My thoughts on the “Upcoming Recession”

“The recession is near!” Headlines like that have become more common recently. And I’m not talking about those ridiculous “sponsored posts” on Yahoo-Finance (“Reclusive millionaire’s warning: get out of cash now”) but the actual news; the Yield Curve inverted recently and then you add the “Trade War” and weakness abroad and everybody gets nervous. Even the U.S. Federal Reserve is nervous enough to start lowering rates again; one cut already in July and another 0.25% cut likely coming tomorrow! So, will the longest-running economic expansion end of “old age” soon and cause a sizable market correction? Or a bear market? Or a market crash? Should we even care? Since lots of readers have asked me to weigh in on those issues I thought this might be a good time to write a post on this.

First of all, hell yes, we should care. If the economy really goes South and the stock market with it, that would be detrimental for retirees and even folks well before retirement. Fortunately, despite all those bad headlines, I’m still sleeping well at night. Sure, the outlook has worsened since earlier this year and I am a bit more worried about the market now compared to before. But I’m still not too concerned in absolute terms. And my view is mostly based on economic fundamentals. Notice how that view is different from some places in the FIRE community where “no worries” has become something of a mantra. The standard applause line there is that “the market always recovers, so we don’t have to worry about a bear market!” But that’s really a strawman argument. Nobody ever argued that we’ll have a recession and a permanent bear market that we’ll never recover from! The stock market is tied to macroeconomic fundamentals and as long as the economy grows we can be confident that the market keeps delivering. But eventually getting back to the old peak is a pretty lame criterion. Why? Let’s look at the chart below from my post earlier this year, but updated to 9/13/2019. It plots the real (inflation-adjusted) total-return performance (dividends reinvested) of the S&P 500 since 2000.

SPX-Real-TR-Chart
Real, CPI-adjusted S&P500 total return (dividends reinvested) 12/31/1999 to September 2019 (month-to-date). I also marked the 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 peaks and troughs and how the index would have performed with an assumed 6% p.a. trend return.

Of course, the market recovers eventually. But it may take a while! The index didn’t reach the 2000 peak until 2013. And a zero-percent real return over 13 years is a pretty lousy goal. Or here is another way to look at the chart: Let’s start at the peak in 2000 and assume the 2001 and 2007-2009 recessions had never happened and the index had instead advanced at 6% per year (even a little bit less than the long-term average). We’d be 50+% richer today. Don’t tell me recessions and bear markets don’t matter! Also, we did catch up to the 2007 peak plus 6% growth, but even that took about 10 years. So, yes absolutely, recessions and bear markets matter because of what they can do to our retirement plans, compliments of Sequence of Return Risk.

I’m just pointing this out to stress that I’m not categorically unconcerned about a recession. I just don’t see enough evidence yet to run for the hills. Let’s take a look at the details… Continue reading “My thoughts on the “Upcoming Recession””

Another Option Strategy Failure: Why it’s “Nickels in Front of a Steamroller” and not “Benjamins in Front of a Baby Stroller!”

My little blog here may be mostly known for the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. But I’m surprised how many people share my other passion: options trading. Both here on the blog and at FinCon last weekend lots of fans of the blog asked me when I’m going to write something about derivatives again. Wait no more! I have been thinking about this one for a while; it’s another cautionary tale about markets going haywire and unsuspecting and unsophisticated investors are caught in between. And then they realize the “safe” and “conservative” strategy marketed by their financial adviser can blow up in their face!

The Wall Street Journal came out with a pretty detailed article (subscribers only) a few weeks ago, but the story has been around for a while. See, for example, on WealthManagement.com or SeekingAlpha.com. And this time it’s not some obscure small shop in Florida that got into trouble. No, it’s one of the big fish: UBS!  Their so-called “Yield Enhancement Strategy (YES),” marketed as a conservative and low-risk strategy to risk-averse investors with mostly bonds in their portfolio, racked up heavy losses late last year. Well, at least people weren’t completely wiped out like the poor sobs in the OptionSellers mess. But a purported 20% loss (about $1b) is still a hard pill to swallow for investors that were told that this is completely safe. Sure, if you were 100% invested in the S&P500 last year and lost 20%, then yeah at least you knew what you’re getting into. But for the average mom-and-pop muni bond investor, a 20% loss is pretty epic. And not in a good way!

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Headlines from around the web. Source: Wealth Management, Wall Street Journal, Seeking Alpha

Of course, looking at the low-yield environment right now – in some places we even have a negative-yield environment – I don’t blame investors for shopping around for higher yields. But be aware of the charlatans. If they tell you that higher yields come with no side effects run away! There is always a catch with a higher yield! Even if it’s your trusted personal wealth advisor at a shop as famous as UBS!!! This yield enhancement strategy involved a risky options trading strategy. With 5x leverage! And most of the investors didn’t even know what they were getting into unless they had read the pages with the fine print! So, let’s do a post-mortem for this strategy. What were they doing and how and why did this go so horribly wrong?

Continue reading “Another Option Strategy Failure: Why it’s “Nickels in Front of a Steamroller” and not “Benjamins in Front of a Baby Stroller!””

The Safe Withdrawal Rate Series: A Guide for First-Time Readers

We’re back home in Washington State after our epic 2019 Summer Tour. Four months on the road, mostly in Europe with a quick visit in Morocco for a week! In early August, while traveling I almost fell out of my chair (or was it my bed?) when I read that my little blog is nominated for not one but two (!) Plutus Awards this year. “Best Financial Independence/Early Retirement Blog” and my work on the Safe Withdrawal Rate research was nominated in the “Best Series: Blog, Podcast, or Video” category, how awesome is that? So, please accept my deep gratitude: thanks to everyone who took the time to submit a ballot and nominate my blog! I’m very humbled and honored. Whether it’s a Plutus Award nomination or just a friendly comment or email, thanks for supporting my work here! It always makes my day! 🙂

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Talking about the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series, I often get feedback like this one, let me paraphrase:

“The entire series is obviously very helpful but also a bit intimidating. As a first-time reader, where should you even start?”

I hear you! I totally hear you! So, I wrote a new “landing page” for the Series that has a summary of all 31 posts, grouped by major topic and also a few suggestions for readers what to read depending on preferences and where you are with your early retirement planning. There are two ways to get to this new summary page:

1: Click this new link:

https://earlyretirementnow.com/safe-withdrawal-rate-series

2: Even easier, when you’re anywhere on the ERN blog webpage, simply go to the top of the page and click the new menu option “Safe Withdrawal Rate Series” – see below!

NewMenuSWR1

So, if you get a chance, please check out that new landing page and let me know what you think! And please continue sharing the SWR Series everywhere people discuss safe withdrawal rates, ideally using that new landing page link! Many thanks in advance!

Continue reading “The Safe Withdrawal Rate Series: A Guide for First-Time Readers”

Can a Rising Equity Glidepath Save the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate Over a 60 Year Retirement? (Guest Post by Dr. David Graham)

Welcome back to another guest post. Dr. David Graham, over at FIPhysician has been on a roll. His spike in productivity has been the perfect “hedge” against my drop in productivity while traveling this summer, so when he offered me to write a follow-up on his very well-received guest post a few weeks ago, I was all for it. This current post is about adding a “glidepath” to your retirement portfolio and how and why this would change the success prospects over a 60-year retirement horizon. Over to you, Dr. Graham…

In my last post, I show a 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR) is actually NOT safe over 60-years (assumptions, assumptions). A more conservative 3.25% SWR does ok. On the other hand, if the asset allocation is increased from 60/40 to 90/10 stock to bond ratio, a 4% SWR thrives again. ERN advises, however, that a 90/10 portfolio sets you up for even more Sequence of Return Risk (SORR). SORR describes the long-term detrimental effects initial negative market returns have on overall portfolio success. Even if the stock market eventually recovers, selling part of your equity portfolio at rock-bottom prices can lead to premature failure of the withdrawal strategy.

What protects from SORR yet permits a higher SWR? A rising equity glidepath is one possibility. Let’s look at the details…

Continue reading “Can a Rising Equity Glidepath Save the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate Over a 60 Year Retirement? (Guest Post by Dr. David Graham)”

A Different Way to Plan Retirement – Guest Post on “Monte Carlo” Simulations by “Gasem”

Today we have another guest post, this time by our long-time reader “Gasem.” I’m sure most of you who have looked through the comments section here and at a number of other blogs would have noticed his comments. They are always highly insightful. He’s also a prolific writer on his own blog MD on FIRE, which I highly recommend. And if you’re not a Gasem-fan yet, I suggest you check out the What’s Up Next? podcast episode earlier this year where he was featured together with Susan from FIIdeas and VagabondMD

In any case, we had a discussion about using Monte Carlo Simulations to gauge safe withdrawal rates following David Graham’s guest post two weeks ago. And Gasem volunteered to write a guest post here detailing his approach measuring retirement risks. So without further ado, Dr. “Gasem,” please take over…

David Graham recently wrote a great post on this site regarding the 4% rule. What is the 4% rule really? You save 25x your yearly need and put it at some risk in a portfolio and then try to extract 30 years of value from the portfolio by extracting 4%/yr. 25x is the target (initial) principal. You have to inflation-adjust the withdrawal, and then you risk the principal at some interest rate above inflation. Let’s say you have 1M, you pull out 4% above inflation (and SORR doesn’t eat your lunch) you will preserve your capital and thus still have 1M 25 years later. You can re-retire for another 25 years on that 1M (capital preservation!) and still pull out 4%. So if inflation is 2% you need to make 6% on your money to run this money machine. 6% is the leverage on your future, That’s the “math” behind the 4% projection.

What’s the problem you say? The problem is volatility. The problem is the market can not guarantee 6% return and 2% inflation. Return is all over the map as is inflation. One year you may make 12%, the next year lose 20%. One year inflation maybe 2% and 5 years later 13% (1979). If you’re lucky it’ll work out you tell yourself, probably will work out, I read it on the internet! So what’s the probability? That’s where “Monte Carlo Simulations” come in. Let’s take a look… Continue reading “A Different Way to Plan Retirement – Guest Post on “Monte Carlo” Simulations by “Gasem””

Does A 4% Withdrawal Rate Survive a 60-Year Retirement? (Guest Post by Dr. David Graham)

You might have noticed that I haven’t published any guest posts for a while. I even explicitly state on my contact page that I’m no longer interested in publishing any guest posts. But every once in a while you make an exception to the rule. David Graham, actually, Dr. David Graham (FIPhysician), has been on a roll with a bunch of top-notch guest posts on other personal finance blogs; first writing for the White Coat Investor blog on Roth Conversions, then two guest posts on Physician on FIRE, first on Asset Location in Retirement, and then on Buffer Stock and Bucket Strategies to alleviate Sequence Risk in retirement. All really important topics! And after sending a few emails back and forth with the good Dr. Graham we agreed on a topic for him to publish a guest post here on the ERN blog, Instead of using backward-looking historical return windows, as I would normally do in my SWR Series, why not check the sustainability of the 4% Rule with forward-looking return projections? Vanguard and a lot of financial companies publish those every year. Sounds like an interesting exercise! So, without further ado, please take over Dr. Graham…

As we all know, ERN is the man when it comes to Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR) and FIRE. Reading between the lines, he has a different opinion on SWRs for a 60-year retirement vs. a more traditional 30-year plan. Obviously, using only historical data, it is more difficult to study SWR with rolling 60-year stock and bond returns than 30-year periods. Nevertheless, FIRE often subscribes to the 4% rule despite a prolonged period of income demands on the accumulated nest egg. In order to further understanding of the 4% rule over a longer than usual planned retirement, let’s visualize the 4% rule over a 60-year period and see what we can learn. Continue reading “Does A 4% Withdrawal Rate Survive a 60-Year Retirement? (Guest Post by Dr. David Graham)”

My thoughts on Small-Cap and Value Stocks

People have often asked me what I think about value and small-cap equity portfolios. So, this is a post I always wanted to write but kept postponing because I never knew how to best frame it. But now I have the perfect excuse to write it; last week, I listened to the ChooseFI podcast and they had Paul Merriman as a guest in episode 130. Paul Merriman is one of the big proponents of small-cap and value stocks. Of course, they talked about a variety of topics and I thoroughly enjoyed most of the discussion. I’m completely on the same page with Paul, Jonathan and Brad on a wide range of issues. For example:

  • Choose index funds over actively managed funds
  • Take emotions, especially fear and greed out of investment decisions
  • Young investors benefit from Dollar Cost Averaging. Specifically, a market crash early in your investing life can even be beneficial, at least under specific assumptions, as I wrote earlier this year in “How can a drop in the stock market possibly be good for investors?
  • Young investors shouldn’t even think about bonds in the portfolio when starting out. Use 100% equities, use as much risk as possible.

But there’s one thing I vehemently disagreed with! Paul Merriman seems to suggest that by using a “better” or “smarter” equity allocation, specifically, overweighting the value and small-cap styles – both domestically and internationally – we can increase our expected return by two full percentage points a year. And just to be sure, this is not stock picking but simply asset class/style picking, all implemented with passive ETFs. Two percentage points of extra return? Let that sink in! 2% a year can compound to a large sum over the years and then you retire and you get extra 50% of withdrawals when you add 2 percentage points to your 4% safe withdrawal rate. Pretty impressive! There’s only one problem: Merriman’s recommended portfolio didn’t return those two extra percentage points over the past few decades. And there are good reasons to believe that you will not gather those 2% extra returns going forward either. Let me explain why… Continue reading “My thoughts on Small-Cap and Value Stocks”

How To “Lie” With Personal Finance

“Lies, damned lies and statistics” (Mark Twain)

“Do not trust any statistic you did not fake yourself” (Winston Churchill)

There is a classic book called “How to lie with Statistics” that I read many, many years ago (actually decades ago!) as a college student. If you’re ever looking for an inexpensive but fun and impactful present for a young student/graduate with the hidden agenda of getting that person interested in math and statistics, this is the one! The book taught me to take with a grain of salt pretty much anything and everything number-related. Anywhere! Whether it’s in the news or in the Personal Finance blogging world and even (particularly?!) in academia. I’m not sure if I was already a severely suspicious (paranoid?) person before reading this or the book turned me into the person I’m today. So, inspired by that book, I thought it would be a nice idea to write a blog post about the different ways numbers are misrepresented in the FIRE/Personal Finance arena. And just to be sure, this post is not to be understood as a manual for fudging numbers, but – in the spirit of the “How to Lie With Statistics” classic – serves as a manual on how to spot the personal finance “lies” out there!

And there’s a lot of material! Probably enough for at least one more followup post, so for today’s post, I look at just four different way of how quantitative financial issues are frequently fudged in the personal finance world. And a side note about the slightly attention-grabbing title I used here: Well, I put the word “Lie” in quotation marks to show to the faint-hearted that this is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I could have written, “fudge the numbers” or “Enron-accounting” or “How we delude ourselves in personal finance,” or something like that. Also, Hanlon’s Razor (“don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence”) comes to mind here, but I’m not sure if those faint-hearted folks feel that incompetence is a significantly more benign explanation than malice.

So, let’s look at some of my favorite examples of how people lie to themselves (and others) in the realm of personal finance…

Continue reading “How To “Lie” With Personal Finance”

Where are they now? A Case Study Update with “Captain Ron”

From 2017 until early 2018 I ran a series of ten case studies for readers who volunteered to open their books and serve a real-world safe withdrawal rate guineapigs. The second case study in July 2017 was for Captain Ron (not his real name) who was planning to FIRE and enjoy early retirement with his wife on a sailboat! That title picture you see up there, that’s their actual boat! Sounds like a great adventure, not just the financial aspects but also the lifestyle changes are daunting! So, how did that all go? Captain Ron just sent me an update on how life has been, so Ron, please take over the wheel…

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We retired in September 2017 as planned and are really enjoying life. Financially things are great and we have adjusted to the sailing life, but that first year of cruising was a surprisingly difficult transition. More on that later.

Continue reading “Where are they now? A Case Study Update with “Captain Ron””

A Bond/CD Ladder Toolkit

A while ago I created a little toolkit to design my own bond and/or CD ladder. With a bond/CD ladder, by the way, I mean holding a portfolio of bonds and/or CDs so the cash flows comprised of maturing CDs/bonds plus interest income exactly matches a specified time series of target cash flows over time. Of course, if you’re regular readers of this blog you know that I’m not too thrilled about investing in bonds or CDs. Yields are just too low, compliments of my former colleagues at the Federal Reserve. But there are still a few interesting applications for bond/CD ladders. Some of them purely for “academic curiosity” and not because I actually want to implement them. So, here would be a few questions I’d try to answer with this toolkit:

  • If I wanted to build my own little “quasi-annuity” to guarantee a certain cash flow for 30 years or so, how much money would I have to set aside today to guarantee that cash flow? This is obviously not because I actually want to do this. As we will see later, the cash outlay today would be so prohibitively high that I’ll prefer to take my chances with the stock market and the Sequence Risk that comes with it!
  • How much of a difference would it make if I required regular cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) along the way rather than getting one fixed nominal “income” along the way?
  • Related to the issue above, if someone already has a corporate pension without COLA, how much would he or she have to set aside to supplement this pension and guarantee a certain COLA, say, 2% a year?
  • When interest rates were higher only a few decades ago, how feasible would it have been to create a bond ladder for retirement? Could we have gotten rid of Sequence Risk completely?
  • If I wanted to hedge my first 5-10 years of early retirement against Sequence Risk and at least partially fund my retirement expenses through a CD ladder, how much money would I have to set aside?

So, today I’ll share that spreadsheet and some of my sample calculations and results. I hope you’ll find value in playing around with it, too… Continue reading “A Bond/CD Ladder Toolkit”