Investing basics: Tracking goals vs tracking returns

Financial literacy

When tracking your long-term success, what's the best measure to make sure you're meeting your goals?


Building a strong portfolio and tracking your rate of return is a great way to measure investment success, but is a quarterly percentage the best measure of how you’re tracking towards your long-term goals? While that rate of return is an important barometer, there are other facets that can impact how you access your overall wealth picture.

“We deal with it every day as we work with our clients, whether they’re high-net-worth or more modest—the mass affluent level—they all have pretty much the same concern,” says Bobby Lovgren, a wealth planning manager with RBC Wealth Management–U.S. “They want to sustain their lifestyle in retirement and they don’t want to run out of money.”

“Having enough” means keeping tabs on more than just that rate of return because the road to retirement is a long one that’s paved with taxes, inflation and volatility in the market. Here’s how to check the pulse of your retirement goals and prepare for whatever the financial tides may bring.

When three is better than four

One key concept, says Lovgren, is figuring out your “real” rate of return. In other words, how much do you actually keep after taxes?

“Let’s say, for example, you could buy a taxable corporate bond from a major U.S. company that’s paying four percent, or you could get a similar maturity, municipal bond paying three percent—which is better, four or three?” he asks. “It really depends on your tax bracket.”

If you pay higher than 25 percent on the four percent bond then your after-tax return on the three percent is actually better, explains Lovgren.

“It’s a simple concept where sometimes three is better than four—it depends on what you’re going to keep after tax,” he says.

Knowing how your tax rates will affect your rate of return is just as important as keeping tabs on how your investments are performing.

Inflation: The third dimension

Inflation is another aspect that’s often underappreciated when it comes to tracking long-term goals, as investors more than five years from retirement should be wary of the erosive effects inflation can have on their wealth.

“Let’s say we took a hypothetical client who had 50 percent in stocks as represented by the S&P 500 Index and 50 percent in bonds based on the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index—that generic portfolio for the year 2010 provided a combined pre-tax return of 10.8 percent,” says Lovgren.

In 1979, according to historical data, the same portfolio would have returned a comparable 10.3 percent.

“But the difference was the inflation rate in 2010 was 1.4 percent, so you had a very substantial return, even after tax,” he says. “On the other hand, that similar 10.3 percent return in 1979 came in a year when the inflation rate was 13.3 percent—so you actually fell behind in your goal of having a long, sustainable and comfortable retirement.”

He calls the inflation rate a “third dimension” that should be top-of-mind for any wealth plan.

“When inflation has been low, this hasn’t been a problem,” he says. “But when inflation is high, it can be a real concern for investors.”

The drama of volatility

Markets are volatile and so are people; both can impact your financial goals.

In the longer term, suppose your wealth plan is predicated on you earning an average rate of return of around five percent. Yet, your portfolio’s rate of return has shown volatility over the past few years, dipping below five percent some years and others up to 10 percent.

“And let’s say your plan calls for you to spend roughly four percent of your portfolio each year in your retirement,” says Lovgren.

In a year when that portfolio is down by 10 percent, including the four percent you spend, that portfolio will finish down 14 percent from where you were at the beginning.

“Which means the portfolio has to earn back over 20 percent the next year to bring you back [to breaking] even plus what you have to spend for the following year,” Lovgren says. “So volatility in the portfolio is one of the key things that has to be measured [to] make sure you’re still on track to meet your goals.”

And it isn’t just market volatility that will impact your portfolio.

Health care costs can be a substantial drain on any nest egg. According to a report from RBC Wealth Management, the projected lifetime cost of care for a healthy 65-year-old is $404,253—and that doesn’t factor in long-term care costs, which could be as high as $100,000 a year.

An unexpected change in marital status can also derail your wealth planning. Divorce settlements can be very costly for high-net-worth individuals. Invenergy CEO Michael Polsky’s 2003 divorce from his wife cost $184 million and BET founder Robert Johnson handed over $400 million in his divorce settlement from his wife Sheila in 2000.

When Lovgren sits down with clients to set up a financial roadmap, he likens the process to setting sail in a lake versus planning a transatlantic voyage. With a short lake crossing, he says, pointing yourself at your destination a degree off course and failing to adjust your bearings along the way will likely result in a minor inconvenience when you get to the other side.

“But if you’re a degree off course in the ocean, by the time you get to the other side, you could be in Africa instead of London,” he says. “The longer the journey—and for most of our clients retirement is a long journey as people are living longer than ever—the more important it is to make good course corrections based on changes in the financial currents.”

Tracking your investment returns is only one part of managing your overall wealth plan, which can also include estate planning considerations, philanthropic desires and managing life-altering events.

“Plans should be reviewed and updated on a periodic basis, making adjustments where necessary,” says Lovgren. “If there is a major event—whether market-related or in your personal life—as those (events) occur and dramatically change the assumptions we’ve been using, it’s important to sit down as soon as possible and reevaluate everything to make sure you’re going to remain on track for your goals.”

RBC Wealth Management, a division of RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Member NYSE/FINRA/SIPC.

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