You know you are getting old when

  1. You start paying attention to mail from Social Security
  2. Medicare Supplement adverts begin to flood your mailbox

Both of those have happened. Will you still love me when I’m 64? And Medicare sets  you free from your employer’s health care plan! When that happens, my employer has nothing to offer that I want!

Some Modeling

That’s what I do so naturally, this winter I sat down and made some financial planning models. I’d done that exercise a year or so ago but was not satisfied with it. I began to look around for something more robust than my shaky advanced mathematics and found Economic Security Planner is a sophisticated planning product developed by a Lawrence Kotlikoff, Boston University professor of economics, and his graduate students. It originally began as research with a spin-off company started to provide Windows software and web service. Professor Kotlikoff is a regular contributor to NPR’s Marketplace and to PBS News Hour.

Introducing ESPlanner

ESplanner is available as a web service and as a MS Windows program. The program version comes in 3 levels, basic, andvanced, and professional. The advanced and professional versions provide the same model but the professional version has client data management capabilities of interest to professional financial planners. The web service is layered with tiers similar to those of the program product. For most people, especially, those like me who keep a Microsoft Free Household (TM), the web service is the way to go. One program does not justify the hassle of Parallels and MS Windows administration when there is a viable alternative.

You can try the basic planner as a web service. The free test drive lets you enter model parameters, make runs, and retrieve reports but you cannot save your model for future updating. ESPlanner offers several levels of subscription that make saving model configuration, support, and advanced features available. The advanced versions of the model offer a couple of additional features.

  1. Monte Carlo evaluation for susceptibility to economic and market variability
  2. Pessimistic planning assuming that you loose all of your stock assets.

My first impressions of both of these features is that they are of limited use for assessing the basic adequacy of your retirement planning. What they do is offer some additional assurance that your standard of living is reasonably immune to market and economic events.

How ESPlanner Differs

Most free planners let you assume a yearly draw and determine the amount of assets needed to provision that draw at retirement. ESPlanner has a second mode of operation that answers the question “Given the assets I have, how much can I draw yearly?” Being in the position where wealth accumulation is drawing to a close, I used ESPlanner in this mode to determine what level of income my estimated assets at retirement would support. To my knowledge, this capability is unique and the results were reassuring. I was able to confirm that I held sufficient retirement assets to maintain my current standard of living.

What’s In the Model?

The ESPlanner model includes the following processes

  • Asset holdings
  • Investment performance
  • Proper treatment tax-favored (IRA and 401K) and regular brokerage accounts
  • Proper treatment of defined benefits pensions
  • Social Security and Medicare
  • US and State income taxes
  • Longevity assumptions (they recommend planning to 100)
  • Recurring obligated payments like mortgage, insurance contracts, etc
  • Planned expenses like cars, home renovation, college tuition, offspring’s weddings, etc
  • Periodic income from work or other continuing periodic sources
  • Lump sum income from estates, asset sales, etc.

The model calculates the yearly discretionary spending that your assets can support. In ESPlanner’s terminology, discretionary spending is any spending that is not obligated by law or by contract. For example, your taxes, mortgage payment, and loan payments are obligated. ESPlanner estimates your Federal and State income taxes from your total taxable income.

Monte Carlo Modeling

With the optional Monte Carlo feature enabled (at added cost) the model includes Monte Carlo analysis of sensitivity to historical stock market variability. This feature is useful for confirming that your holdings are adequate to survive stock market swoons and recoveries and inflation variability.

The Upside Investing Bit

The “Upside Investing” bit models the conversion of stocks to “safe” assets like bonds. Typically, you do this as you harvest growth assets to produce income. The process is a bit of a bucket brigade from stocks to intermediate bonds to short term bonds or cash. This is a rolling process because a good bit of the portfolio (50 to 65 percent) must remain growth invested to produce asset growth that keeps pace with inflation. The model does Monte Carlo analysis to confirm the adequacy of the asset migration plan in the presence of stock market swoons and recoveries. I found this feature less useful, possibly because I misused it.

Inflation and Investment Performance

Mean inflation rate and mean investment performance for each investment account are model input parameters. ESPlanner recommends 3% inflation and 5% investment growth. I used these values. The 5% value may seem conservative but this value is picked to reflect your mix of stocks and bonds. This is an assumption that I need to verify from time to time. During 2013, the S&P 500, NASDAC, and Dow are all up handsomely with soft bond performance. Bonds are returning coupon.

ESPlanner considers inflation and asset growth/shrinkage as part of the model but this does not appear explicitly in the reports. Rather, ESPlanner shows the reports in constant dollars. I find this easier to interpret than use of future dollars for future years. Future dollars make the inflation effects apparent but could mask declining real standard of living.

Social Security?

In the spending model, Social Security is an input obtained from the Social Secuirty web site or the yearly mailng. For a single person, that works well. If you have a spouse, you and your spouse have different ages and different earnings histories, and you have dependents, Social Security strategy becomes a complex problem with about one million permutations. The purpose of the Social Security optimizer is to evaluate you and your spouse as a unit to determine the optimum Social Security utilization strategy. Who should be the primary, who should be the survivors. Should one of you start and then suspend benefits? If you are single, the result is obvious as explained below. If not, then you need to use this model.

ESPlanner, Inc offers a Social Security optimizer. I gave it a try also and was surprised! The Social Security Optimizer told me I should delay collecting Social Security until age 70. Being a single male, this is a pretty simple decision. Delaying to age 70 to begin drawing Social Security increases your yearly draw by 1/3 from a defined benefits inflation protected source. By doing so and putting this result into the ESPlanner spending model, I was able to show that my yearly spending could increase relative to starting Social Security at age 66. The increase was significant.

This result seems counter intuitive so some explanation is in order. In the age 66 scenario, you must conserve assets early in retirement to maintain late in retirement standard of living. By delaying until age 70, those sequestered assets are freed to pay income during the shorter 100% out of pocket period. Basically, you are betting that you will live longer than the median life expectancy which Social Security uses to determine the payout rates. The Social Security early and late start adjustments are actuarially neutral. If your family history suggests, as mine does, that you will outlive median life expectancy for your cohort, it is a reasonable risk to take. My aunts and uncles not claimed by lung cancer or early colon cancer lived into their late 80’s and both paternal grandparents lived past 90. Given that I don’t have the risk factors (smoking, agricultural chemicals) of the early mortality uncles, It is a good gamble.

The other thing that surprise me was that Social Security would be a significant fraction of my after-seventy spending. For me, about half, maybe a bit more. A big surprise since I’m about a 92 to 93 percentile wealth unit. I’d assumed that Social Security would be providing Starbucks Money. Suddenly, I’m very much more interested in the shenanigans of the Republican House of Representatives now that I know Social Security will be doing more than buttering my bread.