It’s tax season in the U.S. right now! Even though that deadline has just been pushed back to May 17, taxes are on everybody’s mind, so this is a good time to write about the topic in the context of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. Until now, I haven’t written all that much about taxes and the main reasons are:
While I do have a combined 6 letters behind my name (Ph.D. & CFA), I’m missing the three letters “CPA” to write anything truly authoritative about the topic.
My primary focus is on getting the Safe Withdrawal Rate right. It’s the first issue everyone should worry about. I did some case studies years ago for early retirees and some of them could actually raise their SWR to more than 5% if they do their accounting for future cash flows right. That’s 25% better than the naïve 4% Rule. If you start with a tax plan that’s already somewhat OK and close to optimal, I doubt that you can squeeze out another 25% in after-tax withdrawals through a truly “optimal” tax plan. Hence my approach: get your SWR right and factor in the tax optimization plan afterward to make sure you squeeze maybe another percent or two in the after-tax numbers! (And likewise, if you have a 60-year horizon and not much in the way of supplemental cash flows and you’re looking at a 3.25%, maybe a 3.5% withdrawal rate, you’re not going to “tax-hack” yourself to a 4% withdrawal rate either!)
Taxes are very personal and it’s difficult to give any generalized advice. As much as I would like to create a spreadsheet like the Google Sheet to simulate safe withdrawal rates (See Part 28 for the details) where you plug in your numbers and the sheet spits out a detailed plan, it’s not so trivial. Very likely, the tax analysis would have to be more custom-tailored! And just to be sure, my Google SWR simulation sheet isn’t trivial either! 🙂
But of course, even if you first do your SWR analysis in before-tax terms, you will want to know how much of a haircut you need to apply to calculate your after-tax retirement budget. Some retirees can indeed make over $110,000 a year and don’t owe any federal tax as I showed in my post in 2019 (“How much can we earn in retirement without paying federal income taxes?“). And in the same post, I showed that to get to a 5% average tax you’ll likely need a $150k annual retirement budget. So, it’s a fair assumption that most of us in the FIRE community will likely get away paying less than 5% of our retirement budget in federal taxes. Add another 0-5% or so for most state tax formulas, and you will likely stay below 10% effective/average tax rate.
But I get the message: because we can’t completely ignore taxes, I wrote today’s post to talk about the general ideas and principles in retirement tax planning. In at least one additional future post (maybe two, maybe three) I will also do a few case studies to see the general principles in action. At that point, I will also include the Excel Sheet I use to perform the tax planning analysis because a lot of readers asked for that tool when I published the Case Studies 3+ years ago! And as I warned before: it’s not as simple as just putting your parameters and Excel automatically spits out your plan. It involves a bit more human input and analysis, stay tuned!
But before we even get to the messy parts, let’s take a look at some general principles…
One question that I frequently get – in the comments section, via email and in-person – is whether the continued shift away from active stock picking and into passive index investing is all going to create one big, scary bubble. Will this all end in tears? As a member of the FIRE community and a lifelong true believer in passive indexing, it definitely piqued my interest when I heard that I’m (partially) responsible for increasing market inefficiencies and dislocations and potentially even a bubble.
The issue of the “passive investing bubble” bubbles up, so to say, with great regularity. An example is the August 2019 Bloomberg piece “The Big Short’s Michael Burry Sees a Bubble in Passive Investing” likening the current state of the equity market to the crazy CDO market right before the 2008/9 meltdown. Well, that definitely got everyone’s attention! Especially during the slow months in the summer when there isn’t much else going on and financial journalists have to come up with some eye-catching headline!
Long story short, I find that this a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. And instead of replying via email about 10 times a year I just decided to write a blog post about this topic, so I can point to this post in the future if there are people still wondering about my views. That saves me a lot of time and I get to distribute my view to a larger audience, just in case other readers had this same question. And I get into the details a bit more than in a short email reply.
So, why am I not too worried about this shift to passive indexing? Let’s take a look…
I started a new series in February on Market Timing Risk Management (part 1 was on macroeconomics) but never got beyond the first part. So, finally, here’s the second installment! Part 2 is about momentum (sometimes called trend-following) and this is a topic requested by many readers in the comments section and via email. Specifically, many readers had read Meb Faber’s working paper on this topic, which by the way is the Number 1 most popular paper on SSRN with 200,000+ downloads. I always responded that read that paper and found it quite intriguing but never followed up with any detailed explanations for why I like this approach. Hence, today’s blog post!
And just for the record, I should repeat what I’ve said before in the first part: I have not suddenly become an equity day-trader. I am (mostly) a passive investor who likes to buy and hold equities. But with my early retirement around the corner and my research on Safe Withdrawal Rates and the menace of “Sequence Risk,” I have that nagging question on my mind: Are the instances where an investor would be better off throwing in the towel and selling equities to hedge against Sequence Risk? At the very least, I’d like to have some rules and necessary conditions that need to be satisfied before I would even consider reducing my equity exposure. I think of this as insurance against overreacting to short-term market volatility!
So, without further ado, here’s my take on the momentum signal…
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:
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.
Allocation to different asset classes (e.g. stock, bond, cash, alternatives) in response macro fundamentals (P/E ratios, bond yields, volatility, etc.).
Changing the major asset weights over the life cycle, e.g., using an equity glidepath to retirement and even throughout retirement.
Setting the initial safe withdrawal rate in retirement and all subsequent withdrawal rates in response to changing market conditions.
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…