have less than $10,000 set aside for emergencies and these numbers get (unsurprisingly) worse as you look at various age groups. Young Canadians are the worst off, with 63% saying they are living paycheque to paycheque between the ages 18 to 29.

But when it comes to planning for retirement, the numbers are significantly more dire. More and more Canadians are expecting to delay their retirement, citing insufficient funds for their retirement nest egg. Even as people (correctly) assume that they will need more money to last them through retirement, 75% of those surveyed said they had put away less than a quarter of what they will need, and for those Canadians getting closer to retirement (north of 50), 47% had yet to get to even a quarter of their needed savings.

None of this is good news, and it undercuts much of the success of any economic growth that is being reported. While the survey found that people were trying to save more than they had last year it also highlights that many people felt that their debt was overwhelming, that their debt was greater than last year and that mortgages and credit cards by far accounted for the debt that was eating into potential savings.

The report has a few other important points to make and you can read the who thing HERE. But what stands out to me is how economies and markets can look superficially healthy even when the financial health of the population is being eroded. This is a subject we routinely come back to, partly because its so important, and partly because no one seems to be talking about it past the periodic news piece. Our elections focus on jobs, taxes and transit, but often fail to begin addressing the long term financial health of those voting.

Why Malcolm Gladwell and TED Talks are a Terrible Way to Understand the Economy

The last few years have seen a slew of books that explore ideas about how nature governs far more of our lives than we might care to admit. Books like Stumbling On Happiness by Dan Gilbert and The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt both explore the way that the subconscious mind governs many aspects of our lives. Meanwhile a number of other books like Malcom Gladwell’s Blink and Steven Levvitt and Stehpen Dubner’s book Freakonomics are working to explain the secret rules of economics in our lives. Book’s like this tend to distill highly complicated ideas down to bite sized stories, simplifying complex data into snippets of wit and good storytelling and removing the scientific uncertainty that may accompany many of the findings the books claim to show.

What’s far more interesting is how useless much of this data is. Take for instance this video from Vox.com about the statistical benefits of being good looking.

While much of the data seems interesting it isn’t exactly helpful, especially when we consider that this is in aggregate and doesn’t likely reflect your reality.

In fact many of these theories don’t reflect reality the way they hope. Freakonomics co-author and economist Steven D. Levitt found this out when they attempted to bribe students to improve their grades. While they did get some positive results, the reality was it was far from a resounding success. Even with an opportunity to earn $200 a week if the children continued to improve their grades many simply didn’t take the opportunity.

You may have never heard of Hernando DeSoto, but the Peruvian economist is sought after around the world for his insights about poverty and property rights. His book (which I love) outlines some of the most convincing connections between lack of property and the ability to improve one’s standard of living. His argument was that if squatters were given ownership over their home they would have collateral to borrow against and could start or improve their businesses. However, when in 2004 the World Bank carried out a program in Peru to test DeSoto’s theory that land titles would lead to more lending by banks. In actuality it failed in its entirety, with bankers unwilling to lend against the only asset of an impoverished family.

An actual simple truth is that life is unbelievably complicated and its hard to understand and know what governs many of the elements of our lives. Whether the question is nature of nurture, economics or social sciences in the end we seem to know very little about what drives some of the biggest events in our lives. In spite of the number of times these theories prove to be wrong, our media has come to speak more and more in absolutes. It is getting to be so that you can’t get on television or in government unless you claim to know all the answers without doubt.

Meanwhile there seems to be an actual deficit in useful information that the media ignores. For instance, a more intriguing statistic is that in a recent poll by Gallup, less than 25% of Americans were able to correctly identify what has been the most successful type of investment (You can do the quiz here). Over a third of Americans haven’t taken any steps towards planning their retirement and I’m sure that number is similar for Canadians. There is a knowledge gap opening up, where knowledgable investors will be able to save on average 25% more than less prepared and less knowledgable people, a reality that could be addressed by the news, but is being perpetuated through bad journalism.

 

Why Buy an ETF?

Exchange Traded FundIt’s become an excepted fact amongst business reporters that the best investments to buy are ETFs, otherwise known as Exchange Traded Funds. What is an ETF and why are so many journalists convinced that you should buy them? Well an ETF is a fancy way to describe an investment that looks very similar too, (but isn’t quite) a stock market index. Unlike mutual funds, the ETF is bought and sold like a stock, but mirrors the performance of an index of your choosing, and by extension all the companies that make up that index. In that respect it shares the (supposedly) best aspects of both stocks and mutual funds. It is traded quickly and is quite inexpensive compared to a traditional fund, but unlike a stock is widely diversified and so should have reduced risk compared to a single company.

In the aftermath of 2008, many journalists that cover the investment portion of the news have touted ETFs as a better investment than traditional mutual funds, citing underperformance against respective benchmarks and the significant discount on trading costs for holding ETFs. ETFs represent a “passive investment”, meaning they don’t try to out perform their mirrored indexes, instead you get all of the ups, and all of the downs of the market. This message of lower fees and comparable performance has had some resonance on investors, and questions about ETFs are some of the most frequent I receive, however while I am not opposed to ETFs I am very hesitant about giving them a blanket endorsement.

That’s because I don’t know anybody who is happy with 100% risk. In the great wisdom of investing the investor should stay focused on “long term” returns and ignore short term fluctuations in the market. But investors are people, and people (this may shock you) are not cold calculating machines. They live each day as it comes and fret over negative news, get too excited about positive news and are generally greedy when they shouldn’t be. In short, people aren’t naturally good investors and being encouraged to buy an investment like an ETF exclusively on cost alone opens up all kinds of other problems for people who find that the market makes them nervous, or may be closing in on retirement. The passive nature of an ETF may be right for some people, but that decision will rarely depend solely on the cost of the product.

The hype for ETFs is therefore more comparable to buying a car exclusively on price based on the argument that all cars function the same way. But depending on your needs there may be multiple aspects you want to consider: size, safety, speed, etc. Investments are similar, with different products offering different benefits its important not to let greed set all of your investment designs. Investing is typically about retirement, not about maximizing every last dollar the market can offer. Reaching retirement is about balancing those investor needs with their wants, and frequently providing less downside at the expense of some of the performance is preferable to the full volatility of the financial markets.

From the Desk of Brian Walker – In Retirement Go Small

ImageFor many people approaching retirement, there may be mixed feelings about their house. Perhaps not their house, but their home. Homes are where important things happen for families and for many soon-to-be retiring couples there is sometimes some question about whether you should sell your home, or keep it in retirement.

While you may have lots of fond memories about your home however (and while your children may never forgive you for turning their room into a train model city) selling your family home in retirement can be liberating, financially and personally. Downsizing in retirement can represent an exciting new phase of your life, providing you with more leisure time, additional funds for travel and a considerable reduction in the amount of manual household chores.

I speak from experience, having recently moved from a country home of nearly 4,000 square feet and three acres of grounds to a modest 1000 sq ft condo in downtown Toronto. But deciding to make the move was difficult. I knew the benefits of parting with my home, the extra money I would have and the lack of physical work, etc. But I also recognized that I would also have to part with many things I had acquired in my life. In the end what finally drove my decision was the realization that caring for my home was now more a burden than a joy.

In most cases you will never be as healthy, or as in good shape as we are today. Retirement is no longer about spending your remaining years in your slippers. I have a bucket list of things I’d like to do, trips I’d like to take and a granddaughter I enjoy playing with. Your retirement should be about what you want, and while the decision to downsize our houses and change our lifestyles can be difficult, we shouldn’t be squandering our active years shackled to our homes.

It took me a year to make up my mind that it was time to downsize. Ultimately a pro and con list really helped crystallize my choice. There was lots of work to do, lots of emotion and stress associated with the move, but after six months in my new home I know I made the right decision.