Sunday, October 21, 2012

Means, Tested

Recently the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College released a paper titled “Can Retirees Base Wealth Withdrawals On the IRS’ Required Minimum Distributions?”¹ The answer to that question, according to CRR, is “yes.” A more complete response might be, “yes, or any number of other random withdrawal methodologies.”
There are some advantages to a drawdown strategy based on the schedule provided by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for required minimum distributions, or RMDs.² First off, and as the CRR paper notes, it’s relatively straightforward. Secondly, it effectively defers initiating withdrawals until age 70-½, which also provides some additional accumulation opportunity. Perhaps most importantly, it helps avoid the stiff penalties the IRS imposes on those who don’t withdraw funds from these accounts at least as rapidly as the RMD schedule provides. The CRR paper cites as an advantage the reality that those drawdowns are based on the portfolio’s current market value, though surely some people remember how the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on those accounts triggered a more aggressive withdrawal schedule than many found optimal or necessary.

A previous post dealt with another popular drawdown method: the so-called 4 percent rule (see “Withdrawal ‘Symptoms”). As with that 4 percent “rule,” once you stipulate certain assumptions about the length of retirement, portfolio mix/returns, and inflation, those type guidelines are really “just” a mathematical exercise that involves stretching a finite pool of resources over an estimated period of time.

The CRR paper outlines a series of reasons as to why the RMD approach might be superior to alternatives such as the 4 percent rule, but ultimately the biggest shortcoming of the RMD schedule as a basis for withdrawal may be that it fails to take into account how much income is needed, much less when it is needed—and it’s based on a series of assumptions that may or may not apply to an individual’s real-life circumstance.

Of course, in a very real sense, relying on any arbitrary systematic calculation to determine how much, and how fast, to drawdown savings can be seen as a way of living within your means—an approach that can work just fine if you have first made preparations to have adequate means upon which to live.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

¹ The CRR report is online here.

² Information about required minimum distributions is available at the IRS website, online here. IRS worksheets to calculate the amount of the RMD are online here.

For some interesting data on actual withdrawal rates from individual retirement accounts, see “Withdrawal Symptoms.”

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