Retirement strategies with low risk, high returns
(CNN) I'm planning to retire soon and would like to invest my retirement savings in something that's secure and also generates high income. Where can I find safe high-yield investments in today's market? --Gary, Philadelphia
Sorry, but the phrase \"safe high-yield investments\" is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp and honest politician. Investments that promise fatter yields or hold out the prospect of above-average returns always come with more risk, whether it's in the form of more volatile returns or loss of principal. If anything, it's even more dangerous to stretch for loftier yields and returns today given the wild swings we've recently experienced in stock prices, the iffy shape many economies are in around the globe and the possibility of higher interest rates in the not-too-distant future.
Granted, inflated risks on higher yielding investments may not always be apparent, and many investors lull themselves into a false sense of security by convincing themselves that higher risk isn't there. But make no mistake, it's always lurking somewhere, ready to ensnare anyone who forgets there's no free lunch in the investing world.
You don't have to look hard for instances where people stretching for plump yields got burned. For example, many investors drawn to emerging market bond funds in recent years by payouts that were sometimes more than twice that of U.S. Treasuries have experienced double-digit losses over the past 12 months, as growth prospects for emerging market economies have begun to fade in the face of China's economic troubles and falling commodity prices.
And the 2008 financial crisis is replete with examples of individual investors who bought ultrashort bond funds or bank loan funds with generous payouts on the assumption that those investment were secure, only to see their values drop precipitously.
All of which is to say that you need to re-set your investment return expectations, if not your entire investing strategy.
Let's start with what \"safe\" investments are available to you and what they pay. If by safe you mean investments that will not put your principal or investment earnings at risk of loss -- and also offer you immediate access to your money without penalty or surcharges -- then you have very few options. Basically, you're talking cash equivalents, none of which have anything close to high yields.
Treasury bills and money-market funds that limit themselves to the shortest-term Treasury securities certainly qualify as safe, but their yields are a paltry 0.01% or so these days. You can get more by shopping around for the highest-paying FDIC-insured savings accounts, money-market accounts and short-term certificates of deposit. But you're still talking only 1% or a bit more a year. (\"Rewards\" checking accounts may offer higher yields, but they typically have caps on how much you can invest and/or make you jump through all sorts of hoops to get the higher rate.)
Some people throw other investments that have higher yields into the safe category, including short-term bond funds and dividend-paying stocks. But these investments don't really offer the same security of principal and earnings as cash equivalents. Short-term bond funds can lose at least some money when interest rates rise, as rates almost certainly will at some point.
And despite their dividend payments, dividend stocks are still stocks, so their value can drop substantially during market swoons. Investors in the iShares Select Dividend ETF found that out when Select Dividend shares lost more than 60% of their value from the market's October 2007 pre-financial crisis high to its March 2009 low.
That doesn't mean that stocks and bonds can't play a role in your retirement investing strategy. In fact, they probably should play a larger role than safe investments. Why? Well, if you think about it, you don't need access to all of your retirement savings at once. You'll draw on it over a very long time. So you really only need to put the money in safe investments that you'll have to tap for living expenses over the next couple of years or so, plus perhaps a bit more to cover unexpected expenses and emergencies.
The bulk of your savings can then go into a portfolio of stocks and bonds (or, more likely stock funds and bond funds), which can generate the higher returns you'll need to maintain your purchasing power against inflation and prevent you from depleting your nest egg too soon.
When you create this portfolio, you want to be sure that percentages you allocate to stocks and to bonds reflects your tolerance for risk and your ability to handle major market downturns. To arrive at a stocks-bonds mix that's right for you, you can check out Vanguard's free risk tolerance-asset allocation tool. You'll also want to ensure that your portfolio includes all types of stocks -- large and small, growth and value, domestic and international, dividend- and non-dividend payers -- as well as a broad sampling of bonds. (You can create this portfolio by buying individual stocks and bonds on your own, or you can do it much more easily by investing in stock and bond index funds.)
Fix your mix: Asset allocator tool
If that diversified mix of stocks and bonds doesn't throw off the income you need from dividends and interest payments alone -- which will likely be the case for most people -- you can generate more income by simply selling shares as needed. Or you might consider devoting a portion of your savings to an immediate annuity, a type of investment that can provide guaranteed monthly payments for as long as you live.
In short, you'll have a much better shot at a secure and comfortable retirement if you spend your time and energy creating a viable retirement income plan, rather than engaging in a vain search for investments that purport to offer an often-sought, but ultimately unattainable, combination of safety and high returns.