Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Inflation Bogeyman

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D. © 2009

“Inflation Adjusted” projections are the standard in the financial planning industry. I don’t use ‘inflation adjusted’ numbers, and haven’t for over 20 years. This raises eyebrows and sparks wonderment.

It’s not that I deny that prices increase over time and that the dollar becomes less valuable. The point is that inflation is not the key economic driver for real people, except perhaps those who are living at a subsistence level (keep in mind that the average household income is ~$50,000 per year). When gasoline prices spiked to over $4.00 a gallon, it is likely that you complained about it, but it didn’t really affect your lifestyle. But, if you were living on a subsistence level, expensive gasoline probably did take a toll.

Inflation adjustments became the rage in the 1970’s when oil prices, wages, and expectations devastated the value of the dollar. The financial planning industry, which encompassed mostly life insurance sales people at that time, found a terrific tool. By simply adjusting the inflation assumptions upward by 2-3% and projecting out over 30-40 years, it was easy to make a convincing case that you needed to buy more life insurance!

It’s like holding a yard-stick level while grasping one end in one hand. If you barely move your wrist so the stickmoves up by a teeny amount near your hand, the ‘long-term’ end of the yardstick jumps up a foot or two. Very scary.

Back then inflation was raging at 14-15% a year. Most financial planners made their projections using a 10-12% inflation adjustment. Being conservative, I used an 8% per year inflation adjustment. Some of my clients then are still my clients…so, tell me: was an 8% assumption too high or too low?

Most people, including professionals who have the benefit of a rear-view mirror, quickly respond that 8% was much too high. If compared to the actual annual increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), it was indeed too high – the actual rate of inflation over a 30-year period starting in the late 1970’s was in fact only 3.7%!

But when I meet with clients now who were clients then, their own ‘standard of living’ increased at about a 10% rate. Why? Because one spouse went to law school and the other became a tenured professor at a college, and their increasing affluence enabled them to move from a Chevy to a Pontiac to a Cadillac. Now they vacation in Europe instead of trekking ‘up north’ to camp. So the ‘inflation rate’ is not the predictor of future living expenses: it’s the increase in your standard of living that matters.

“But the dollar won’t buy as much in my retirement as it does now!” exclaims a client. Yes, that is true for the most heavily weighted goods and services in the CPI calculation. But when you are retired, you don’t need to worry about rising costs in education, real estate, or medical (assuming you have insurance or Medicare).

In my experience, retired clients in their late 70’s or early 80’s actually see their living expenses shrink – even if the CPI is increasing. Why? Because they have ‘been there, done that, and have the T-shirt.’ As we age we generally become less mobile. Keeping up with the latest fashions is no longer an imperative. Our cars last longer, and we keep our outdated computers and telephones longer, dreading the ordeal of having to ramp up another learning curve. Recent industry studies have confirmed this phenomenon.

Again, the real driver in financial projections for real people is your standard of living, not the U.S. CPI. Once you accept that fact, a key endogenous reality becomes apparent … financial independence depends on your own spending habits. Handling this is not difficult. Usually your earnings outpace inflation while you are working, and if you save 10+% of your earnings, your savings and market increases in a well-balanced portfolio will more than offset inflation.

There is a problem, of course, if your income increases substantially and you increase your standard of living accordingly. Movie stars, rock bands, athletes, etc. with meteoric incomes often don’t moderate their standard of living. They think their popularity will never end. When their gravy train stops, they are faced with bankruptcy.

The reason we focus on clients’ net worth rather than the return on their investments (ROI), is because it is net worth that should correlate with increases in standard of living. The rate of return on your investments is one variable that can affect your financial success. But other more important variables include how much you save (yes, even when you are retired!), how you manage debt, your spending patterns, and certainly how much you earn.

Money managers focus on quarterly investment returns (inflation adjusted, of course). They evaluate returns on their investment portfolio in relation to various stock indexes to justify their value-added in a client relationship. They are not comprehensive financial advisors and, to our way of thinking, they are tracking the wrong variable. Real people are impacted much more by how much they pay in taxes, how much they save, real estate decisions, and their spending patterns than by their investment ROI.

We focus on achieving market returns in a client’s overall portfolio. A market rate of return is usually all a client needs if they live within their means. Our “value-added” certainly includes keeping clients’ portfolios properly allocated with solid investments. But we concentrate first on what we can help clients control by helping them pay less taxes, manage their debt, recognize the risks they are taking outside their portfolios, and warn them about dangers they may face.

This is a long way from figuring out how much your inflation adjustment should be. Indeed, the Inflation Bogeyman is not as scary to your financial future as most people think!

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY.

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