The persistence of low interest rates and a bleak forecast for bonds are calling into question time-honored strategies for investing clients’ retirement portfolios. How are these factors influencing registered investment advisors’ view of retirement income?
DPL Financial Partners’ 2021 RIA Retirement Planning Survey looked into the ways this era of low interest rates is impacting the way advisors look at various retirement income strategies and how they put those strategies into practice for their clients.
“Some advisors see the need to rethink their approach while others cling to investment biases no longer in sync with market realities, that expose clients to unnecessary risks while leaving large portfolio allocations in exceptionally low-yielding assets like cash and bonds,” the survey said. “While traditional strategies like bucketing still make sense, the allocations within those buckets often don’t.”
Seventy percent of those surveyed said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their fixed income returns, up from about 55% last year. The increase in dissatisfaction aligns with a lackluster forecast for fixed income returns, which more than half of respondents expect to be less than 2.5%. DPL said this data supports the idea that advisors are becoming more aware of the realities of a decline in bond yields that has been going on for more than a decade.
However, DPL said the survey results suggest a second factor could be exacerbating the trend toward greater risk in retirement portfolios: A significant portion of advisors said they are charging reduced fees — or no fees at all — on fixed income assets.
More than half of the survey respondents (58%) indicated have been allocating more heavily to dividend-paying stocks (versus 45% in 2020) and 26% adding to riskier credit investments (versus 22% in 2020).
Meanwhile, 39% said they are allocating a portion of a client’s fixed income to an annuity as a strategy to bridge the gap between desired retirement income and bond portfolio yield.
The Fiduciary Dilemma Of Disparate Fees
Low interest rates are having an impact on how advisors traditionally manage client assets. The survey revealed that interest rates are affecting traditional billing practices as well. Well over a third of respondents said they either charge reduced fees on fixed income assets or charge no fees at all.
Attitudes Toward Annuities
For the third year in a row, DPL asked advisors if they would prefer an annuity that pays 6% guaranteed income for life (net of fees), while retaining cash value (until depleted by withdrawals) or a bond portfolio yielding 1.5%. The vast majority of respondents said they would take the annuity, while 16% — almost half as many as last year—said they would pick the bond portfolio.
DPL said that although this suggests some advisors personally feel more comfortable with bonds - irrespective of whether that is the best solution for the client - there was strong evidence of a growing openness among respondents to the role annuities can play in generating income when bonds aren’t up to the job. More than 38% reported allocating some client assets to an annuity, versus 29% last year.
This year’s survey results indicate a general increase in the use of annuities, and a growing trust from advisors and clients alike may be why. Client attitudes toward annuities are shifting as illustrated by the over 26% increase in respondents since 2019 who said clients “strongly like” or “somewhat like” the products.
In addition, advisors increasingly believe that annuities shine in a low interest rate environment. Almost three-quarters of respondents believe a low interest rate environment is a good time to use an annuity, an increase from 59% a year before.
The upward trend in positive annuity opinions coincides with an increase in advisors’ familiarity with different annuity products. Nearly half of respondents said they are “very familiar” with the various types of annuities, and 82% said they had a good working knowledge of both variable annuities and fixed annuities.
Advisor Perceptions Of Client Needs
More than half of the advisors surveyed said the primary job their client has tasked them with is providing a secure retirement. This is an uptick of 4% since 2019. Slightly less than 80% said predictable income is more important to clients than asset growth, a number that has been consistent since 2019.
Despite the lack of emphasis on asset growth, market-related anxiety grew once clients retired.
More than half of retired clients, according to advisors, worried about portfolio performance more than they did before stepping down from their jobs.
Views On Equity Risk And Sequence Of Returns Risk
As clients become more risk-averse when they approach retirement, advisors indicate they are taking steps to address their worries. In response to clients’ reduced risk tolerance, most respondents said they reduced equity allocation in the portfolio. It‘s worth noting that the investments advisors are using to de-risk are riskier than fixed income like bonds that was traditionally used to rebalance retirement portfolios.
Although purchasing an income-generating annuity is still not the top choice to respond to clients’ risk concerns, the survey showed it has become more common. The percentage of advisors choosing this option increased from 9% in 2020 to 22% in 2021.
When asked how they mitigate sequence of returns risks for clients, slightly fewer than half of advisors said they maintain a multi-year cash reserve. Although that percentage is down 8 points from 2020, this strategy is riskier given today‘s low interest rates when cash is earning negative real returns.
The number of advisors using an annuity with a guaranteed income rider has grown steadily in the three years since DPL started this survey and is now the second most popular choice, with 41% of respondents choosing this option.
Annuity allocation is becoming a more popular option to bridge the gap between clients’ desired retirement income and the yield from their bond portfolio. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they allocate to an annuity to fill an income gap from low bond yields in 2021 compared with 32% in 2020 and 23% in 2019.
The survey findings suggest that advisors are more aware of the benefits of annuities in this era of low interest rates, and more are using them.
Seventy percent of respondents understand that a low interest environment is a good time to use an annuity, up 11% from 2020.
And more advisors are exploring annuities as an alternative to fixed income, with 58% saying they have considered annuities, a jump of 17% since 2019.
Despite an increase in annuity usage, findings suggest a cohort of advisors who are unaware or unaccepting of the benefits of annuities and the limitations of bonds today.
Only 67% of respondents are aware that leading academics and economists support annuities as a more efficient means of generating income than fixed income portfolios, despite evidence that some annuities can generate income as much as 40% more efficiently than bonds.