By Ted Reagle
With the Federal Reserve recently raising the target Fed Funds rate to the 5.25% to 5.5% range, now remains a great opportunity—the best in a long time—for retirees to lock in attractive low-risk returns for the portion of their retirement portfolio that they do not want exposed to stock market volatility.
As we saw last year, even short- and medium-term bond funds were quite volatile and did not provide the countermeasure to stock market declines that investors anticipated. So, locking in guaranteed returns at attractive rates in the fixed income allocation of an IRA or other investment account can be very reassuring for investors, especially after enduring nearly a decade in which returns on CDs and U.S. Treasuries were anemic.
Today, interest rates on CDs, U.S. Treasuries, and money market funds are at their highest level in 22 years. Investors can currently earn in the 5% range on any of these low-risk investments.
Interestingly, many retirees may not be aware that these rates are available to them because the bank or institution where their IRA accounts are held may not be publicizing or offering competitive rates. These low-risk investment choices can be readily bought in an IRA or taxable brokerage account at firms like Fidelity, Schwab, Vanguard, and many others.
The window to take advantage of these attractive interest rates could likely last for several more months before interest rates start to decline. Investment pundits anticipate that the Fed could increase rates by a quarter percentage point once more before the end of 2023, and that the Fed will begin to reduce rates either by the end of the year or in 2024 as inflation is brought down to the desired 2% range.
The Fed has raised interest rates for the past 16 months to combat inflation. Higher interest rates tend to reduce demand for goods and services because borrowing costs are higher, which in turn cools inflation. Inflation peaked at 9% in 2022, but fell to 3% in August 2023.
With the availability of 5% returns on low-risk investments, some retirees may be inclined to significantly reduce—if not completely eliminate—their allocation or exposure to the stock market. This could prove to be sub-optimal, however. Most retirement account investors will want to continue to invest a portion of their portfolio in the stock market to enable their accounts to continue to grow sufficiently and keep pace with inflation during their retirement years.
Historically, fixed income investments such as the ones we’ve been discussing and longer term bonds have earned in the 5% range. By contrast, the US stock market has earned in the 10% range, though stocks experience greater market volatility.
A portfolio comprised of 60% stock and 40% fixed income investments has evolved into a “typically appropriate” allocation for retirement accounts that strike a good balance between the desire to minimize risk with the need for the portfolio to continue growing to sustain income throughout one’s retirement years. For many retirees, investing 100% in fixed income will not provide sufficient long-term returns to support a lengthy life expectancy.
I also wanted to touch on the recent news that Fitch Ratings, one of the major bond rating services, has downgraded U.S. government debt, generally perceived to be the safest and most risk-free investment available, from their highest rating of AAA to AA+. This is the second time in history that U.S. debt investments have been downgraded, the other time being in 2011.
Fitch cited the federal government’s growing deficit, now at $34 trillion, as one of the main reasons for the downgrade. The rating agency also cited factors including deteriorating confidence in the government’s fiscal management due to partisan divisions and repeated standoffs over the debt limit, higher interest rates, and the failure to address medium-term challenges related to government entitlement programs.
The government deficit continues to increase in 2023, and interest expenses are increasing $180 billion this year as the cost to service government debt has risen with the increase in interest rates. And Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid entitlement programs are expected to continue to grow as the US population continues to age. These programs account for two-thirds of all government spending. Finally, tax revenues are down 10% so far in 2023, further exacerbating the deficit.
While the federal deficit is worrisome, the Fitch downgrade should not discourage investors from investing in CDs or Treasuries. The U.S. dollar remains the reserve currency for the world. There is global demand to own Treasuries. The U.S. economy is growing, 2.4% in the most recent quarter. Inflation is coming down. So overall the U.S. economic picture looks pretty good.