A few days ago, Vanguard prepared a personal financial plan for me.
I actually have a personal financial plan already—one prepared based on the methodology our firm uses for our small business clients.
But the Vanguard plan is free to many long-time Vanguard Group customers. And I’ve been using Vanguard for my own retirement plan and our firm’s pension plan for years. I figured why not…
Note: Vanguard is apparently changing the way it provides personal financial plans but as I write this, the Vanguard plan is free for Flagship clients (more than $1,000,000 in Vanguard) and Voyager Select clients (more than $500,000 in Vanguard) and costs $250 for regular Voyager clients (more than $50,000 in Vanguard).
The good news, and maybe the most important point, is this: If you can get a free or low-cost personal financial plan from Vanguard, you should.
But can I issue three cautions regarding how Vanguard prepares its plans? Two cautions apply to everybody. One caution, a really important one, applies to small business owners.
Does Vanguard Overestimate Your Ability to Bear Risk?
A first quick point: For mature investors—say anybody aged fifty or older—the Vanguard planning tool may overstate an investor’s ability to bear risk. So you want to be alert to this possibility.
Now this risk stuff is really hard to argue about. Your or my ability to bear risk is pretty subjective.
But the Vanguard plan, based on my honest answers to its questionnaire, suggested an 80% allocation to stocks with only a 20% allocation to bonds. Wow, that’s adventurous.
My actual bond allocation equals 70% to stocks and 30% to bonds (all in Treasuries)… which is still pretty aggressive for someone aged fifty or older.
Vanguard’s own target retirement income funds for people my age, for example, have noticeably larger bond allocations.
The upshot in all this? One has to wonder if the Vanguard risk assessment formula pushes mature investors into a higher “risk” bracket than is appropriate… Especially if you don’t plan to draw money until you’re 70 or you dealt courageously with recent market gyrations, you can get a very high stock allocation. Maybe too high.
Note: The Vanguard certified financial planner who presented the financial plan explained that their risk assessment formula mostly looks at how far into the future you plan to begin your drawdown and at your historical willingness to stay in stocks and even increase your stock holdings in bad bear markets.
Should Vanguard Adjust its Recommendations for Valuation Levels?
Another quick point: The Vanguard personal financial plan uses time loops to come up with a bunch of different investment outcome scenarios including a median expected future value, a best-case-scenario value, and a worst-case-scenario value. The Vanguard personal financial plan then suggests savings tactics that should work 85% of the time.
All that is good, as far as it goes.
But here’s a potential problem with this simplistic approach. Relatively high stock market valuations (at least in the US) suggest a strong possibility of below average returns over the next decade for US investors.
Now, younger investors may not need to worry about this regression to the mean. They have decades of compounding left, decades of time for things to “average out.”
In fact, you know what? If you’re in your twenties or thirties? Just ignore this late middle aged hand-wringing.
However, for mature investors—just the sort of people who tend to have financial plans prepared—the unusually generous current valuations probably do matter. And in this case, the time loop methodology that Vanguard uses to come up with a handful of scenarios and an 85%-chance-of-success savings plan seems, well, overly optimistic.
A few bad years or an ugly bear market at the tail end of your savings when your balances are biggest or at the front-end of your retirement when you have decades of withdrawals left can really screw up your financial planning numbers.
If it were me? I’d recommend you double-check Vanguard’s numbers using the simulator available at www.firecalc.com.
A Big Bug for Business Owners
Here’s the big drawback with the Vanguard financial plan for small business owners: The plan doesn’t provide any way to incorporate the wealth you have built up in your small business.
For example, you may have a business worth, say, $200,000 or $500,000.
If that’s the case, you should be able to sell the business at some point and then use the proceeds for retirement savings. But the Vanguard personal financial plan doesn’t let you include this reality.
By the way, I get that a small business owner is in a special situation. And valuing a small business and understanding the tax consequences of a sale go way beyond what a certified financial planner is trained to do.
But 100% of small business owners need to include the value of their firms in their retirement planning. So not providing a way to deal with this reality means the Vanguard approach doesn’t work as well for business owners and entrepreneurs.
And a related note: This same problem confronts people who’ve accumulated significant direct real estate investments, because the Vanguard personal financial plan also excludes these outside-of-the-box investments.
Two Final Points
Some final housekeeping matters as this blog post ends…
Two past posts at this blog may be interesting if you’re thinking about your personal financial plan—especially if you’re a small business owner. Accordingly, let me just point those out here:
Big Benefits of Entrepreneurial Longevity (a post about the surprisingly powerful rewards of staying in the game a little longer).
Income Allocation Versus Asset Allocation (a post about how the most important thing to get right with your retirement planning is simply to save enough money).
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