The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 25: More Flexibility Myths

Welcome to the newest installment of the Safe Withdrawal Series! Part 25 already, who would have thought that we make it this far?! But there’s just so much to write on this topic! Last time, in Part 24, I ran out of space and had to defer a few more flexibility myths to today’s post. And I promised to look into a few reader suggestions. So let’s do that today pick up where we left off last time…
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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 24: Flexibility Myths vs. Reality

It’s been three months since the last post in the Withdrawal Rate Series! Nothing to worry about; this topic is still very much on my mind. Especially now that we’ll be out of a job within a few short weeks. I just confirmed that June 4 will be my last day at the office! Today’s topic is not entirely new: Flexibility! Many consider it the secret weapon against all the things that I’m worried about right now: sequence risk and running out of money in retirement. But you can call me a skeptic and I like to bust some of the myths surrounding the flexibility mantra today. So, here are my “favorite” flexibility myths…Read More »

Market Timing and Risk Management, Part 2 – Momentum

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…

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How crazy is it to invest an emergency fund in stocks?

I thought I had written everything I wanted to write about emergency funds. Especially why I don’t like them! For example:

But this topic just keeps coming back. Most recently in the ChooseFI podcast episode 66 and the discussion that ensued afterward. One unresolved issue: the pros and cons of investing the emergency fund in the stock market. As I’ve mentioned before, I am not against having an emergency fund. Quite the contrary, if you’re on your path to Financial Independence (FI) you strive to accumulate 25 years (!) (or better 30+ years) of expenses – much more than the 3-6 or even 8 months of living expenses normally recommended to keep in the emergency fund. In other words, I view our entire portfolio as one giant emergency fund invested in productive assets (mostly equity index funds) and I don’t see the need for keeping a separate bucket of money in low-risk assets. One could view this as having an emergency fund that’s invested in stocks! 100%! How crazy and/or how irresponsible is that? That’s the topic for today’s post. Let’s look at the numbers and quantify the tradeoffs…

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Inflation Risk for Early Retirees – Part 4: Hedging

Here’s the next installment of the inflation series, joint with my blogging buddy Actuary on FIRE. Check out the other parts here:

Today’s post is about one issue I raised in the post last month: What asset classes – if any – are useful in hedging against inflation? Simple question, not an easy answer. It all depends on the horizon!

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My best investment ever: Homeownership?!

Sometimes folks ask me what has been my best investment ever. I normally answer that this is not the right question to ask. We didn’t have one lucky break that made us rich overnight. We never owned the FAANG stocks (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google/Alphabet) outright, only through index funds. No lottery winnings, neither literally nor figuratively (tech company stock options, IPOs, etc.). Building our Net Worth is mostly the result of many years of small and large contributions to brokerage accounts, never losing our nerves and staying the course through volatile periods.

But the other day, I ran the numbers on how well we did with the apartment we just sold in January (not pictured above!!!). Over a period of just under 10 years, the IRR was almost 16% and beat stocks pretty handily! Again, this did not single-handedly catapult us into Financial Independence, but in the ranking of good investments, it’s clearly way up there, probably even at the top!

Of course, all this assumes that we do the math right. And that’s what today’s post is all about…

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Guest Post: Farmland Is The New Gold

Happy Wednesday! I have been busy with the move this week so this is a good time to run a guest post! Today, we feature a guest post by Scott, who runs the Basic Capital Forum. I don’t really feature guest posts very often despite getting tons of proposals – my fellow bloggers probably know what I’m talking about! But a guest post about an alternative asset class with pretty cool return stats is actually something I like to publish. So, take it over, Scott…

Are the boom times back? Judging from investor sentiment, it looks like they are. Despite some recent volatility, the bull market is still in full swing and according to data from fund tracker EPFR Global, markets attracted $102b into equity funds over the past four weeks. Behind the curtain, the euphoria might be unjustified – there are a few warning signs that investors may be ignoring. Firstly, stocks are over-valued by many measures. The Shiller CAPE hit 31 in January – the same vicinity of its peak in 1929. Warren Buffet’s measure states that stocks are overvalued by 40% as of November. The most over-weights stocks are FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) with forward-PE-ratios even higher than those in the overall S&P500.

Secondly, the level of private debt is enormous. According to the IIF, global debt hit $233 trillion this month. If global GDP is roughly 73 trillion, the global debt is 310% of global GDP. To put this in perspective, private debt to GDP only surpassed 150% in 1929 and 2008. In this time of overvalued stocks, one could make the case for investing in gold. The issue with gold, of course, is that it produces nothing and it has no inherent value. The enterprising investor, however, could invest in the 21st-century gold: Farmland.Read More »

Market Timing and Risk Management, Part 1 – Macroeconomics

Last week’s post ended with a bit of a cliff-hanger: I wrote about how the major stock market disasters are highly correlated with U.S. recessions. Since it doesn’t look like we’re anywhere close to a recession let’s not get too worried about the stock market volatility in early February! But I didn’t really elaborate on why I’m not that concerned about the U.S. economy right now. So, today’s post is about what indicators would I look at to reach that conclusion.

The broader context of this post and, hopefully, a few more followup posts in the coming weeks is the question that I’ve been grappling with for a while:

What would it take for me to reduce my equity weight?

You see, a lot of my safe withdrawal rate simulations assume either constant equity weights (e.g. 80/20) or a rising equity glidepath in early retirement (see the SWR series Part 19 and Part 20). But what would entice me to do the opposite? Throw in the towel and reduce my equity share as a Risk Control! Should I ever even consider that?

The broad consensus in the FIRE community seems to be to stoically keep your asset allocation through thick and thin. Physician on FIRE had a brilliant post, adequately titled “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” on why not to react to market swings. That was in 2016 and I very much agreed with that assessment back then. But that doesn’t have to be a universal truth. In my wedding vows, I swore to stay with my wife through “good times and bad.” But the last time I checked I’m not “married” to my equity portfolio, so I should have the right to at least consider scenarios that would convince me to pull the plug on stocks.

If nothing else, thinking about when would be a good time to dump stocks gives me the confidence not to lose my nerves when those conditions are clearly not present, such as during the volatility spike earlier this month. So, what would be the indicators I’m following? Today, Part 1 deals with the macroeconomic picture (but in a future post, I will also share my thoughts on momentum/trend-following etc. as requested by some readers). Among all the different macroeconomic indicators, here are my three favorites…Read More »

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 23: Flexibility and its Limitations

Talk to anyone in the FIRE community and ask how folks will deal with market volatility (especially downside volatility) during the withdrawal phase and everyone will mention “flexibility.” Of course, we’re all going to be flexible. Nobody will see their million dollar portfolio drop to $700k, $600k, $500k, $400k and so on and then keep withdrawing $40k every year no matter what. Rational and reasonable retirees would adjust their behavior along the way and nobody will really run out of money in retirement in the real world, as I noted in my ChooseFI podcast appearance. In other words, we’ll all be flexible. But is flexibility some magic wand we can swing to make all the worries about running out of money go away? Or is it BS? It’s a bit of both, of course. For example, I would put the following into the BS category:

  • I’ll do “something” with my asset allocation and recover the losses.   Good luck with that!
  • I will skip the Starbucks Lattes for two months until the market recovers! Ohhhh-Kaaayyy….?!
  • I will sit out one or two years of inflation adjustments.    Qualitatively, a good idea, but it won’t work quantitatively.
  • I will rely on Social Security.    That may work for middle-aged early retirees but not for 30-year-old early retirees!

But flexibility will work through significantly reducing spending. And again, let’s be realistic, foregoing a 2% inflation adjustment for a year is not enough. Flexibility would involve being prepared to cut spending by probably around 20-25%, maybe more. A different route and maybe a better solution might be the side hustle. Specifically, one reader, Jacob, emailed me with this proposal:

Your series is quickly covering a lot of financial acrobatics to discover and maximize safe withdrawal rates while working to reduce the risk of running out of money. However, so far the most tried-and-true solution to the “not enough money” problem has not been considered: Get-A-Job. I acknowledge that for most job-hating FIRE-aspiring people this is the nuclear option, but it’s still an option.

Great idea! Get a side hustle and solve the safe withdrawal rate worries and (hopefully) salvage the 4% Rule! But there are two very important limitations:

  1. The side hustle might last for longer than a few months or years. Withdrawals plus the market drop equals Sequence of Return Risk and might imply that the side hustle will last much longer than the S&P 500 equity index drawdown. How long? Try a decade or two, so if you want to go that route better make sure you pick a side hustle that’s fun!
  2. For some historical cohorts where the 4% Rule would have worked even without a side hustle, flexibility would have backfired; you would have gone back to work for years, maybe even a whole decade and afterward it turned out it wasn’t even necessary!

But enough talking, let’s do some simulations!Read More »

Ten Lessons From Ten Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Studies

Last week, we published the Tenth Safe Withdrawal Rate Study! Amazing how time flies! I did about one case study every three weeks for the last 6 months! And I could even include another one if I were to count the one I did for the ChooseFI podcast back in 2017. In fact, the ChooseFI appearance (Episode 23R and Episode 26R) started the idea because our first volunteer reached out to me after he heard me on the podcast. Since then I’ve published 10 posts, worth almost 30,000 words that generated tons of clicks, feedback and encouragement:

  • “John Smith”: Seven-figure net worth, but not quite ready for FIRE yet. Big ERN would recommend a few more years in the workforce!
  • “Captain Ron”: Early retirement on a sailboat. How much can they withdraw from their $3m portfolio to stay afloat (pun intended) in retirement?
  • “Rene”: No need to worry about the recent layoff: You are more than ready for early retirement!
  • “Mrs. Greece”: More than ready to retire due to large portfolio size and moderate living expenses, especially if the husband keeps working!
  • “Mrs. Wish I Could Surf”: Alternative investments (real estate hard money loans). Keep the mortgage or pay it off? Either way, more than ready to retire!
  • “Mr. Corporate”: Geographic Arbitrage by moving to a low-cost European country. Roth Conversions and zero tax liability!
  • “Ms. Almost FI”: Your name is a misnomer. You are ready to retire now even when self-funding substantial long-term care expenses in the future!
  • “Mr. Corporate Refugee”: How to deal with a large portion of the net worth tied up in a house in a high-cost-of-living area?
  • “Mrs. Wanderlust”: Substantial supplemental cash flows due to buying an RV and then selling it later.
  • “Mr. and Mrs. Shirts”: Ready to retire this year, but should Mr. Shirts work for another nine months for some additional big payday?

But, alas, all good things have to come to an end! I have decided to take a break from the case studies, at least for now. I might revive the series again later but for next few weeks and months, I will pursue other topics! Thanks to all volunteers who submitted their data. And thanks to all other folks who didn’t get their case studies published. I’m not even sure I properly responded to everyone whose request was denied. I think I may have some inquiries from October last year that I haven’t responded to. If you submitted a request for a case study and haven’t heard from me back, sorry, I’m just a bit disorganized!

Sooooo, ten case studies: what have I learned from them? Plenty, because that’s the topic for today’s post…

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