How much equity should I hold after retirement?

Published: September 22, 2022 at 6:00 am

Many on the verge of retirement ask us, “how much equity should I hold after retirement?” This is a tough question to answer as it depends on the individual, but some general guidelines are possible.

Asking this question on the verge of retirement with no prior market experience can be harmful. It is essential to ask this question years before we actually retire so that we can plan appropriately.

We all appreciate the importance of equity when accumulating a corpus. The usual equity allocation recommended is 50-70%. We depend on equity to beat inflation in the accumulation phase.

Beating inflation is essential in the withdrawal phase (post-retirement) also. However, the equity allocation depends on the amount of corpus at hand. One of the most difficult financial problems is determining if a given corpus is sufficient to try and beat inflation in retirement.

Extreme cases – too little or too much corpus – is not a problem. Ten years ago, most middle-class retirees would have ended up on the too little side due to a lack of capital market exposure. Today they would have “some” experience with equity/debt mutual funds and have a corpus neither too small nor too big.  Deciding the asset allocation for such retires is a tough problem.

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Our recommendations are based on two basic principles: (1) Be conservative and err on the side of caution; (2) Appreciate the notion of the sequence of returns risk. Any stretch of poor equity returns at the start of retirement can deplete the corpus fast.

Ideally, our reliance on equity after retirement should be as low as possible.

Thumb rule 1: An equity allocation of not more than 30% for typical retirements is recommended.

Anything higher than this is acceptable only if the corpus is quite large.

For example, a retiree with a 30X corpus should not venture too much into equity. Here X = annual expenses in the first year of retirement. Whereas a retiree with, say, 75X corpus can afford some more quality.

The freefincal robo advisory tool is built with these ideas. The typical equity allocation recommended for different retirement ages (assuming the person is currently 26) is tabulated below.

RetirementEquity allocation

Even if the 26-year-old retires by 27 (naturally an unlikely event), the suggested equity allocation is only 38%. This is because an entire lifetime is spent in (early) retirement. This would mean seeing crashes, recessions and political turmoil. The corpus will deplete even faster if we withdraw from equity during these periods.

Many reply to this assertion that “they will live frugally and not touch equity when it is down”. If only we could be sure of how our life will be in future, how much we will spend etc.!

Thumb rule 2: Never assume a real return (after tax) during retirement!

This is related to thumb rule 1 and not independent, but it is better to spell it out. Zero real return or post-tax portfolio return = inflation rate is the highest real return one should assume. Ideally, I would prefer a minus 1% or even a minus 2% real return!

A bucket strategy and minimal equity dependence will automatically satisfy this. For examples, see:

Thumb rule 3: Can you generate inflation-protected income from fixed-income assets for the first 15 years of retirement? If yes, you can comfortably work with a bucket strategy. If not, your expectations have to be significantly more conservative.

A 15-year time window offers time to handle poor sequences of returns in equity. During this time, the 20-30% equity (typically) can grow largely untouched in other buckets (see above examples) for future use.

Finally, as an added safety measure, retirees can consider income flooring options by including a pension plan. See: How to beat inflation after retirement along with guaranteed pension.

The ultimate “safe” retirement strategy is to combine multiple pension plans (annuities) and a bucket strategy. This is explained here: Use this annuity ladder calculator to plan for retirement with multiple pension streams.

In summary, we have discussed some thumb rules for deciding equity allocation after retirement. Ideally, this should be considered right at the start of the retirement planning journey. If done on the verge of retirement, the answers (assuming they have no conflict of interest) are almost always disappointing.

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Pattabiraman editor freefincalDr M. Pattabiraman(PhD) is the founder, managing editor and primary author of freefincal. He is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He has over ten years of experience publishing news analysis, research and financial product development. Connect with him via Twitter or Linkedin, or YouTube. Pattabiraman has co-authored three print books: (1) You can be rich too with goal-based investing (CNBC TV18) for DIY investors. (2) Gamechanger for young earners. (3) Chinchu Gets a Superpower! for kids. He has also written seven other free e-books on various money management topics. He is a patron and co-founder of “Fee-only India,” an organisation promoting unbiased, commission-free investment advice.
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