How to Invest Conservatively for Retirement
If you are retiring soon, you might wonder how conservative to invest. That is, what asset allocation should you have given sequence of return risk? Let’s look at a 50/50 portfolio’s historical returns!
Current stock market valuations are high, which indicates future returns for the midterm are expected to be lower than average.
If you are retiring in the next 5-10 years, you need to mitigate Sequence of Return Risk by de-risking.
Is it time to invest conservatively given historical returns of different asset allocations? Let’s start by discussing just what asset allocation means to you.
Define Asset Allocation in Retirement
In brief, if you are drawing down on a portfolio while it has negative equity returns, there is a good chance of running out of assets in your retirement. While there are many ways to mitigate sequence of returns risk, one tried and true way is to make your asset allocation more conservative.
Historical 50/50 Portfolio Returns
Let’s look at recent history and see how a 50/50 asset allocation performs. If you are going conservative—de-risking—then a 50/50 portfolio is a good place to start. We can compare this to 0% and 100% equities, as well as 30/70 and 70/30 portfolios.
Figure 1 is busy but really informative.
See on the top of the figure with returns since 2000. In addition, see the annualized returns, standard deviations, the worst 3-, 6-, and 12-month returns, and the worst draw downs.
We start with 0% equities (100% treasury bills) on the left and end with 100% equities (S&P 500) all the way on the right. In the middle, asset allocations are 30/70, 50/50, and 70/30.
This is a great way to study expected future comparative returns of a 50/50 portfolio, and less and more aggressive asset allocations. Also, most of us can remember this time period well, so recency bias is strong given the two large recessions in this short time period.
Years with Negative Returns since 2000
Note that there are 5 of 18 years when equities had negative returns.
A 100% treasury portfolio avoided all of those negative years, but did have a year (2013) where it had negative returns.
Our least aggressive asset allocation (30/70) avoided 2 of the 5 negative years, but both the 50/50 and the 70/30 suffered from all 5 of the years with negative returns.
The annualized return (since 1970) for a 50/50 portfolio is 9.1%. This compares to 9.7% for 70/30 portfolio historical returns and 8.5% for a 30/70 portfolio historical returns. Are you surprised that the difference isn’t greater?
Worst 3-, 6-, and 12-Month Return
You can look at these numbers yourself to compare the different asset allocations. What is interesting to note here is how similar the worst 6- and 12-month returns are. That is, after a really bad 6 months, on average, it doesn’t get much worse from there.
In fact, look now at the bottom of the figure next. The worst drawdown is the percentage decrease from the top of the market to the bottom. Again, after a really bad 6 months, the market does not go down much more thereafter. Maybe that is a consideration as to when to be greedy (when others are fearful) during corrections?
Worst 36- and 60-Month Annualized Returns
Finally, note the worst 3- and 5- year periods.
Since 1970, a 50/50 portfolio had a 3-year return of -6.8% and a 5-year return of -2.1%. Note how these returns compare to the other listed portfolios.
Modern Portfolio and 50/50 Portfolio Historical Returns
The historical numbers above are based upon the S&P 500 and treasury bonds. History is nice to understand, lest we repeat it.
Today’s 50/50 asset allocation likely includes the modern portfolio theory. There are many ways to skin a cat, and many ways to allocate your assets. Let’s look at one version of the modern portfolio and see what a conservative 50/50 portfolio looks like.
Figure 2 (A Modern Portfolio with a conservative 50/50 Asset Allocation)
First off, note the annual return of 6.9% and standard deviation of 8.8% in the bottom right corner of figure 1. This compares to 9.1% and 9.3%, respectively, from our historical results above.
Future expected returns are lower for a modern 50/50 portfolio compared to historical returns. Note, however, that when you take the standard deviation into account—that is, when you risk-adjust the returns—the annual returns are not as disparate.
Instead of just being S&P 500 and treasure bonds, this version of a modern portfolio includes:
- 50% Equities (US, International, Emerging, Real Estate)
- 50% Fixed Income (US bonds, International bonds, Cash)
We can further break down the modern portfolio.
Modern Portfolio for a Conservative Asset Allocation
In figure 3, US equities are further broken down into Large Growth and Large Value, will a small addition of Mid Cap and Small Cap.
Bonds in this conservative 50/50 portfolio include 20% Corporate, 10% Government, 4% High Yield, and 1% Municipal. This is not an example of what I would do, but it is one way to skin the asset allocation cat. Some might consider Bond Alternatives.
Summary: Historical Returns of a 50/50 Portfolio
If you are going to be drawing down on your portfolio in the next 5-10 years, you need to pay attention to known Risks.
Above, we see the historical returns of a 50/50 portfolio and compare them to slightly more or less aggressive asset allocations. See the 70/30 portfolio historical returns and the 30/70 portfolio historical returns. You can see the worst-case scenarios.
In addition, I also demonstrate a version of a modern portfolio to show how you can portion asset allocation. There are many different ways to allocate your portfolio, and you can be as simple (Bogleheads 3-Fund Portfolio) or as complicated (Merriman’s Ultimate Buy and Hold Portfolio) as you wish.
Sequence of Return Risk is inevitable when withdrawing from retirement accounts. Plan your pre-retirement glidepath and “go conservative.” With a conservative asset allocation, you can be in the game for the long haul.