U.S. Equity Returns: History and Big ERN’s 10-Year Forecast

Expensive equities are a hot topic these days. Jack Bogle warned of lower expected equity returns recently (only 4% nominal!) and the CAPE has finally crossed 30 this month, according to Prof. Shiller. What does that mean for investors? What does it mean for early retirees? There has been a flurry of activity in the FIRE blogging world on this topic with posts by Physician on FIRE, JL Collins, Think Save Retire, and two consecutive ChooseFI Monday podcasts with JL Collins and with yours truly just two days ago discussing this topic, too.

I don’t think anyone has recommended selling equities and running for the hills. I certainly haven’t, and I am probably one of the more pessimistic FIRE bloggers. Please don’t buy gold coins! Personally, I would never bet against the U.S. stock market. If you had invested $1.00 in large-cap equities in 1871, your investment would have grown to over $13,000 by July 2017, even adjusting for inflation. In nominal terms, to more than $260,000! How amazing is that?

S&P500 Cumulative Returns
Real, CPI-adjusted S&P500 returns. $1.00 would have grown into over $13,000! (for full disclosure, the index didn’t exist back then and has been back-filled with historical stock return data by some smart economic historians)

So the good news is: Stocks have the tendency to go up, on average. The broad index not just recovered from every possible disaster we have ever encountered (2 world wars, the Great Depression, several financial crises, the Dot Com bust, 9/11, etc.) but rallied to reach one all-time high after the other. After every cycle of fear, we see a quick recovery back to economic fundamentals. But buried in the equity return chart above is one small piece of bad news; the flipside of the market bouncing back from disasters and returning to the trend is that stocks also underperform after long periods of above-average performance. And this is where Jack Bogle is coming from. He doesn’t forecast a new bear market – nobody can – but simply predicts a decade of underwhelming returns after the strong bull market over the last 8 years. How do you even make a forecast like that? That’s the topic for today’s post…

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Check out ChooseFI today for Big ERN’s first podcast appearance!

A few weeks ago I had the honor of talking to Jonathan and Brad over at the awesome ChooseFI podcast. Today, this long-awaited episode finally went online, so I hope everybody heads over to check out this podcast:

—> ChooseFI episode with Big ERN <—

We covered safe withdrawal rates, sequence of return risk, the Bogle expected equity return projection, haircuts (only financial ones, though), and many more exciting topics. And if you ever wondered what are Big ERN’s favorite blogs, worst financial mistake and advice to a younger self, you have to listen to find out!

ChooseFI

Have a great week, everybody!

Big ERN

Active Investing: Opportunity vs. Futility

Almost everywhere in life, the word “active” has a positive connotation. An active lifestyle, an active personal life, an active participant in a discussion, etc. In contrast, “passive” stands for low-energy, dull and boring. Imagine setting up a friend on a blind date with a nice gal/guy who has a really great “passive lifestyle” and see how much excitement that generates.

But investing is different. Passive investing is the rage right now! It is a noticeable market trend in finance overall and the Financial Independence blogging world seems particularly subscribed to the passive investing idea. For the most part, I agree with the superiority of passive investing. But then again, not all active investment ideas are created equal. And that means that we are at risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater!

Has the Personal Finance Passive-Pendulum swung too far? Are we willfully ignoring some useful principles from active investing for fear of shaking the foundations of the Passive Investing Mantra? 

Take the following five examples of active investing. They all fall into different spots on the Futility vs. Opportunity spectrum:

  1. Stock picking.
  2. Style investing, i.e., tilting the portfolio toward a theme such as dividend yield, small stocks, value stocks, low volatility stocks, etc., or a combination of them.
  3. Allocation to different asset classes (e.g. stock, bond, cash, alternatives) in response macro fundamentals (P/E ratios, bond yields, volatility, etc.).
  4. Changing the major asset weights over the life cycle, e.g., using an equity glidepath to retirement and even throughout retirement.
  5. Setting the initial safe withdrawal rate in retirement and all subsequent withdrawal rates in response to changing market conditions.
FutilityVsOpportunity diagram
Not all forms of “Active Investing” are created equal!

It would be a mistake to apply the same passive investment mantra to all five aspects of personal finance. So, that’s what today’s post is about: Where should we stay away from active investments and where can we learn something from active investment principles? Let’s look at the five active investment themes in detail…

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Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Captain Ron”

A month ago, I did a case study for a fellow FIRE planner (“John Smith”) and the reception was awesome. So why not do more of those? Without even asking for volunteers, I already got two more fellow FIRE planners who contacted me via email and shared their financial parameters. Today’s case study is for “Captain Ron” and, of course, Ron isn’t his real name, though he is indeed a Captain. Not the “Captain Ron” from the 1992 movie, but just a captain. More on that later!

captain_ron_poster

Why are case studies so exciting? One of the most important lessons I learned from my Safe Withdrawal Rate research (jump to Part 1 of the series here) is that the safe withdrawal calculations are best performed on a one-by-one basis. As we pointed out in our post last week, a withdrawal rate strategy should respond to market factors like equity valuations and bond yields as well as personal factors like age, retirement horizon, and expectations about pension and Social Security benefits. Further complicating the whole calculation is also the fact that we all have different distributions of assets over taxable, tax-deferred and tax-exempt accounts. So, let’s take a closer look at Captain Ron’s situation…

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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 17: More on Social Security and Pensions (and why we should call the 4% Rule the “4% Rule of Thumb”)

Welcome back to our series on Safe Withdrawal Rates. This is already the 17th installment! See Part 1 here and make sure you also check out the Social Science Research Network Working Paper we posted on the topic, now with 2,000+ downloads!

In any case, if you have followed the series so far you must have noticed that we are no fans of the 4% Rule and much of what we posted here dealt with the “4%” portion of the 4% Rule. For example, in Part 3 of this series we show that when equities are as expensive as today (Shiller CAPE > 20), failure rates of the 4% Rule have been unacceptably high in historical simulations.

But I think I missed this really important point:

The only thing more offensive than the “4%” part is the word “Rule”

That’s because the word “Rule” makes it sound as though the 4% is some sort of a scientific or mathematical constant. But it’s not. It ain’t scripture either, even though it’s often portrayed that way! There is no one-size-fits-all solution for withdrawals in retirement. With today’s lofty equity valuations and measly bond yields, a 3.25% to 3.50% initial withdrawal rate would be much more prudent. But there is another element that creates just as much variation in SWRs: Different assumptions about Social Security and/or pension benefits: The benefit level, the number of years before benefits kick in, how much of a haircut you want to assign to account for the risk of potential future benefit cuts, etc. and they all create so much variation in personal SWRs that the whole notion of a safe withdrawal rate “Rule” is even more absurd. The 4% Rule should be called the 4% Rule of Thumb because 4% is merely a starting point:

SWR = 4% Rule of Thumb

+/- adjustments for equity/bond valuations

+/- adjustments for idiosyncratic factors, e.g. age, Social Security, pensions, etc.

How much of a difference do these idiosyncratic/personal factors make? A huge difference! A prime example is the case study I worked on over at the ChooseFI podcast: a couple in their early 50s expects pretty generous Social Security benefits after a long career and probably wouldn’t have to worry too much about future benefit cuts. If they both wait until age 70 to claim benefits and are able to reduce their withdrawals from their portfolio dollar for dollar once Social Security kicks in, their Safe Withdrawal Rate estimate goes up from a measly 3.5% to somewhere around 4.5% or even 4.75%. Instead of saving 28.6x annual expenses, they’d need only 22.2x or even 21.1x. That’s a difference of several $100k!

How to quickly and easily gauge the impact of future cash flows from Social Security or pensions on the SWR is the topic of today’s post!Read More »

We are so skewed!

Note that I didn’t say “screwed” but skewed. Well, it wouldn’t have made a difference because today’s post is about how we get screwed by skewness. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The other day I asked myself why would anyone buy lottery tickets? The return profile is atrocious! The average payout is probably only about 50% of the money raised. In a hypothetical lottery with a one in a million chance for a $500,000 prize and a ticket price of $1.00, your expected return is -50% in one week, which means essentially -100% compounded over a year. The standard deviation is $500, so 50,000% relative to the $1 investment. And that’s on a weekly basis, which translates into over 360,000% annualized. What’s worse, that jackpot payout is usually stretched over many years or decades with a much lower lump-sum payment. And it’s subject to income taxes, so the after-tax return is even bleaker! If Vanguard or Fidelity or Schwab offered a mutual fund with return stats like that everybody involved would be facing federal indictments!

Then why not invest the lottery ticket money in stocks? No one can tell me that they’re afraid of equity risk (about 10-15% annualized) when they buy lottery tickets with 360,000% annualized risk. Nowadays you can buy stocks or equity mutual funds in very small amounts. Our 529 account has a $25 minimum investment and you can buy single stocks on Robinhood. Then what’s the appeal of a lottery? In one word: Skewness, see the Wikipedia definition. In particular, positive skewness!

Negative_and_positive_skew_diagrams
Positive Skewness: higher probability of large positive outcomes (e.g. lottery). Negative skewness: higher probability of large negative outcomes (e.g. stock market). Source: Wikipedia

Positive Skewness means that the likelihood of large positive outliers is much higher than that of large negative outliers. Case in point, a lottery ticket: Your worst return is -$1, or whatever the price of the lottery ticket may be.  The largest positive outlier might be in the hundreds of millions. Read More »

Good and Bad Reasons to Love the Mortgage Interest Deduction

Welcome back to the Early Retirement Now blog! I hope everybody had a safe and relaxing Fourth of July holiday. And if you don’t live in the U.S. and had to go to work yesterday we hope you had a nice Fourth of July, too! We are currently on vacation in Paris and I am sure even here I smelled some barbecue in the air yesterday, so folks seem to celebrate worldwide!

In any case, as we detailed last week, we plan to rent during early retirement, at least in the beginning. But even if and when we buy a house we’d likely pay cash and forego the mortgage deduction. Won’t we miss the deduction? Probably not! We found a few reasons to really appreciate this tax deduction but also two very bad reasons. Let’s start with the bad reasons!Read More »

The ERN Family Early Retirement Capital Preservation Plan

Fritz at The Retirement Manifesto suggested we start a series covering how different FIRE bloggers plan to implement their drawdown strategy. I realize we are a bit late to the party given how many fellow bloggers have already contributed:

The Anchor: Physician on FIRE: Our Drawdown Plan in Early Retirement

Link 1: The Retirement Manifesto: Our Retirement Investment Drawdown Strategy

Link 2: OthalaFehu: Retirement Master Plan

Link 3: Plan Invest Escape (PIE): Planning for Success: Drawdown versus Wealth Preservation in Early Retirement

Link 4: Freedom is Groovy: Freedom is Groovy

Link 5: The Green Swan: The Green Swan

Link 6: My Curiosity Lab: Show Me The Money: My Retirement Drawdown Plan

Link 7: Cracking Retirement: Our Drawdown Strategy

Link 8: The Financial Journeyman: Early Retirement Portfolio & Plan

Link 9: Retire By 40: Our Unusual Retirement Withdrawal Strategy

Link 10: Early Retirement Now:  The ERN Family Early Retirement Captial Preservation Plan (This will land you back in this post. Make sure you don’t end up in an infinite loop! 🙂 )

Link 11: 39 Months: Mr. 39 Months Drawdown Plan

Link 12:  7 Circles:  Drawdown Strategy – Joining The Chain Gang

Link 13:  Retirement Starts Today:  What’s Your Retirement Withdrawal Strategy?

Link 14: Ms. Liz Money Matters: How I’ll fund my retirement

Link 15a: Dads Dollars Debts:  DDD Drawdown Part 1: Living With A Pension

Link 15b: Dads Dollars Debts:  DDD Drawdown Plan Part 2: Retire at 48?

Link 16: Penny & Rich: Rich’s Retirement Plan

Link 17:  Atypical Life:  Our Retirement Drawdown Strategy

Link 18:  New Retirement: 5 Steps For Defining Your Retirement Drawdown Strategy

Link 19:  Maximize Your Money: Practical Retirement Withdrawal Strategies Are Important

Link 20:  ChooseFI:  The Retirement Manifesto – Drawdown Strategy Podcast

So, better late than never: here’s the ERN family contribution. To begin, we are intentionally not calling this a drawdown plan. We will draw from our investments but hopefully never significantly draw them down. So, we are more in the PIE camp, trying to maintain our capital. Even if we were comfortable with leaving nothing to our heirs and charitable causes in 60 years, the drawdown over 60 years would be so small (especially early on, think of this as the initial amortization in a 60-year mortgage!) that we might as well plan for capital preservation rather than drawdown.

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Good Advice vs. Feel-Good Advice

Surfing around in the personal finance blogging and podcast world, there is no shortage of advice. Mostly good advice and some not so good advice. Oftentimes, advice that may be appropriate for some or even most investors would be completely inappropriate for others due to different risk aversion attitudes, investment horizons, and so on.

Occasionally, however, I come across examples of truly and irredeemably bad advice. Recommendations that are suboptimal under any and all circumstances I can think of, irrespective of the preferences and parameters of the individual. What’s worse, the financial experts spreading this nonsense do so not because of ignorance or incompetence. Rather, they are fully aware of the suboptimality and against better knowledge spread something that’s less than ideal. And the rationale? It may not be good advice but it’s feel-good advice. Let’s take a look at the two examples of feel-good advice I recently came across:

  1. The debt snowball: While paying down multiple credit cards, start with a card that has the lowest balance, even if that’s not the highest interest debt. Achieving a “win” of paying off one debt in full is more important than paying down all debts as fast as possible.
  2. Keeping an emergency fund in a money market account while still having credit card debt: Apparently, cash sitting around in a money-market account, earnings essentially zero interest is more important than tackling high-interest credit card debt.

In both cases, the rationale is that it makes you feel good. The “easy win” of completely paying down one debt or the sense of accomplishment of a having a $1,000 cash cushion certainly feels good.  Of course, those two measures probably make you feel better than the status quo, i.e., not tackling your debt at all or not having any savings at all. But wouldn’t the average person feel even better if they knew a faster way to get out of debt? Does anyone else find this troublesome? Do the financial gurus view their readers and listeners as a bunch of feeble financial fruitcakes? Is this some sort of personal finance edition of “You Can’t Handle The Truth” with Jack Nicholson / Colonel Jessup?Read More »