In this year’s April Fool’s post, I marketed a made-up crypto coin that would completely hedge against Sequence Risk, the dreaded destroyer of retirement dreams. Once and for all! Most readers would have figured out this was a hoax because that complete hedge against Sequence Risk is still elusive after so many posts in my series. Sure, there are a few minor adjustments we can make, like an equity glidepath, either directly, see Part 19 and Part 20, or disguised as a “bucket strategy” (Part 48). We could very cautiously(!) use leverage – see Part 49 (static version) and Part 52 (dynamic/timing leverage), and maybe find a few additional small dials here and there to take the edge off the scary Sequence Risk. But a complete hedge is not so easy.
Well, maybe there is an easy solution. It’s the one I vaguely hinted at when I first wrote about the ins and outs of Sequence Risk back in 2017. You see, there is one type of investor who’s insulated from Sequence Risk: a buy-and-hold investor. If you invest $1 today and make neither contributions nor withdrawal withdrawals, then the final net worth after, say, 30 years is entirely determined by the compounded average growth rate. Not the sequence, because when multiplying the (1+r1) through (1+r30), the order of multiplication is irrelevant. If a retiree could be matched with a saver who contributes the exact same amount as the retiree’s cash flow needs, then the two combined, as a team, are a buy and hold investor – shielded from Sequence Risk. It’s because savers and retirees will always be on “opposite sides” of sequence risk. For example, low returns early on and high returns later will hurt the retiree and benefit the saver. And vice versa. If a retiree and a retirement saver could team up and find a way to compensate each other for their potential good or bad luck we could eliminate Sequence Risk.
I will go through a few scenarios and simulations to showcase the power of this team effort. But there are also a few headaches arising when trying to implement such a scheme. Let’s take a closer look…
Last year in Part 49 of the Safe Withdrawal Series, I wrote a post about using leverage in retirement, and in today’s post, I like to explore some additional issues.
A quick recap, the appeal of using leverage in retirement is that we would borrow against the portfolio instead of liquidating assets. Nice! That might help with Sequence Risk if we avoid liquidating assets at temporarily depressed prices. There could also be a tax advantage in that we keep deferring the realization of taxable capital gains, potentially until we bequeath our assets to our daughter who can then use the “step-up basis” for complete forgiveness of all of our accumulated capital gains. That’s the famous “buy, borrow, die” approach popular with high-net-worth folks.
The gist of the post last year: Not so fast! Leverage could potentially even exacerbate Sequence Risk if you are unlucky and retire right before a bad market event that’s deep enough (like the Great Depression) or long enough (like the 1965-1982 stagflation episode) to compromise the portfolio so badly that the margin loan becomes unsustainable relative to the underwater portfolio.
One solution proposed by several readers: instead of always borrowing against the portfolio, maybe we should carefully time when we use leverage. For example, borrow only when the stock market is down “far enough” and use withdrawals from the portfolio otherwise. And if the market is doing well again, potentially pay back the loan again! Sounds like a reasonable and intuitive plan. But I want to put that to the test with some real simulations. Let’s take a look at the details…
Last month, I published Part 49 of my Safe Withdrawal Rate Series, dealing with leverage in retirement. In that post, I surmised that the cheapest form of leverage likely comes in the form of a margin loan in an Interactive Brokers (IB) account. If you have the IB Pro account you have access to loan rates tied to the Federal Funds Rate plus a tiered spread ranging from 0.3% to 1.5%. Though, the really low rates don’t start until your loan reaches at least $3,000,000. For more manageable loan amounts that the average retail investor would use, we’re looking at a higher spread: 1.50% spread for the first $100,000 and 1.00% over the Fed Funds Rate for the next $900k. With the current effective Fed Funds Rate at around between 0.08% and 0.10%, that’s a very competitive rate. Certainly better than a Home Equity Line Of Credit (HELOC).
In the comments section, though, a reader brought up an idea for an even lower-cost method for borrowing against your assets: an exotic options trade called a “box spread”. I had heard of this trade before but never put much thought into it. And I certainly didn’t put any money into that idea. But just for fun, I researched this trade some more and even initiated one box spread trade on Monday, essentially issuing a synthetic $20,000 zero-coupon bond maturing in December 2026 at a very competitive interest rate, significantly lower what you’d get from IB.
So, in today’s post, I like to go through the basics of the Box Spread, how to implement it and how this trade could in fact give us a cheaper form of leverage than even the rock-bottom rates from IB. Let’s take a look at the details…
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…
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”→
Simple (indexing) beats complicated active investing
Well, after unloading on some of the fancy complicated investing styles, I just like to point out the select few of them that indeed performed relatively well in 2020. At least better than the index. So, for the record, I’d also like to write about three examples where…
Complicated beats simple index investing
And most importantly, I’m not pulling some “Monday Morning Quarterback” nonsense telling you that if you could have sold your airline stocks in February and replaced them with stocks for video conferencing makers you could have done really well. Well, duh, very few people other than U.S. Senators had that kind of inside information back in February! Rather, I want to write about some of the deviations from simple indexing that were mentioned here on the blog in my posts and/or in the comments. Before the crisis!
Welcome to another installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. This one has been requested by a lot of folks: Let’s not restrict our safe withdrawal calculations to paper assets only, i.e., stocks, bonds, cash, etc. Lots of us in the early retirement community, yours truly included, have at least a portion of our portfolios allocated to real estate. What impact does that have on our safe withdrawal rate? How will I even model real estate investments in the context of Safe Withdrawal and Safe Consumption calculations? So many questions! So let’s take a look at how I like to tackle rental real estate investments and why I think they could play an important role in hedging against Sequence Risk and rasing our safe withdrawal rate…
Remember the blog post from a few months ago, How To “Lie” With Personal Finance? I got a fresh set of four new “lies” today! Again, just for the record, that other post and today’s post should be understood as a way to spot the lies and misunderstandings in the personal finance world, not a manual to manufacture those lies. Of course!
This one is about the rent vs. homeownership debate. Is homeownership a wise financial decision? I’m not going to answer this question here. It’s a calculation that’s highly dependent on personal factors. I lean toward homeownership over renting but that’s because of our idiosyncratic personal preferences – our ideal early retirement lifestyle involves having a stable home base in a good school district. For us personally, the monetary side of homeownership has also worked out pretty well (“My best investment ever: Homeownership?!”) and I like to hedge against Sequence Risk in early retirement by taking a small chunk of our net worth – just under 10% – and “investing” it in an asset that lowers our mandatory expenses because we don’t have to pay rent. But I can certainly see how some other folks, whether retired or not, would prefer to rent. I certainly don’t want to talk anyone out of renting. But on the web, you sometimes read pretty nonsensical arguments against homeownership. And just for balance, there’s also a prominent lie in favor of homeownership. This is going to be interesting; let’s take a look… Continue reading “How To “Lie” With Personal Finance – Part 2 (Homeownership Edition)”→
Update 12/4/2020: I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries lately: Has my assessment changed in light of the record-low interest rates? My answer: Not really. Mortgage rates are low but so are my equity expected returns and bond yields. Right now I see 2.375% for the 15y and 2.75% for the 30y mortgage, so we’re about 1.0% lower on the mortgage rate. But with the CAPE>30 we also have a 1% lower equity expected return. It’s almost a wash. So, the gist of the article is still intact: Ask yourself, are you comfortable with a mortgage and 100% equities? I would not. If you do have bonds and a mortgage, is the bond yield lower than the mortgage rate? (Currently, it is: <1% for the 10y bond used in my simulations.) So, you’re better off paying off the mortgage with the bond portfolio.
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!
Our first guest post on the ERN blog! Ever! Let me introduce Drew Cloud who runs the fascinating blog studentloans.net. Not too long ago, I remember U.S. student loans surpassing one trillion dollars (a one with 12 zeros!) for the first time. Now we’re at $1.4t and the amount just keeps growing. Make sure you check out Drew’s blog, too, especially the treasure trove of data on the topic. Take over, Drew!
A quick online search of student loan debt in America reveals the astonishing truth about the widespread, increasing expense of attending a college or university. Currently, more than 44 million borrowers have amassed over $1.4 trillion of student loan debt, and each year, the total continues to climb. While taking out student loans is now firmly embedded in the college experience for the majority of students, the picture remains bleak for borrowers. Here are five unfortunate facts about student loan debt in America to prove that point.