Inflation at 7%! Here’s why I’m not running for the hills (yet)!

January 13, 2022

According to the most recent inflation numbers that came out yesterday (1/13), CPI inflation is now running at 7% year-over-year. From September to December we saw a 2.2% increase, which is a 9.1% annualized rate. And it’s not all energy and food inflation. The core CPI is also elevated at 5.5% year-over-year.

What do I make of this? How persistent or transitory is this inflation bump? Should we adjust our portfolio? Or our safe withdrawal rate? Here’s a short note with my thoughts…

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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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Passive income through option writing: Part 8 – A 2021 Update

October 18, 2021

After three posts in a row about safe withdrawal rates, parts 46, 47, and 48 of the series, let’s make sure we have the right level of diversity here. Welcome to a new installment of the option writing series! I wanted to give a brief update on several different fronts:

  1. A quick YTD performance update.
  2. How does the option selling strategy fit into my overall portfolio? Is this a 100% fixed income strategy because that’s where I hold the margin cash? Or a 100% equity strategy because I trade puts on margin on top of that? Or maybe even a 200+% equity strategy because I use somewhere around 2x to 2.5x leverage?
  3. By popular demand: Big ERN’s “super-secret sauce” for accounting for the intra-day adjustments of the Options Greeks. This is a timely topic because the Interactive Brokers values for the SPX Put Options seem to be wildly off the mark, especially for options close to expiration. So, you have to get your hands dirty and calculate your own options Greeks, especially the Delta estimates.
  4. There’s one slight change in the strategy I recently made: I trade fewer contracts but with a higher Delta thus reducing my leverage and the possibility of extreme tail-risk events.

Let’s dive right in…

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Retirement Bucket Strategies: Cheap Gimmick or the Solution to Sequence Risk? – SWR Series Part 48

September 14, 2021

Welcome to a new installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series, dealing with Bucket Strategies. This is one approach that’s often considered a viable solution to the dreaded Sequence Risk Problem. Simply keep buckets of assets with different risk characteristics designated to cover expenses during different time windows of your retirement. Specifically, keep one or more buckets with low-risk assets to hedge the first few years of retirement. And – poof – Sequence Risk evaporates, just like that! Sounds too good to be true, right? And it likely is. Long story short, while there are certain parts of the bucket strategy that can indeed partially alleviate the risk of retirement bust, bucket strategies are by no means a solution to Sequence Risk. Let’s take a look at the details…

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When to Worry, When to Wing It: Withdrawal Rate Case Studies – SWR Series Part 47

August 18, 2021

In my post two weeks ago I outlined my approach to retirement planning: In light of significant uncertainty in retirement, I like to do a more careful, robust, and scientific analysis. Not because I could ever undo any of the existing uncertainties but because I don’t want to add even more uncertainties through “winging it” in retirement.

But how much detail is really required? I can already hear objections like “you can never know your future spending month-by-month, so why go through all this careful analysis with a monthly withdrawal frequency?” To which I like to answer: Well, maybe that’s the part where you can indeed use the “wing it” approach! So, today I want to go through a few case studies and learn how much of a difference it would make in my safe withdrawal strategy simulations if we a) carefully model the whole shebang in great detail, or b) just wing it and use a rough average estimate for the spending path. For example…

  • Does the intra-year distribution of withdrawals matter? In other words, how much of a difference does the withdrawal frequency make: monthly vs. quarterly vs. annual?
  • What if there are fluctuations in my annual withdrawals around the baseline average budget, due to home repairs, health expenses, etc.?
  • What if those fluctuations have an upward bias?
  • What if there is a slow (upward) creep in withdrawals?
  • What about nursing home expenses later in retirement?

Where can I safely wing it? And which are the ones I should worry about? Let’s take a look…

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The Need for Precision in an Uncertain World – SWR Series Part 46

August 5, 2021

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…

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The Emergency Fund: It’s Still Useless!

May 26, 2021

One of my earliest blog posts back in 2016 detailed my thought process for skipping the emergency fund. Back then, while we were still accumulating and saving for early retirement, our entire seven-figure equity index fund portfolio served as our emergency fund. We never kept more than $1,000, maybe $2,000 in a checking account. We’d simply used the credit card float and/or the Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) if any larger expenses came up that exceeded my monthly cash flow, e.g., car and home repairs, medical bills, etc.

So, again, the idea is that if you are a practitioner of the FIRE movement and you save and invest aggressively just put all your money in an equity index fund and be done. It’s not crazy at all to simply invest your emergency fund in stocks! And I repeat it again in case people misunderstand (intentionally or unintentionally) my point here, I most definitely advocate stashing a large pile of money. I simply advocate for moving all that money into an investment with high expected returns, ideally equities, instead of letting the money languish in a money market account at 0.03% interest. Please refrain from quoting the strawman sob stories about people who couldn’t afford their roof or car repair because they live paycheck to paycheck. 

But a lot has happened since. We’ve had the 2020 recession and bear market and massive equity market volatility. Many financial experts, bloggers, and podcasters started spreading the “you need x months worth of expenses stashed away in a savings/money market account” mantra again. Have I changed my opinion? Heck no! Quite the opposite! The 2020 recession is a perfect example of the lunacy of the emergency fund invested in a money market account. Let me explain why…

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Passive income through option writing: Part 7 – Careful when shorting long-dated options!

May 3, 2021

Welcome back to a new installment of the options series! In the discussion following the previous post (Part 6), a reader suggested the following: In recent history, the index has never lost more than 50% over the span of one year. Then why not simply write (=short) a put option, about one year out with a strike 50+% below today’s index level? Make it extra-safe and use a strike 60% below today’s index!

12-month rolling S&P 500 index returns (price index only, not total returns!).

So, let’s take a look at the following scenario where we short a put option on the S&P 500 index slightly more than a year out and with a strike about 60% below the current index level:

  • Trading date: 4/30/2021
  • Index level at inception: 4,181.17
  • Expiration: 6/16/2022
  • Strike: 1,700 (=59.2% below the index)
  • Option premium: $11.50
  • Multiplier: 100x  (so, we receive $1,150 per short contract, minus about $1.50 in commission)
  • Initial Margin: $4,400, maintenance margin: $4,000

In other words, as a percentage of the initial margin, we can generate about 26% return over about 13.5 months. Annualized that’s still slightly above 23%! Even if we put down $15,000 instead of the bare minimum initial margin, we’re still looking at about 6.8% annualized return. If that’s a truly bulletproof and 100% safe return that’s nothing to sneeze at. A 6.8% safe return certainly beats the 0.1% safe return in a money market, right? Does that mean we have solved that pesky Sequence Risk problem?

Here are a few reasons to be skeptical about this strategy…

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A Retirement Tax-Planning Case Study (and Excel Toolkit!) – SWR Series Part 45

April 28, 2021

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.

So, let’s take a look…

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