Welcome back to another post in the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. For a quick intro and a summary of the series, please refer to the new landing page.
People in the FIRE and personal finance blogging community – readers and fellow bloggers alike – often tell me that while they enjoy my writings here, they wonder if I haven’t gone a little too far into the rabbit hole of quantitative analysis. Why measure safe withdrawal rates down to multiple significant digits? Why do all of this careful analysis if there’s so much uncertainty? Market uncertainty, policy uncertainty, personal uncertainty, model uncertainty! Why not just wing it? I always try to give a short reply to defend my quantitative approach and out of the many different mental and written notes I’ve taken over the years I created this post for your enjoyment and for my convenience to refer to if I get this question again next week.
Specifically, I want to propose at least three reasons for being diligent and precise not despite, but precisely because of retirement uncertainties. And, by the way, I will keep today’s post relatively lean in terms of simulations and calculations, and rather try to make this more of a philosophical exercise. So, if you’re one of the quant-skeptics I hope you keep reading because I can promise you that we don’t have to get too deep into the (quant) weeds. So, let’s take a look at my top three reasons to get the math right…
Welcome back to another installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. In the previous installment, Part 44, I went through a number of general tax planning ideas, and I promised another post to introduce an Excel Sheet, I created to help me with my tax planning. There were numerous reader requests a long time ago when I ran the withdrawal strategy case studies (2017-2018) to publish not just the Safe Withdrawal Rate calculations but also the tax planning Excel Sheet. Well, I never published those Excel sheets because a) they were custom-tailored to those particular case studies, b) they potentially included personal information of the case study volunteers and c) they were created “for my eyes only” so I couldn’t really publish them without a massive effort to explain and document what exactly I’m doing there.
But now (with a three-year delay!) I’ve finally come around to creating something from scratch I feel comfortable publishing for a broader audience. It’s not a Google Sheet, but an MS Excel Sheet, more on that later. It’s probably still not a universally applicable tool. And most importantly, it’s a tool that still requires a lot of Excel Spreadsheet mastery. It will not spit out “the” optimal tax strategy, it will only help me (and maybe you) find that optimal tax strategy. A lot of handiwork is still necessary! Much more handiwork than with Safe Withdrawal Sheet (and even that is already a handful!).
So, I like to go through a simple case study to show how this sheet works and showcase how you can “hack” your withdrawal tax optimization strategy in that one specific case. Even aside from tax optimization, the sheet helps me gauge what’s the average effective tax rate throughout retirement, to help me figure out how much of a gross-up I have to apply to translate a net-of-tax retirement budget into a pre-tax withdrawal percentage.
I can’t foresee what exact tax challenges you might face, but with my tool, I would have been able to handle what came across my desk so far, both in my personal finances and the case studies I’ve done so far.
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…
A while ago I wrote about the challenge of designing pre-retirement equity/bond glidepaths (“What’s wrong with Target Date Funds?“). In a nutshell, the main weakness of Target Date Funds (TDFs) for folks planning an early retirement is that if you have a short horizon and a large savings rate then the “industry standard” TDF is probably useless. 10 years before retirement, the TDF has likely shifted too far out of equities, likely below 70%!
The problem is that the traditional glidepaths are calibrated to the traditional retiree (who would have guessed???) with a sizable nest egg ten years away from retirement. In that case, you want to hedge against the possibility of a bear market so close to retirement from which you might have trouble recovering due to the relatively small contributions of “only” 10-15% of your income. But people planning early retirement with a small initial net worth and a massive 50+% savings rates should clearly take more risk to get their portfolio off the ground.
In any case, back then I mentioned that I had some additional material about glidepaths toward retirement for the FIRE community, to be published at a later date, which is today!
Why is this post part of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series? First, today’s post is a natural extension of the FIRE glidepath posts (Part 19, Part 20) in this series. Moreover, the majority of readers of the series are not necessarily retired yet. Many seek guidance during the last few years before retirement. In fact, one of the most frequent questions I have been getting is that people who are almost retired and still holding 100% equities wonder how they are supposed to transition to a less aggressive allocation, say 75% stocks and 25% bonds at the start of retirement. Should you do a gradual transition? Or keep the allocation at 100% equities and then rapidly (cold-turkey?) shift to a more cautious allocation upon retirement?
Happy New Year, everyone! And welcome to a new installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. Today I like to write about the One More Year Syndrome(OMYS) – the fear of retirement and the decision to just work another year. What I find intriguing about OMYS is that procrastination normally works the other way around. You opt for the fun and easy stuff and promise yourself to do the hard work tomorrow. Only to repeat that charade again tomorrow and postpone the unpleasant tasks to the day after tomorrow. And so on.
But why procrastinate a fun-filled early retirement and keep working? Physician on FIRE and Fritz at The Retirement Manifesto have written about their rationales. The number one reason is that you grow your nest egg and put your retirement finances on a better footing. That was certainly my main rationale, too. I could have retired comfortably in 2017, probably even in 2016 but I delayed that decision until 2018.
So, qualitatively it’s obvious. But can we quantify by how much the OMYS improves your retirement security? Is it worth the additional year in the workforce? How can we incorporate OMYS in the Big ERN Google Safe Withdrawal Simulation Sheet? Is it possible that OMYS will boost your retirement health so substantially that it’s not as irrational as it’s sometimes made? Let’s take a look…
Right at the start, let me point out that, no, I’ve not gone to the bad side! I will not try to sell any actively-managed funds here. If you’re a part of the passive investing crowd, which is a large portion of the FIRE community, you might find the title a bit “click-baity.” Because the thought process of the average passive investor would go like this:
Underperforming the VTSAX is a non-starter. That’s highly undesirable. The only assets we’d ever consider are those with an expected return equal to or larger than the VTSAX!
But the problem is that due to efficient markets, nobody can beat the market!
If we intersect the two sets above, i.e., constrain ourselves to what’s both desirable and feasible we’re left with the VTSAX (or whatever close substitute you might pick, e.g., FSKAX from Fidelity).
That line of reasoning has some advantages: it has probably convinced a lot of folks to get rid of their irrational fear of the stock market and many have benefited from low-cost index investing instead of wasting money on actively-managed funds. My concern here is that I think that this thought process of “nobody can beat the market” is overly simplistic and (literally) one-dimensional. Of course, there are ways to beat the market! Here are eight ideas I can think of… Continue reading “How to Beat the Stock Market”→
Amazingly, after 4+ years of blogging and 200 posts, I haven’t written anything about Target Date Funds (TDFs). For some folks, they are certainly a neat tool. Your fund provider automatically allocates your regular retirement contributions to a portfolio that they deem appropriate for your age and/or the number of years you’re away from your retirement date. It’s a hands-off approach for people who don’t want to think about their asset allocation and simply outsource that task to a fund manager.
But I think not all is well in the TDF world. People planning for FIRE should stay away from TDFs. But even for traditional retirees, there are some unpleasant features. Let’s take a look…
One question I’ve gotten from readers a few times over the years is whether the participation in a so-called Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) is worthwhile.
A little bit of background: some corporations offer their employees to buy stocks of their company at a discount of up to 15%. There are some strings attached, though. For example, there are often minimum holding periods, anywhere between a few months and up to two years. The discount is also taxed as ordinary income, though the subsequent capital gains may qualify for treatment as long-term gains.
If you can liquidate the stocks right away and pocket the discount, then participating is likely a no-brainer. Take the money out of the ESPP and invest it in a low-cost index fund. It’s a nice boost to your contributions in your taxable account after you’ve maxed out all your other tax-advantaged options. 15% adjusted by your marginal income tax rate – federal and state. That would still be more than 10% for most people! Pretty sweet!
But what should you do if there’s a minimum holding period? During that time, part of your portfolio is now concentrated in one single corporation. The opposite of diversification. So, it’s a tradeoff: You get the discount but you also take on additional risk. Is it still worthwhile? This is an inherently quantitative question. Without putting hard numbers behind this we can talk about this until the cows come home. The only way to answer this question is through a quantitative exercise. And it turns out, the numbers look like it’s indeed worthwhile to participate in an ESPP, especially if you can get the full 15% discount, the maximum allowed under federal law.
Recently, there’s been some discussion in the FIRE community about a controversial post written by Sam, a.k.a. “Financial Samurai,” claiming that in light of the current record-low bond yields, specifically, the sub-1% yield on the 10-year Treasury bond, we now all have to scale back our early retirement safe withdrawal rates to… wait for it… only 0.5%! Of course, I’m one of the more cautious and conservative planners in the FIRE community, see my Safe Withdrawal Rate Series, but even I would not push people to less than 3%, even in light of today’s expensive asset valuations.
What’s my assumption for rebalancing the portfolio?
In the simulations throughout the entire series, I’ve always assumed that the investor rebalances the portfolio every month back to the target weights. And those target weights can be fixed, for example, 60% stocks and 40% bonds, or they can be moving targets like in a glidepath scenario (see Part 19 and Part 20).
In fact, assuming monthly rebalancing is the numerically most convenient assumption. I would never have to keep track of the various individual portfolio positions (stocks, bonds, cash, gold, etc.) over time, but only the aggregate portfolio value. If the portfolio is rebalanced back to the target weights every month I can simply track the portfolio value over time by applying the weighted asset return every month.
But there are some obstacles to rebalancing every single month:
It’s might be too much work. Maybe not necessarily the trading itself but keeping track of the different accounts and calculating the aggregate stock and bond weights, potentially making adjustments for taxable accounts, tax-free and tax-deferred accounts, etc.
It might involve transaction costs. Even in today’s world with zero commission trades for ETFs, you’d still have to bear the cost of the bid-ask spreads every time you trade.
Even if you hold your assets in mutual funds (no explicit trading costs) there might be short-term trading restrictions prohibited you from selling and then buying (or vice versa) too frequently.
It might be tax-inefficient. If an asset has appreciated too much you might have to sell more of it than your current retirement budget to bring the asset weight back to target. But that would mean you’ll have an unnecessarily high tax bill that year. Of course, this tax issue could be avoided by doing the rebalancing trades in the tax-advantaged accounts, not in the taxable brokerage accounts.
And finally and maybe most importantly, there might be a rationale for less-than-monthly rebalancing: it might have an impact on your Sequence of Return Risk. So, especially that last point piqued my interest because anything that might impact the safety of my withdrawal strategy is worth studying.
So, on the menu today are the following questions:
Under what conditions will less-frequent rebalancing do better or worse than monthly rebalancing and why?
How much of a difference would it make if we were to rebalance our portfolio less frequently?
Could the “right” rebalance strategy solve or at least alleviate the Sequence Risk problem?