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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 10: Debunking Guyton-Klinger Some More

A quick update on part 7 of this series, the Google Sheet toolkit to simulate your own safe withdrawal rate study: I added two more asset classes: Cash and Gold, with returns going all the way back to 1871. Enjoy!

Last week’s post about the Guyton-Klinger Dynamic Withdrawal Rule only scratched the surface and we ran out of time and space. So, today we like to present some additional and detailed simulation data to present at least four areas where Guyton and Klinger are quite confusing and misleading:

  1. The ambiguity between withdrawal rates and withdrawal amounts. A casual reader might overlook the fact that the withdrawal amounts may very well fall outside a guardrail range. Inexplicably, Guyton and Klinger are very stingy with providing information on withdrawal amounts over time. There aren’t any time series charts of actual withdrawals in their paper.
  2. True, Klinger shows time series charts in this paper, but they are only for the median retiree. Does anyone else see a problem with that? The good old 4% rule did splendidly for the median retiree since 1871 so I haven’t really learned anything by looking at the median. Wade Pfau showed (with a Monte-Carlo study) that the GK rule has a 10% chance of cutting withdrawals by 84% after 30 years. It’s very suspicious that the inventors of the rule don’t show more details about the distribution of withdrawals. You could call this either deception or invoke Hanlon’s Razor and blame it on sloppiness and incompetence, and both options are not very flattering.
  3. The Guyton-Klinger rule (even with a 4% initial withdrawal rate) is very susceptible to equity valuations. Results look much worse if you look at the average past retiree with an elevated CAPE ratio (20-30).
  4. Guyton-Klinger doesn’t afford you to miraculously increase your withdrawal amount without any drawback. The higher the initial withdrawal amount the higher the risk of massive spending cuts in the future.

So, let’s get cranking! We present another case study, the dreaded January 2000 retirement cohort, and also subject the Guyton-Klinger Rule to the whole ERN retirement withdrawal simulation engine to see how all the different retirement cohorts going back to 1871 would have fared. That’s over 1,700 cohorts because we insist on doing our simulations monthly, not annually.
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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 9: Are Guyton-Klinger Rules Overrated?

The number one suggestion from readers for future projects in our Safe Withdrawal Rate Series: look into dynamic withdrawal rates, especially the Guyton-Klinger (GK) withdrawal rate rules. The interest in dynamic rate rules is understandable. Setting one initial withdrawal amount and then stubbornly adjusting it for CPI inflation regardless of what the portfolio does over the next 50-60 years seems wrong (despite the extremely simple and beautiful withdrawal rate arithmetic we pointed out last week).

So, here we go, our take on the dynamic withdrawal rates. Jonathan Guyton and William Klinger proposed a dynamic strategy that starts out just like the good old static withdrawal rate strategies, namely, setting one initial withdrawal amount and adjusting it for inflation. However, once the withdrawal rate (expressed as current withdrawal rate divided by the current portfolio value) wanders off too far from the target, the investor makes adjustments. Also, notice that this works both ways: You increase your withdrawals if the portfolio appreciated by a certain amount relative to your withdrawals and you decrease your withdrawals if the portfolio is lagging behind significantly.  Think of this as guardrails on a road; you let the observed withdrawal rates wander off in either direction, for a while at least, but the guardrails prevent the withdrawal rate from wandering off too far, see chart below. It’s all pretty intuitive stuff, though, as we will see later, the devil is in the details.

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Guyton-Klinger Guardrails explained: Make the usual CPI adjustments to the withdrawals as long as the proposed withdrawal rate stays within the guardrails. If the withdrawal rate crosses one the guard rails make the necessary adjustment.

The Wall Street Journal calls this methodology “A Better Way to Tap Your Retirement Savings” because it allows higher (!) withdrawal rates than the traditional 4% rule. As you probably know by now, we’re no fans of the 4% rule and if people claim that we can push the envelope even further by just applying some “magic dynamic” we are very suspicious. Specifically, we believe that the GK methodology has (at least) one flaw and we like to showcase it here.Read More »

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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 8: Technical Appendix

Last week we published a Google-Sheet that calculates safe withdrawal rates to exactly match a specified real final asset value target. For 1,700+ retirement cohorts (starting between 1871 and 2015)! How do we compute those safe withdrawal rates in practice? I hope we don’t lose half of our subscribers this week but I thought it would be a great idea to show the mathematics behind our calculations. It’s simple arithmetic that we can easily implement in Excel/GoogleSheets and Octave/Matlab. But despite the simplicity, I haven’t seen anyone else use this methodology. Everybody (Trinity Study, cFIREsim, etc.) seems to be using the brute-force simulation technique of iterating portfolio values while applying withdrawals and returns over time. That’s an inefficient approach and we developed a more elegant technique. Read More »

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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 7: A Google Sheets Toolbox

One commenter the other day had a good suggestion: Publish the Excel spreadsheet that we use in our safe withdrawal rate research. Great idea! There is only one problem: we didn’t use Excel to calculate any of the SWRs. We did use Excel to create some tables, but the computation and most charts were all done using GNU Octave, a free number-crunching programming language, similar to Matlab.

But we still liked the idea of creating a tool to run some quick SWR calculations. In Octave, we can calculate a large number of simulations and calculate safe withdrawal rates over a wide range of parameter value assumptions. Millions and millions of SWRs over many different combinations of parameter values (retirement horizons, final asset value target, equity shares, other withdrawal assumptions). That would have been cumbersome, probably even impossible to implement in Excel. But a quick snapshot on how one single set of SWR parameters would have performed over time? That’s actually quite easy to do, even though there are 1,700+ different retirement cohorts between 1871 and 2015.

Update 2/10/2016: I added the gold and cash returns.

  • Gold returns are only completely trustworthy after 1968 when I got the London Fixing time series via Quandl. Before that, I had to rely on annual data from OnlyGold.com. If someone has a better (monthly) time series for 1871-1967 please let me know!
  • For cash returns I use:
    • 3-month T-bill interest rates from the Federal Reserve starting in 1934. Monthly data.
    • I have annual data for going back to 1928 from NYU-Stern. Data gathered via Quandl.
    • For 1871-1927 I use annual data on 1-year T-bill yields from Prof. Rober Shiller. It’s not exactly ideal to splice it this way but it’s the best I can right now. If someone has better data, please let me know!

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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 6: A 2000-2016 case study (or: Welcome to the Potemkin Retirement Village)

If you’ve been following our series on withdrawal rates (part 1 here) you have noticed that we’re quite skeptical about the 4% rule. That would be especially true for early retirees with a much longer horizon than the standard 30 years. Though, by reading through some of the research from the heavy hitters in the retirement research world, even the foundation of the 4% rule over 30 years seems to be crumbling a little bit:

  • Wade Pfau has been warning that due to high equity valuation and low bond yields the Trinity Study success rates are likely overrated. His argument is similar to ours in Part 3 of this series: we live in a low return world now and comparisons with past average returns could overstate the success probability of the 4% rule. He uses a slightly different methodology (Monte Carlo simulations) but reaches similar results.
  • Even Michael Kitces, arguably one of the great defenders of the 4% rule, has (inadvertently?) demonstrated that the 4% rule over 30 years isn’t all that sound. In the discussion after the famous “ratcheting post,” some readers (including yours truly) pointed out that we can’t replicate the success of the 4% rule with 1965/66 starting dates. Nothing to worry about, Kitces replied, all you needed to do is to use a very short-term bond (1-year T-bills) for the bond allocation, and you sail smoothly during the 1970s. Who would put 40% of the portfolio into 1-year Treasury bills (essentially CD interest rate) rather than trying to harvest the term premium of longer-term bonds? Very easy: someone with 20/20 perfect hindsight who knew that longer duration 10Y bonds will get hammered in the 70s and sink the 4% rule even over a 30-year horizon.

And I just became a little bit more skeptical about the 4% rule even over a 30-year horizon! But there is (at least) one prominent 4% SWR firewall still standing. In countless blog posts, discussions, forums etc. I have heard this quote (or variations of it):

“The 4% rule worked just fine during the Tech Bubble and Global Financial Crisis”

Let’s shine some light on that claim.Read More »

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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 5: Cost-of-Living Adjustments

Welcome back to the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. Last week we wrote about how Social Security can impact the SWR estimates. Even under the most optimistic assumption (no changes to the Social Security benefits formula), we didn’t think that the 4% withdrawal rate is safe.

But how about tinkering with the inflation adjustments, also called Cost-of-Living adjustments (COLA)? I often hear that one way to save the 4% rule in periods when the stock market doesn’t cooperate is to not do inflation adjustments for a few years. Or simply utilize the fact that we all potentially spend less (in real terms) as we age! How much can we push the initial withdrawal rate in that case?

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With a declining real withdrawal rate, we can afford higher initial withdrawals!

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Guest Post on Budgets are Sexy: My Top 7 Disagreements With Personal Finance Experts

J. Money, the personal finance blogger who runs Budgets are Sexy and RockstarFinance asked yours truly to write a guest post! Wow, what an honor! And, it turns out, this is actually my first guest post ever (not counting the “Christopher Guest Post” on the Physician on FIRE blog two months ago because that’s actually an interview). What did I write about? Initially, I proposed to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Tahiti to review some luxury resorts and report back, uhm, some time later this year. But J$ had another brilliant idea: write about my favorite finance pet peeves. And it got published today:

My Top 7 Disagreements With Personal Finance Experts

Of course, to read it all, you’ll have to head over to Budgets are Sexy. But please see below for supplemental material, i.e., some of our blog posts on the seven topics:

  1. Safe Withdrawal Rate:
  2. Robo-Advisers:
  3. Emergency Funds:
  4. Bonds to diversify equity risk:
  5. Bond vs. Stock Risk:
  6. Cash as bear market insurance:
  7. Tax loss harvesting:

 

 

 

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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 4: Social Security and Pensions

After a one-week hiatus over the holidays when we wrote about a lighter topic (dealing with debt, booze, and cigarettes, go figure), let’s return to the safe withdrawal rate topic. We’ve already looked at:

  • the sustainable withdrawal rates over 30 vs. 60-year windows (part 1),
  • capital depletion vs. preservation (part 2)
  • and the current expensive equity valuations (part 3).

The bad news was that after all that number-crunching, the sensible safe withdrawal rate with an acceptable success rate melted down all the way to 3.25%. So much for the 4% safe withdrawal rate! That 25x annual spending target for retirement savings just went up to 1/0.0325=30.77 times. Ouch! Sorry for being a Grinch right around Christmas time!

But not all is lost! Social Security to the rescue! We could afford lower withdrawals later in retirement and, in turn, scale up the initial withdrawals a bit, see chart below. How much? We have to get the simulation engine out again!

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With Social Security (and/or a pension) later during retirement, we can afford higher initial withdrawal rates!

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The aftermath of a sorority "getting healthy" on an average Tuesday night. But the medical community warns that the sweet spot of alcohol consumption is one to two drinks a day!

Seven reasons in defense of debt and leverage: Yes, you CAN have too little of a bad thing!

We hope you had a great holiday weekend and a very Merry Christmas! If you are looking for the fourth installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate series (see part 1, part 2, part 3), please come back next week. Who is in the mood for heavy-duty number-crunching when we’re still digesting the heavy meals and scores of eggnog from last weekend? Yup, every year around this time we reconfirm the concept known as “too much of a good thing.” Only those of you free of the sin of overconsumption can throw the first meatball, uhm, stone. I’m waiting… Still waiting… Nobody? See, we’ve all experienced overconsumption between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But is the opposite true as well?

Can there be too little of a bad thing?

The bad thing I’m talking about is debt. To many of us in the FIRE community, debt is a four-letter word – figuratively! An entire niche of the Personal Finance blogging world is dedicated to getting out of debt and that’s a really good cause especially for those with a low or negative net worth. Paying off credit card debt at 18-20% or student loan debt with high single-digit percent interest rates should be priority number one. But that doesn’t mean that all debt is bad. For us in the ERN household, we’re blessed to never have had any sizable debt, except for a 30-year mortgage that we plan to pay off not a day earlier than we have to. We enjoy the ultra-low interest rate (3.25%), the tax-deductibility and putting our money to work with higher expected returns elsewhere. We love leverage! Our blogging friend FinanciaLibre has written excellent pieces on the topic of leveraging your equity portfolio with the cheap borrowing costs of a mortgage, see hereRead More »