What’s wrong with Target Date Funds?

November 9, 2020

Amazingly, after 4+ years of blogging and 200 posts, I haven’t written anything about Target Date Funds (TDFs). For some folks, they are certainly a neat tool. Your fund provider automatically allocates your regular retirement contributions to a portfolio that they deem appropriate for your age and/or the number of years you’re away from your retirement date. It’s a hands-off approach for people who don’t want to think about their asset allocation and simply outsource that task to a fund manager.

But I think not all is well in the TDF world. People planning for FIRE should stay away from TDFs. But even for traditional retirees, there are some unpleasant features. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “What’s wrong with Target Date Funds?”

What to make of that Q3 U.S. GDP number?

October 29, 2020

Today’s GDP release for the third quarter came in at 33.1%. Not a typo. After the disastrous second-quarter number of -31.4%, the worst quarterly number on record we now got the best quarterly reading on record. What’s going on here? What do I make of that number? Are we out of the woods now? I’m putting on my economist’s hat for today and share my thoughts in a short post. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “What to make of that Q3 U.S. GDP number?”

Can we raise our Safe Withdrawal Rate when inflation is low? – SWR Series Part 41

October 26, 2020

A few weeks ago I wrote the post “Do we really have to lower our Safe Withdrawal Rate to 0.5% now?” about the pretty ridiculous claim that the Safe Withdrawal Rate should go all the way down to just 0.5%, in light of today’s ultra-low interest rates. The claim was transparently false and it was great fun to debunk it. But recently I came across another proclamation of the type “We have to rethink the Safe Withdrawal Rate” – this time proposing to raise it all the way up to 5% and even 5.5%! Well, count me a skeptic on this one, too. Though I’d have to tread a bit more cautiously here because the 5.5% SWR claim doesn’t come from some random internet troll but from the “Father of the 4% Rule” himself, Bill Bengen. He’s been doing the rounds recently advocating for a 5% and even 5.5% Safe Withdrawal Rate:

  • In September in a piece he wrote for FA-mag with a recommendation to raise the SWR to 5%.
  • On October 1, the same article, reprinted almost verbatim under a different title in the same magazine: “Choosing The Highest Safe Withdrawal Rate At Retirement”
  • On October 13 on Michael Kitces’ podcast, Bengen made another explicit SWR recommendation: “[I]n a very low inflation environment like we have now, if we had modest stocks, I wouldn’t be recommending 4.5%, I’d probably be recommending 5.25%, 5.5%” It’s not clear what made him raise the SWR by another 0.25-0.50%, though.

And the whole discussion was quickly picked up in the personal finance  and FIRE community:

The main rationale for increasing the SWR: inflation has been really tame recently and will stay subdued over the coming years and even decades. That’s his forecast, not mine! Hence, Bengen makes the case that we’d have to make smaller “cost-of-living adjustments” (COLA) to our withdrawals. Smaller future aggregate withdrawals afford you larger initial withdrawals, according to Bengen. But as you might have guessed, the calculations that justify the significantly higher withdrawal rate don’t appear so convincing once look at the details…

Continue reading “Can we raise our Safe Withdrawal Rate when inflation is low? – SWR Series Part 41”

Should we preserve our capital and only consume the dividends in retirement? – SWR Series Part 40

October 14, 2020

Welcome to a new installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series!  40 Parts already! If this is the first time you encounter this series, I recommend you check out the landing page here to find your way around. 

Today’s post is about a question I’ve encountered quite a few times recently. If Sequence of Return Risk means that you face the danger of retirement ruin from liquidating (equity) shares during a down market early during retirement, why not avoid touching your principal altogether and simply live off the dividends only in retirement? Sounds reasonable, right?

But by solving the “running out of money” problem we create a bunch of new questions, such as:

  • Will the principal keep up with inflation over a typical retirement horizon?
  • Will your dividend payments keep up with inflation over time?
  • How much volatility in the dividend payments would you have to expect?

So, in other words, the “dividend only” strategy – simple as it may seem – is somewhat more complicated than your good old Trinity-style 4% Rule simulations. In the Trinity Study, failure means you run out of money before the end of the retirement horizon – simple as that. With the dividend-only approach, failure can come in many different shapes. For example, you may not run out of money but the volatility of dividends could be too high and/or you face deep and multi-year (or even multi-decade!) long drawdowns in dividend income and/or you have to live like a miser early on because the dividend yield is so low. All those are failures of sorts, too. Then, how good or how bad is this dividend-only approach? Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “Should we preserve our capital and only consume the dividends in retirement? – SWR Series Part 40”

Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) better than a Retirement Account?

September 23, 2020

In last week’s post, I showed that if you have access to an Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPP) offering the full 15% maximum discount you can justify prioritizing the ESPP over an index fund investment in a taxable account, despite the higher risk. But I didn’t answer another important question: would you want to prioritize your ESPP even over retirement savings accounts? 

If your company match is 50% or even 100%, well, then you get a quick guaranteed 50% or 100% return, much higher than any ESPP discount you can expect. The retirement plan with such a high matching percentage easily mops the floor with that puny 15% ESPP discount. But what about the 401(k) contributions after the match? Should we forego those and invest in the ESPP instead? Is the ESPP better than a Roth IRA?

Well, it all depends on your personal situation, specifically, your tax and benefit parameters. So, that’s the question for today: How do we determine priorities across the different savings vehicles? Under what conditions would we forego the 401(k) contributions beyond the company match and invest in the ESPP instead?

Let’s take a closer look: Continue reading “Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) better than a Retirement Account?”

Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) Worth the Risk?

September 16, 2020

One question I’ve gotten from readers a few times over the years is whether the participation in a so-called Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) is worthwhile.

A little bit of background: some corporations offer their employees to buy stocks of their company at a discount of up to 15%. There are some strings attached, though. For example, there are often minimum holding periods, anywhere between a few months and up to two years. The discount is also taxed as ordinary income, though the subsequent capital gains may qualify for treatment as long-term gains.

If you can liquidate the stocks right away and pocket the discount, then participating is likely a no-brainer. Take the money out of the ESPP and invest it in a low-cost index fund. It’s a nice boost to your contributions in your taxable account after you’ve maxed out all your other tax-advantaged options. 15% adjusted by your marginal income tax rate – federal and state. That would still be more than 10% for most people! Pretty sweet!

But what should you do if there’s a minimum holding period? During that time, part of your portfolio is now concentrated in one single corporation. The opposite of diversification. So, it’s a tradeoff: You get the discount but you also take on additional risk. Is it still worthwhile? This is an inherently quantitative question. Without putting hard numbers behind this we can talk about this until the cows come home. The only way to answer this question is through a quantitative exercise. And it turns out, the numbers look like it’s indeed worthwhile to participate in an ESPP, especially if you can get the full 15% discount, the maximum allowed under federal law.

Let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading “Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) Worth the Risk?”

Do we really have to lower our Safe Withdrawal Rate to 0.5% now?

August 31, 2020

Recently, there’s been some discussion in the FIRE community about a controversial post written by Sam, a.k.a. “Financial Samurai,” claiming that in light of the current record-low bond yields, specifically, the sub-1% yield on the 10-year Treasury bond, we now all have to scale back our early retirement safe withdrawal rates to… wait for it… only 0.5%! Of course, I’m one of the more cautious and conservative planners in the FIRE community, see my Safe Withdrawal Rate Series, but even I would not push people to less than 3%, even in light of today’s expensive asset valuations.

So, 0.5% seems a bit crazy low to me. What’s going on here? It’s pretty simple; the 0.5% number relies on several mathematical, financial and just plain logical flaws. Let’s unpack them all… Continue reading “Do we really have to lower our Safe Withdrawal Rate to 0.5% now?”

The Shortest Recession Ever? My Thoughts on the State of the Economy

August 25, 2020

A lot of people – online and offline – have been asking about my opinion on the economy. When will the recession be over? Is the recession over already? How does the recession stack up with other events in the past? What are the risks going forward?

So many questions! Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “The Shortest Recession Ever? My Thoughts on the State of the Economy”

How often should we rebalance our portfolio? – SWR Series Part 39

August 5, 2020

In the 3+ years, while working on the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series, I regularly get this question:

What’s my assumption for rebalancing the portfolio?

In the simulations throughout the entire series, I’ve always assumed that the investor rebalances the portfolio every month back to the target weights. And those target weights can be fixed, for example, 60% stocks and 40% bonds, or they can be moving targets like in a glidepath scenario (see Part 19 and Part 20).

In fact, assuming monthly rebalancing is the numerically most convenient assumption. I would never have to keep track of the various individual portfolio positions (stocks, bonds, cash, gold, etc.) over time, but only the aggregate portfolio value. If the portfolio is rebalanced back to the target weights every month I can simply track the portfolio value over time by applying the weighted asset return every month.

But there are some obstacles to rebalancing every single month:

  1. It’s might be too much work. Maybe not necessarily the trading itself but keeping track of the different accounts and calculating the aggregate stock and bond weights, potentially making adjustments for taxable accounts, tax-free and tax-deferred accounts, etc.
  2. It might involve transaction costs. Even in today’s world with zero commission trades for ETFs, you’d still have to bear the cost of the bid-ask spreads every time you trade.
  3. Even if you hold your assets in mutual funds (no explicit trading costs) there might be short-term trading restrictions prohibited you from selling and then buying (or vice versa) too frequently.
  4. It might be tax-inefficient. If an asset has appreciated too much you might have to sell more of it than your current retirement budget to bring the asset weight back to target. But that would mean you’ll have an unnecessarily high tax bill that year. Of course, this tax issue could be avoided by doing the rebalancing trades in the tax-advantaged accounts, not in the taxable brokerage accounts.

And finally and maybe most importantly, there might be a rationale for less-than-monthly rebalancing: it might have an impact on your Sequence of Return Risk. So, especially that last point piqued my interest because anything that might impact the safety of my withdrawal strategy is worth studying.

So, on the menu today are the following questions:

  • Under what conditions will less-frequent rebalancing do better or worse than monthly rebalancing and why?
  • How much of a difference would it make if we were to rebalance our portfolio less frequently?
  • Could the “right” rebalance strategy solve or at least alleviate the Sequence Risk problem?

Let’s take a look… Continue reading “How often should we rebalance our portfolio? – SWR Series Part 39”

When Can We Stop Worrying about Sequence Risk? – SWR Series Part 38

July 15, 2020

Welcome back to a new installment of the Safe Withdrawal Series! If you’re a first-time reader, please check out the main landing page of the series for recommendations about how to approach the 38-part series!

I’ve been mulling over an interesting question I keep getting:

Is there a time when we can stop worrying about Sequence Risk?

In other words, when is the worst over? When are we out of the woods, so to say? A lot of people are quick throwing around numbers like 10 years. I would normally resist giving a specific time frame. The 10-year horizon indeed has some empirical validity, but I also want to point out a big logical flaw in that calculation. Nevertheless, in today’s post, I want to present three different modeling approaches to shed light on the question. And yes, I’ll also explain what the heck that Mandelbrot title picture has to do with that! 🙂 Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “When Can We Stop Worrying about Sequence Risk? – SWR Series Part 38”