Our Net Worth as of 12/31/2017

Happy New Year! Another quarter-end, I can’t believe how fast time flies! And we all know what that means, right? Net Worth updates across the Financial Independence blogosphere! For us, this is a special NW update because it’s the last one before we both give notice at work in two months! And the last NW update before our apartment goes on the market! In other words, this better looks good, otherwise, we might get cold feet, also known as One More Year Syndrome. Soooo, where do we stand financially? Here are the numbers…

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Meet Mr. Millionaire Math! (Plus Three Year-End Smart Money Moves)

Welcome! We hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas! Between the holidays when we are all still digesting all the excess calories there’s probably less demand for heavy-duty safe withdrawal rats simulations, so let’s do something on a lighter note today. I have always been wondering, what is it with MMM? Mr. Money Mustache started it all, of course. Now we have Mad Money Monster, Millenial Money Man, and Miss Millenial MD. Am I forgetting anyone? Even some obscure corporation up North, Minnesota Manafucaturting & Mining, jumped on that same MMM bandwagon, no doubt to leech off Pete’s fame. Obviously their lawyers were smart enough to put the label “3M” instead of “MMM” on their little post-it notes packages, otherwise, they’d probably get a nasty letter from the lawyers in Longmont. OK, just kidding about 3M. But still, it got me thinking, if I hadn’t picked “Early Retirement Now” as the blog name what would I have picked in the MMM universe? Easy!

Mr. Millionaire Math!

That seems to convey the essence of the blog pretty nicely, don’t you think? I also got a nice project for Mr. Millionaire Math: How much (or how little) effort and how much time would it have taken to become a millionaire by now? We’ll do some (light!) number-crunching on that topic today. And I’ll throw in some last-minute, end-of-the-year smart-money moves as well…

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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!

CapeChartNov2017
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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See that house over there? It’s an investment!

Few topics in personal finance and in the early retirement community stir up emotions as nicely as the pros and cons of homeownership. Some folks in the FIRE community are renters and swear by it and others are very happy homeowners and/or real estate investors. Neither side is wrong. Those with more nomadic lifestyles probably prefer renting and the those with kids in school and strong ties to the local community are apparently happy homeowners. Normally, the two sides just coexist peacefully but discussions normally get heated and sparks fly when one side accuses the other of doing something wrong. If I had to distill the arguments of the two sides into bumper stickers it would be:

  • Homeowners: Renting is just throwing away money!
  • Renters: A house is not an investment at all. Or it’s a terrible investment!

But of course, both claims are just that: bumper stickers. And both claims are demonstrably false and/or crude generalizations! Let’s look more into the math of the rent vs. own tradeoff…Read More »

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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This fund returned over 100% year-to-date. I’m still not buying it!

I was hoping to tell you about a great new investment I researched recently. It’s an ETN (ETN=Exchange-Traded Note, similar but not identical to an Exchange-Trades Fund) with a phenomenal track record; year-to-date (as of October 20 when writing this) it’s up 141%! Since inception (November 30, 2010) it’s up by 1,079%, over 40% annualized compound return! But, as you can see from the title, I’m still skeptical!

Why do I even look at some exotic ETN/ETF? Aren’t we all supposed to be index investors? Buy your VTSAX and be done? Nope! I consider myself an index investor with an open mind. It’s very hard to outperform the index by picking individual stocks, but there are many other ways to deviate from index investing. For example, I like real estate investing and options trading. In both cases, it’s not really about beating the VTSAX but I like the return profiles and the diversification benefits.

So, back to that amazing ETN. The ticker is XIV and here’s the cumulative return chart since 2010. $100 would have grown to almost $1,200!

XIVstudy Chart02
XIV (inverse VIX ETN) and SPY (S&P500 index ETF) returns. 11/30/2010=100.

That looks like a pretty impressive run. It definitely got my attention! But after doing some more detailed analysis I realized this ETN is not for me. At least not right now. But what’s not to love about 1,000% return since 2010, when the S&P500 returned “only” 150% since then? That’s the topic of today’s blog post…Read More »

Our Net Worth as of 9/30/2017

Time flies! It’s been six months already since our inaugural Net Worth report. For some reason, we never did a Q2 update! Actually, there is a reason. Watching the ERN family portfolio progress is a little bit like watching paint dry. It’s slooowwww, at least in percentage terms! Every year in the first quarter, we get a nice noticeable bump when the annual bonus rolls in, but outside of bonus season, we feel a bit like living paycheck to paycheck! OK, that’s an exaggeration because we still max out our 401k contributions and pay down the mortgage principal (which we consider savings). But about half of our savings come from one single paycheck and the other half is spread over the remaining 23 paychecks. That’s the privilege of working in the finance industry! So in Q2 and Q3, we might have added a little bit of savings, but the growth in our net worth came mostly from the pretty solid returns in our different investments.

Let’s look at the numbers in detail…Read More »

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 19: Equity Glidepaths in Retirement

One of the most requested topics for our Safe Withdrawal Rate Series (see here to start at Part 1 of our series) has been how to optimally model a dynamic stock/bond allocation in retirement. Of course, as a mostly passive investor, I prefer to not get too much into actively and tactically timing the equity share. But strategically and deterministically shifting between stocks and bonds along a “glidepath” in retirement might be something to consider!

This topic also ties very nicely into the discussion I had with Jonathan and Brad in the ChooseFI podcast episode on Sequence of Return Risk. In the podcast, I hinted at some of my ongoing research on designing glidepaths that could potentially alleviate, albeit not eliminate, Sequence Risk. I also hinted at the benefits of glidepaths in Part 13 (a simple glidepath captures all the benefits of the much more cumbersome “Prime Harvesting” method) and Part 16 (a glidepath seems like a good and robust way of dealing with a Jack Bogle 4% equity return scenario for the next 10 years).

The idea behind a glidepath is that if we start with a relatively low equity weight and then move up the equity allocation over time we effectively take our withdrawals mostly out of the bond portion of the portfolio during the first few years. If the equity market were to go down during this time, we’d avoid selling our equities at rock bottom prices. That should help with Sequence of Return Risk!

GlidepathPlot
Static Asset Allocation vs. Glidepath in (early) retirement. 80% static equities vs. a glidepath going from 60% to 100%.

So, will a glidepath eliminate or at least alleviate Sequence Risk? How much exactly can we benefit from this glidepath approach? For that, we’d have to run some simulations…
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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 18: Flexibility and the Mechanics of CAPE-Based Rules

Welcome back to the newest installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. To go back and start from the beginning, please check out Part 1 of the series with links to all the other parts as well.

Today’s post is a follow-up on some of the items we discussed in the ChooseFI podcast a few weeks ago. How do we react to a drop in the portfolio value early on during our retirement? Recall, it’s easy not to worry too much about market volatility when you are still saving for retirement. As I pointed out in the Sequence of Return Risk posts (SWR series Part 14 and Part 15), savers can benefit from a market drop early during the accumulation phase if the market bounces back eventually. Thanks to the Dollar Cost Averaging effect, you buy the most shares when prices are down and then reap the gains during the next bull market. That has helped the ERN family portfolio tremendously in the accumulation phase in 2001 and 2008/9.

But retirees should be more nervous about a market downturn. Remember, when it comes to Sequence of Return Risk, there is a zero-sum game between the saver and the retiree! A market drop early on helps the saver and thus has to hurt the retiree. What should the retiree do, then? The standard advice to early retirees (or any retiree for that matter) is to “be flexible!” Great advice! But flexible how? We are all flexible around here. I have yet to meet a single person who claims to be completely inflexible! “Being flexible” without specifics is utterly useless advice. It’s a qualitative answer to an inherently quantitative problem. If the portfolio is down by, say, 30% since the start of our retirement, then what? Cut the withdrawal by 30%? Keep withdrawals the same? Or something in between?

How flexible do I have to be to limit the risk of running out of money?

That’s today’s post: Using dynamic withdrawal rate strategies, specifically CAPE-based withdrawal rules, to deal with the sequence of returns risk…

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How useful is international diversification?

I have a confession to make! In the ERN family portfolio, we have almost no international diversification. We invest the bulk of our financial portfolio in U.S. index funds; FUSVX and FSTVX, which are Fidelity’s (lower-cost) alternatives to the Vanguard Admiral shares VFIAX and VTSAX, respectively. Our international exposure is in the low single-digit percentages. How come, you ask? How useful is international diversification, anyway? Jack Bogle, for example, claims that with a diversified U.S. equity portfolio you will capture pretty much the entire global economy already because U.S. corporations do business all over the world. That argument, of course, is not very convincing. Doing business abroad obviously means that you get some diversification, but it definitely doesn’t imply you get enough diversification from a U.S.-only portfolio. To see how flawed that “revenue from all over the world” logic is, keep in mind that Apple is generating revenue from “all over the United States” but nobody in their right mind would ever call for investing exclusively in Apple stocks as a good proxy for the entire U.S. stock market.

Let’s look at the chart below to see how the U.S. stock market is clearly not a very precise proxy for international stocks. It’s a scatter plot of U.S. monthly equity returns on the x-axis and global returns (both non-U.S. and all global stocks). World ex USA has only a 0.65 correlation with U.S. equities. If for most x-values the blue dots are scattered around the 45-degree line +-/10% or even +/-15% (monthly!!!) then we clearly don’t capture everything going on in the world with a U.S.-only equity fund. (Of course, the overall World index has a much higher correlation; the orange dots are closer to the 45-degree line, but that’s mostly because global stocks already include the U.S. with a weight of about 50%.)

Diversification Chart01
Scatter Plot of U.S. equity returns (x-axis) and global equity returns (y-axis,). The correlation with non-U.S. stocks is only 0.65. All index data from MSCI.

So, diversification could theoretically work! Then why am I not more enthusiastic about international diversification? Very simple:

It’s less about whether diversification works. It’s more about when diversification works and especially when it doesn’t.

Let’s look at the data some more…

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