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Retirement saving myths

Retirement saving myths

Most of the financial advice we get is hopelessly inadequate and simplistic—if not outright wrong.

Last week, I heard Joseph Stiglitz launch a typically blunt and brilliant attack on some of the sacred cows of the financial advisory business. The economics professor at Columbia University in the US and winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics is popularly known as a trenchant critic of some aspects of globalization, though his academic work spans a wide range of economic issues, including financial ones.

“Long-term financial planning is a very complex task. Individuals cannot judge what they need to do and so they fall prey to wrong advice. This gives rise to fashionable rules of thumb," said Stiglitz in a presentation at the Second European Colloquia organized by Pioneer Investments in Vienna at the end of November. (Disclosure: I was in Vienna as a guest of Pioneer Investments.)

The most common rule of thumb is that an individual should invest heavily in equities at a young age and then gradually move into bonds as the age of retirement nears. A popular and pseudo-scientific way of defining this rule is as follows: subtract your age from the number 100, and you get your ideal exposure to equities. For example, a 30-year-old should have 70% of his long-term savings in equities (100-30) while a 50-year-old should bring it down to 50%.

Neat, huh? But also wrong, said Stiglitz.

Most financial advice—and the economics that underlies it—is flawed. It assumes that an individual has only two types of capital: relatively safe fixed-income bonds and equities that are more risky but which also give more returns. The question is how long-term savings should be distributed between the two as we age.

“The standard portfolio model ignores other forms of individual capital," said Stiglitz. One important form of this is human capital, which is usually calculated as the present value of all the future earnings an individual will earn over his working life.

Most of our value as economic animals resides in our ability to earn over our working lives—our human capital. According to some estimates, nearly 80% of an individual’s capital is human capital. This form of capital and its risk profile should ideally be considered while designing a good financial plan for retirement.

Human capital is usually more risky at a young age, points out Stiglitz. You are just starting off on your career and the future is uncertain. As you age and get settled into your chosen profession, the uncertainty about your ability to earn starts declining. Human capital gets less risky as you age.

Seen from this perspective, most financial plans are built on shaky foundations. A 25-year-old setting out down a fresh career path faces huge amounts of risk in his overall portfolio (financial and human), because his future earnings are uncertain. Ideally, his financial portfolio should have low risk to balance out the high risk in his human capital. He should be buying more bonds than he is usually advised to do. But the cookie-cutter financial advice that he gets is to put most of his savings into equities—and increase his overall risk.

The big question is whether human capital resembles a safe bond or risky equity. In a separate presentation, Stephen P. Zeldes, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University, asked: “Is labour income stock-like or bond-like?" He suggested there are no easy answers here. Without disagreeing with Stiglitz, Zeldes said labour income has both characteristics, depending on the circumstances.

All this makes financial planning a complicated process. Besides, other factors such as which industry one is working in, the nature of one’s family responsibilities and home ownership also need to be thrown into the consideration. In a country such as India, for example, where a large part of the population is self-employed, labour income would tend to be risky.

Perhaps we are wrong in blindly assuming that we should cut our exposure to equities as we age. In fact, a well-settled professional with stable earnings perhaps has more reason to invest in equities than, say, a young entrepreneur in a technology start-up.

These are nuances that are often ignored, even in our grander debates on how pension fund money should be used in India.

One challenge before those involved in designing social security systems is how to balance freedom of choice and good guidance. Choice is important because an individual knows about his retirement needs than outsiders. But, as Stiglitz pointed out, individuals make rational decisions by learning from past experiences—their own and of others. That’s not possible for retirement planning. A person who realizes at 60 that he has not saved enough for his retirement cannot say: “I’ll do better next time."

There is no second chance.

Your comments are welcome at cafeeconomics@livemint.com

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