Shock absorber

Treasury bonds have long performed an important job for investors—they’re pretty much the only asset that tends to increase in value when there’s a panic, whether that’s from a terrorist attack or a financial crisis. Giulio Renzi Ricci, senior investment strategist at Vanguard, says Treasuries still have a role to play as a shock absorber, and he continues to expect US government debt to be a haven when times get tough.

But once you account for inflation, government bonds have always been vulnerable to losing money. In inflation-adjusted terms, (using the CPI index, for example), 10-year Treasury securities are in negative territory, as they’ve often been historically. And with the notes currently yielding less than 1%, their capacity for absorbing shocks has been greatly diminished.

Even a small drop in investment returns has immense impact on when, or whether, people can afford to retire. Imagine a 35-year-old investor who has socked away $50,000 and plans to put away $500 a month for the next 30 years. An annual return of 7% would result in a retirement portfolio worth more than $1 million when the person is 65. An annual return of 4% would result in holdings worth about half of that, around $513,000—plus, three decades of inflation will eat into those returns, raising the risk that the person outlives their savings.

Risk appetite

Finance professionals have mixed opinions on where to go from here.

As far as Jared Woodard is concerned, the 60-40 portfolio is dead. “I came out with this thesis a year ago, and I’m more confident than I was before,” said Woodard, who heads the research investment committee at Bank of America.

He argues that such a conservative portfolio has pretty much always been a bad deal for investors: a dollar invested in the entire US stock market in 1950 would be worth $1,763 now, while a dollar in a 60-40 portfolio would have only risen to about $535.

If investors can’t afford to save more, they may instead dial up the risk, pushing more of their holdings into stocks (an 80-20 portfolio, perhaps), or swapping government bonds for corporate bonds and loans, emerging-market assets, or longer maturity debt. (Woodard thinks savers can take prudent risks by investing some of their money in things like corporate bonds and loans, higher yielding municipal debt, and even tech stocks, which have been a crowded trade for some time but remain one of the few places to find companies with decent earnings growth.)

But taking more risk has, well, risks. In swapping out Treasuries for riskier securities, “you’re diluting your diversification benefits,” Vanguard’s Ricci says. “You’re getting more expected return but for a higher level of risk.”

If the stock market tanks just before a person retires, they might not be able to ride out the losses before they’re due to stop working.

Corporate bond and gold ETFs

Surprisingly, even as the hope for returns dwindles, investors in the US don’t appear to be giving up on bonds. So far this year they’ve put almost $20 billion into exchange-traded funds for Treasury debt, though that’s on pace for the lowest annual total in four years, according to Eric Balchunas, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. Corporate bond ETFs, meanwhile, have sucked in more than triple that amount. (Much of that money was probably trying to get in ahead of the Fed, which bought company debt ETFs for the first time ever. The central bank did so to keep the coronavirus pandemic from disrupting corporate financing markets.)

With Treasuries yielding so little, some investors have looked to gold as their crisis hedge. Gold ETFs have taken in $32.5 billion this year, blowing away the old annual record of $12 billion.

Research suggests that a lot of Americans are fairly risk-averse when it comes to their savings. In a Wells Fargo/Gallup survey about investment and retirement optimism, only 4% of the respondents said they were comfortable taking “a lot” of risk, while 46% said they wanted to take “only a little risk.” When it comes to investing, 59% said the fear of losing money was the emotion that had the biggest influence on their tolerance for risk.

Keep on working

If investors can’t afford to save more and aren’t willing to dial up the risk, then they may plan to work longer. Indeed, almost 30% of people surveyed by financial advisor Edward Jones said they plan to delay retirement because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The trouble with this strategy is that people can overestimate their capacity to keep working. The average retirement age in the US is 61 and has barely budged in recent years. That’s five years younger than the age at which people, on average, expect to retire, according Gallup survey data of adults over age 18. Some may leave the workforce earlier than expected because of health problems, or to a look after a family member.

Older workers who lose or leave their jobs may find it difficult to find employment again, sometimes because of age discrimination. In this recession, customer-facing jobs in the retail or hospitality sectors may not be an option for older workers because they face greater Covid-19 health risks than younger employees.

“I suspect a lot of aspiring retirees think they’re going to be able to work longer than they’re able to,” said Robert Williams, a vice president at the Schwab Center for Financial Research.

Not saving enough for retirement has long been a problem for many Americans, but Williams says ultra-low interest rates are “shining a light” on this concern. (In his view, the 60-40 portfolio isn’t dead, but he argues the investment staple needs to be adjusted, potentially with company debt instead of government debt, or more exposure to the stock market.)

Ritholtz’s Carson, meanwhile, suspects ultra-low interest rates will encourage financial institutions to start marketing exotic stuff—financial products that use derivatives or leverage, as demand grows for anything with a hint a extra yield. Mostly, though, he expects that many people ”are just going to have to work longer, whether they want to or not, and rely pretty heavily on Social Security.”

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