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Why Asset Allocation May Not Matter

Are you worried about having the right mix of stocks and bonds in your nest egg? A new study indicates that asset allocation might not be as important to your long-term financial health as making better use of other retirement-planning tools, including working longer, controlling spending or taking out a reverse mortgage.

The report, from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, is titled, appropriately enough: “How Important Is Asset Allocation to Financial Security in Retirement?” The various holdings within a person’s retirement accounts typically play an early and prominent role in dealings with financial advisers. But given the relatively small size of most nest eggs (less than $100,000 for those approaching retirement), researchers at Boston College set out to determine whether other “levers” could have an equally large – or larger – effect on financial security in later life.

To that end, the study engages in three exercises. First, researchers looked (by means of an Excel spreadsheet) at the tradeoff between investment returns and time spent in the labor force. Second, using actual household data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, the center examined how the gap between retirement resources and retirement needs is affected by different strategies (controlling spending, etc.).

Third and last, researchers looked at the value for the average household of moving to an optimal investment portfolio from a typical conservative portfolio.

With all three exercises, the findings were essentially the same: Asset allocation played a relatively minor role in creating a secure retirement. The one exception, in some instances: households in the top decile of wealth distribution (more than $500,000). But even here, the study notes, the “importance of asset allocation was…less than one would expect.”

The upshot: Financial planning tools, the report concludes, “frequently highlight the asset allocation decision, suggesting that individuals have a lot to gain by adopting a more optimal allocation of stocks and bonds.” But financial advisers “will be of greater help to their clients if they focus on a broad array of tools – including working longer, controlling spending, and taking out a reverse mortgage.”


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About Encore

  • Encore examines the changing nature of retirement, from new rules and guidelines for financial security to the shifting identities and priorities of today’s retirees. The blog also explores news that affects retirement, from the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and around the web. Lead bloggers are reporter Catey Hill and senior editor Jeremy Olshan. Other contributors include The Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnists Glenn Ruffenach and Anne Tergesen; the Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Alicia Munnell; and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, Michael Kitces, CFP.