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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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 22: Can the “Simple Math” make retirement more difficult?

This post has been on my mind from day one and it’s also been a topic that was requested by readers in response to previous installments in the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series (click here for Part 1):

Is the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) community setting itself up for failure by making retirement conditional on having reached a certain savings target?

If we specify a certain savings target, say 25x annual expenditures, as in Mr. Money Mustache’s legendary “Simple Math” post, we are more likely to retire after an extended equity bull run. And potentially right before the next bear market. Very few savers would have reached that goal at the bottom of a bear market! Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some of the calculations from my post from a few weeks ago: The Shockingly Simple/Complicated/Random Math Behind Saving For Early Retirement. Specifically, let’s assume that every month, starting in 1871, we had sent off a new hypothetical generation on their path to FIRE. They start with zero savings, then save 50% of their income (adjusted for CPI-inflation), invest in a 100% equity portfolio and retire when they reach 25-times annual spending. Even though the starting dates are perfectly spread out, one each month, the retirement dates are not. They follow the big bull markets with extended gaps in between, see the chart below. The endogenous retirement dates are in red. Using the Mr. Money Mustache Simple Math method, you’ll mostly retire during a bull market, and often during the last part of the bull market, right before the peak and the next bear market!

Retirement dates when using a 50% savings rate, 100% equity portfolio, 25x savings target. Simulated retirement dates in red. Using the Mr. Money Mustache Method, you’ll only retire during a bull market!

How much of an impact will this have on Safe Withdrawal Rates? That’s the topic of today’s post…Read More »

Nervous about sky-high stock prices? Five ways to cope with “CAPE Fear”

Another month, another record close for the major stock indices on November 30. How long can this go on? Is this a bubble? The Shiller CAPE Ratio certainly looks “bubbly,” now that it’s solidly above 30, see the chart below. It’s almost as high as in September 1929, right before the crash. And significantly above the 2007 peak right before one of the stock crashes in recent history. Should we scale back our equity positions now? It sounds tempting now that we are so close to retirement. As of Wednesday morning, while doing the final edits it definitely looks as though stocks are off to a bumpy start in December!

Shiller CAPE: Closing in on the 1929 peak!

But hold your horses! Let’s look at some of the reasons not to throw in the towel yet…

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The Shockingly Simple/Complicated/Random Math Behind Saving For Early Retirement

One of my favorite Mr. Money Mustache articles is the “Shockingly Simple Math” post. It details how frugality is able to slash the time it takes to reach Financial Independence (FI). That’s because for every additional dollar we save we reduce the time to FI in two ways: 1) we grow the portfolio faster when we save more and 2) we reduce the savings target in retirement by consuming less.

That got me thinking: Is the math really that simple? How sensitive is the savings horizon to different rates of returns? What happens if we use historical returns instead of one specific expected return assumption? How important is the asset allocation (stock vs. bond weights) on the path to early retirement? How much does the equity valuation regime (e.g. the initial CAPE ratio when starting to save) matter?

So, in typical Big ERN fashion, I take an ostensibly simple problem and make it more complicated!

Let’s get the computer warmed up and start calculating…

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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 21: Why we will not have a mortgage in early retirement

Welcome back to the newest installment in our Safe Withdrawal Rate Series! If you are new to our site please go back to Part 1 to start from the beginning. And there are quite a few new visitors these days. That’s because our small blog is one of the finalists in the “Blog of the Year” category at the upcoming 2017 Plutus Awards. How awesome is that? Thank you to all of our faithful readers and followers for supporting and nominating Early Retirement Now!

But back to the topic at hand. It’s been on my mind for a long time. It’s relevant to our own situation and it’s come up in discussions on other blogs, in our case study series and in numerous questions and comments here on the ERN blog:

Should we have a mortgage in Early Retirement?

The case for having a mortgage is pretty simple: You can get a 30-year mortgage for about 4% right now. Probably even slightly below 4% when you shop around. Equities will certainly beat that nominal rate of return over the next 30 years. Open and shut case! End of the discussion, right? Well, not so fast! As we have seen in our posts on Sequence of Return Risk (Part 14 and Part 15), the average return is less relevant than the sequence of returns. Having a mortgage in retirement will exacerbate your sequence of return risk because you are frontloading your withdrawals early on during retirement to pay for the mortgage; not just interest but also principal payments. In other words, if we are unlucky and experience low returns early during our retirement (the definition of sequence risk) we’d withdraw more shares when equity prices are down. The definition of sequence risk!

How badly will a mortgage mess with sequence risk and safe withdrawal rates? That’s the topic for today’s post…Read More »

Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for Mrs. “Wish I Could Surf”

Welcome to a new Case Study! This time, Mrs. “Wish I Could Surf” (not her real name) volunteered to open the doors to her finances. And every case study brings up something new to learn for yours truly. Today’s challenge: How would “alternative” investments factor into the Safe Withdrawal Rate exercise? Peer Street, Hard Money Lenders, Lendingclub, Prosper, etc. have gained a lot of popularity, especially in the FIRE crowd. When calculating safe withdrawal rates, I have only worked with stock/bond/cash portfolios because they are the asset classes with returns going back 100+ years. Doing the SWR exercise for a portfolio of Peer Street loans will require some “hacking” in my Safe Withdrawal Rate Google Sheet!

Further challenges come from the fact that Mrs. and Mr. Surf keep their finances separate (similar situation as in the Case Study for Rene) and Mr. Surf will still be working for a number of years, so we have to make some assumptions on how to assign the tax burden between Mr. and Mrs. Surf. Lots of work to do! So let’s get started and look at Mrs. Surf’s finances…

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