Could 2022 be worse than 2001?

November 2, 2022

In my post three weeks ago, I happily declared that the 4% Rule works again, thanks to the much more attractive equity and bond valuations. It’s always fun to deliver pleasant news. But keep in mind, everyone, that this refers to today’s retirees with their slightly depleted portfolios. But how about the folks who were unlucky enough to retire earlier this year in January 2022, when equities were at their all-time high? That cohort is off to a bad start, to put it mildly. Of course, it’s too early to tell what should have been the appropriate safe withdrawal rate for that cohort. We’re only less than a year into a multi-decade retirement. My recommendation back then would have been that due to the wildly expensive equity valuations and low bond yields one should have treaded a bit more cautiously. Maybe do 3.50-3.75% for a 30-year traditional retirement and 3.25% for a 50 or 60-year early retirement. And maybe raise that a little bit again depending on your personal circumstances, especially if you expect large supplemental cash flows from pensions and Social Security later in retirement, see my Google Simulation sheet (Part 28 of my SWR Series). Also notice also that with my estimates, I’m a bit more aggressive than the widely-cited Morningstar study recommending a 3.3% safe withdrawal rate for a 30-year retirement.

But recently, I’ve come across some rumblings that put into question all this cautious retirement planning. The reasoning goes as follows: First, the year 2000 retirement cohort actually did reasonably well with the 4% Rule. Second, the Shiller CAPE at the peak of the Dot-Com bubble was higher than in 2022. Bingo! The 4% Rule should do really well and even better for the 2022 cohort, right? I’m not so sure. That line of reasoning is flawed, for (at least) two reasons: First, the pre-Dot-Com-Crash retirement cohort experience wasn’t as pleasant as some people want to make it now. And second, I actually believe that the fundamentals in late 2021 and early 2022 were not very attractive at all. In fact, in some crucial dimensions, they were significantly worse than at the height of the Dot-Com bubble. Hence today’s post with the slightly scary and ominous title. Two days late for Halloween, I know.

Let’s take a look…

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The 4% Rule Works Again! An Update on Dynamic Withdrawal Rates based on the Shiller CAPE – SWR Series Part 54

October 12, 2022

As promised in the “Building a Better CAPE Ratio” post last week, here’s an update on how I like to use the CAPE ratio calculations in the context of my Safe Withdrawal Rate Research. I have studied CAPE-based withdrawal rates in the past (see Part 11, Part 18, Part 24, Part 25) and what I like about this approach is that we get guidance in setting the initial and then also subsequent withdrawal rates based on economic fundamentals. That’s a lot more scientific than the unconditional, naive 4% Rule. In today’s post, I want to specifically address a few recurring questions I’ve been getting about the CAPE and safe withdrawal rates:

  1. Can a retiree factor in supplemental cash flows like Social Security, pensions, etc. when calculating a dynamic CAPE-based withdrawal rate, just like you’d do in the SWR simulation tool Google Sheet (see Part 28 for more details)? Likewise, is it possible to raise the CAPE-based withdrawal rate if the retiree is happy with (partially) depleting the portfolio? You bet! I will show you how to implement those adjustments in the CAPE calculations. Most importantly, I updated my SWR Simulation Google Sheet to do all the messy calculations for you!
  2. With the recent market downturn, how much can we raise our CAPE-based dynamic withdrawal rate when we take into account the slightly better-looking equity valuations? Absolutely! It looks like, the 4% Rule might work again! Depending on your personal circumstances you might even be able to push the withdrawal rate to way above 4%, closer to 5%!
  3. What are the pros and cons of using a 100% equity portfolio and setting the withdrawal rate equal to the CAPE yield?

Let’s take a look…

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Hedging Against Inflation and Monetary Policy Risk

July 5, 2022

Over the last few decades, we’ve become accustomed to a negative correlation between stocks and U.S. Treasury bonds. Bonds used to serve as a great diversifier against macroeconomic risk. Specifically, the last four downturns in 1991, 2001, 2007-2009, and 2020 were all so-called “demand-side” recessions where the drop in GDP went hand-in-hand with lower inflation because a drop in demand also lowered price pressures. The Federal Reserve then lowered interest rates, which lifted bonds. This helped tremendously with hedging against the sharp declines in your stock portfolio. And in the last two recessions, central banks even deployed asset purchase programs to further bolster the returns of long-duration nominal government bonds. Sweet!

Well, just when people start treating a statistical artifact as the next Law of Thermodynamics, the whole correlation collapses. Bonds got hammered in 2022, right around the time when stocks dropped! At one point, intermediate (10Y) Treasury bonds had a worse drawdown than even the S&P 500 index. So much for diversification!

So, is the worst over now for bonds? Maybe not. The future for nominal bonds looks uncertain. We are supposed to believe that with relatively modest rate hikes, to 3.4% by the end of this year and 3.8% by the end of 2023, as predicted by the median FOMC member at the June 14/15, 2022 meeting, inflation will miraculously come under control. As I wrote in my last post, that doesn’t quite pass the smell test because it violates the Taylor Principle. The Wall Street Journal quipped “The Cost of Wishful Thinking on Inflation Is Going Up Too“. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for inflation to easily subside, but at least we should be prepared for some significant upside risk on inflation and interest rates. Watch out for the July 13 CPI release, everybody!

So, trying to avoid nominal bonds, how do we accomplish derisking and diversification? Here are ten suggestions…

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The Bear Market is here. What Now?

June 15, 2022

With the recent confirmation of a Bear Market finally taking hold, I’ve gotten some requests to comment on the situation: Are we going to have a recession? What’s my inflation outlook? What to expect from the Federal Reserve? What does this all mean for us in the FIRE community?

Let’s take a look…

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Hedging against Sequence Risk through a “Retiree-Saver Investment Pact” – SWR Series Part 53

June 6, 2022

In this year’s April Fool’s post, I marketed a made-up crypto coin that would completely hedge against Sequence Risk, the dreaded destroyer of retirement dreams. Once and for all! Most readers would have figured out this was a hoax because that complete hedge against Sequence Risk is still elusive after so many posts in my series. Sure, there are a few minor adjustments we can make, like an equity glidepath, either directly, see Part 19 and Part 20, or disguised as a “bucket strategy” (Part 48). We could very cautiously(!) use leverage – see Part 49 (static version) and Part 52 (dynamic/timing leverage), and maybe find a few additional small dials here and there to take the edge off the scary Sequence Risk. But a complete hedge is not so easy.

Well, maybe there is an easy solution. It’s the one I vaguely hinted at when I first wrote about the ins and outs of Sequence Risk back in 2017. You see, there is one type of investor who’s insulated from Sequence Risk: a buy-and-hold investor. If you invest $1 today and make neither contributions nor withdrawal withdrawals, then the final net worth after, say, 30 years is entirely determined by the compounded average growth rate. Not the sequence, because when multiplying the (1+r1) through (1+r30), the order of multiplication is irrelevant. If a retiree could be matched with a saver who contributes the exact same amount as the retiree’s cash flow needs, then the two combined, as a team, are a buy and hold investor – shielded from Sequence Risk. It’s because savers and retirees will always be on “opposite sides” of sequence risk. For example, low returns early on and high returns later will hurt the retiree and benefit the saver. And vice versa. If a retiree and a retirement saver could team up and find a way to compensate each other for their potential good or bad luck we could eliminate Sequence Risk.

I will go through a few scenarios and simulations to showcase the power of this team effort. But there are also a few headaches arising when trying to implement such a scheme. Let’s take a closer look…

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Crypto is probably a bad investment!

April 25, 2022

If you remember my April Fools Day post from a few weeks ago, I poked fun at the proliferation of new crypto coins. Most of them are scams. But what about the mainstream crypto coins, like Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc.? Are they a good investment? What’s not to like about a 100%+ annualized return in some of the crypto coins between their inception and their 2021 peak?

Well, those returns are “water under the bridge”. What matters to me today is the outlook for the crypto world going forward. In today’s post, I like to go through some of the reasons why I believe going forward, crypto looks like a sub-par investment. I currently don’t invest in crypto and I don’t think that anything more than a few % of the portfolio seems prudent. Let’s take a look…

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Timing Leverage in Retirement – SWR Series Part 52

March 21, 2022

Last year in Part 49 of the Safe Withdrawal Series, I wrote a post about using leverage in retirement, and in today’s post, I like to explore some additional issues. 

A quick recap, the appeal of using leverage in retirement is that we would borrow against the portfolio instead of liquidating assets. Nice! That might help with Sequence Risk if we avoid liquidating assets at temporarily depressed prices. There could also be a tax advantage in that we keep deferring the realization of taxable capital gains, potentially until we bequeath our assets to our daughter who can then use the “step-up basis” for complete forgiveness of all of our accumulated capital gains. That’s the famous “buy, borrow, die” approach popular with high-net-worth folks.

The gist of the post last year: Not so fast! Leverage could potentially even exacerbate Sequence Risk if you are unlucky and retire right before a bad market event that’s deep enough (like the Great Depression) or long enough (like the 1965-1982 stagflation episode) to compromise the portfolio so badly that the margin loan becomes unsustainable relative to the underwater portfolio.

One solution proposed by several readers: instead of always borrowing against the portfolio, maybe we should carefully time when we use leverage. For example, borrow only when the stock market is down “far enough” and use withdrawals from the portfolio otherwise. And if the market is doing well again, potentially pay back the loan again! Sounds like a reasonable and intuitive plan. But I want to put that to the test with some real simulations. Let’s take a look at the details… 

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Retirement in a High-Inflation Environment – SWR Series Part 51

February 28, 2022

What a difference a year makes! In late 2020, only about 16 months ago, I felt the urge to comment on the then-fashionable discussion of how low inflation would impact retirees. See Part 41 – Can we raise our Safe Withdrawal Rate when inflation is low? of my SWR Series. Feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

The takeaway back then: don’t get distracted by high-frequency economic fluctuations. Low inflation doesn’t necessarily mean we can all raise our safe withdrawal rates. Certainly not one-for-one. There is neither empirical nor theoretical economic backing for materially changing your retirement strategy.

Only a little more than a year later the tide has turned. We’re now facing the highest inflation readings in about 40 years. 7.5% CPI and potentially 8% year-over-year once the BLS releases the February figure in mid-March. So, people asked me if my inflation views are symmetric, i.e., high inflation is also a non-event? As I signaled in my inflation post last month, I’m not too worried. Here’s why…

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Ten things the “Makers” of the FIRE movement don’t want you to know – SWR Series Part 50

January 3, 2022

Happy New Year, everybody. I hope you had a relaxing and healthy Christmas and a good start to the New Year!

Last month was the 5th anniversary of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series! In December 2016, I published the first part of that series. I had material for maybe four or five parts but one thing led to another and with new ideas, most of them due to reader feedback, the series took off. It’s been running for 5 years and I obviously opened a bottle of bubbly last month to celebrate.

So, what’s the deal with the title then? Very simple: Blogging 101. You need a catchy title! I might have called the post “What I’ve learned in 5 years and 50 posts” or something along those lines. But to shake things up and get everybody’s attention, this is the title I went with. Think of this post as a natural extension of Part 26 “Ten things the “Makers” of the 4% Rule don’t want you to know” or the equally “tongue-in-cheek” posts “How to ‘Lie’ with Personal Finance” – Part 1 and Part 2.

So, after 5 years, 50 posts, what have I learned? What do I think others in the FIRE community are missing? What can you learn from my series that you may not have seen elsewhere? Let’s take a look…

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Using Leverage in Retirement – SWR Series Part 49

November 16, 2021

My Safe Withdrawal Series has grown to almost 50 parts. After nearly 5 years of researching this topic and writing and speaking about it, a comprehensive solution to Sequence Risk is still elusive. So today I like to write about another potential “fix” of Sequence Risk headache: Instead of selling assets in retirement, why not simply borrow against your portfolio? And pay back the loan when the market eventually recovers, 30 years down the road! You see, if Sequence Risk is the result of selling assets at depressed values during an extended bear market, then leverage could be the potential solution because you delay the liquidation of assets until you find a more opportune time. And since the market has always gone up over a long enough investing window (e.g., 30+ years), you might be able to avoid running out of money. Sweet!

Using margin loans to fund your cash flow needs certainly sounds scary, but it’s quite common among high-net-worth households. In July, the Wall Street Journal featured this widely-cited article: Buy, Borrow, Die: How Rich Americans Live Off Their Paper Wealth. It details how high-net-worth folks borrow against their highly appreciated assets. This approach has tax and estate-planning benefits; you defer capital gains taxes and potentially even eliminate them altogether by either deferring the tax event indefinitely or by using the step-up basis when your heirs inherit the assets. Sweet!

So, is leverage a panacea then? Using leverage cautiously and sparingly, you may indeed hedge a portion of your Sequence Risk and thus increase your safe withdrawal rate. But too much leverage might backfire and will even exacerbate Sequence Risk. Let’s take a look at the details…

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