one of the most common retirement planning
questions people have is how much money can I pull from my portfolio every year and live on
in retirement and that's where the four percent rule comes in handy and it basically says that
if you can pull four percent or less from your Diversified portfolio invested in things like
stocks and bonds and live off of that amount while keeping the rest invested then there's
a good chance that your money is going to last 20 30 years or more and as a frame of reference
if you had a million dollars then four percent would be forty thousand dollars if you had
five hundred thousand dollars it would be twenty thousand dollars per year and it's not
set in stone it is based off a study that was done many years ago and has held up well over
time but there are instances where people as they get older could pull more or if they retire
early maybe they want to consider even doing less than that but it's a really good way to get
a frame of reference on looking at how much you've saved and what that can translate
into in retirement as far as income goes
If you have spent any time researching retirement planning online, you have heard of the 4% rule. If you haven’t heard of it, the 4% rule suggests that if you spend 4% of your assets in your initial year of retirement, and then adjust for inflation each year going forward, you will be unlikely to run out of money. To put some numbers to it, if you wanted to retire and spend $40,000 per year, adjusted for inflation, from your portfolio, you would need to retire with one million dollars to adhere to the four percent rule. This rule is alternatively described as the requirement to have 25 years worth of spending in your portfolio to afford retirement. 1/25 equals 4% – it’s the same rule. While it is simple and elegant, the 4% rule is probably not the best way to plan for retirement, especially if you plan on retiring early. I’m Ben Felix, Associate Portfolio Manager at PWL Capital. In this episode of Common Sense Investing, I’m going to tell you why the 4% rule is not a rule to live by.
The 4% rule originated in William Bengen’s October 1994 study, published in the Journal of Financial Planning. Bengen was a financial planner. He wanted to find a realistic safe withdrawal rate to recommend to his retired clients. Bengan’s breakthrough in determining a safe withdrawal rate came from modelling spending over 30-year periods in US market history rather than the common practice of simply using average historical returns. Using data for a hypothetical portfolio consisting of 50% S&P 500 index and 50% intermediate-term US government bonds he looked at rolling 30-year periods starting in 1926, ending with 1992. So, 1926 – 1955, followed by 1927 – 1956 etc., ending with 1963 – 1992. The maximum safe withdrawal rate in the worst 30-year period ended up being just over 4%. From this simple but innovative analysis, the 4% rule was born. More recently Bengen has adjusted his spending rule to 4.5% based on the inclusion of small cap stocks in the hypothetical historical portfolio.
While the 4% (and the 4.5% rule) may have basis in historical US data, there are substantial problems with these rules in general, and specifically in the case of a retirement period longer than 30 years. In his 2017 book How Much Can I Spend in Retirement, Wade Pfau, Ph.D, CFA, looked at 30-year safe withdrawal rates in both US and non-US markets using the Dimson-Marsh-Staunton Global Returns Dataset, and assuming a portfolio of 50% stocks and 50% bills. He found that the US at 3.9%, Canada at 4.0%, New Zealand at 3.8%, and Denmark at 3.7% were the only countries in the dataset that would have historically supported something close to the 4% rule. The aggregate global portfolio of stocks and bills had a much lower 30-year safe withdrawal rate of 3.5%. Considering returns other that US historical returns is important, but, in my opinion, one of the most important assumptions to be aware of in the 4% rule is the 30-year retirement period used by Bengen. People are living longer, and many of the bloggers citing the 4% rule are focused on FIRE, financial independence retire early.
In Bengen’s study the 4% rule with a 50% stock 50% bond portfolio was shown to have a 0% chance of failure over 30-year historical periods in the US. That chance of failure increases to around 15% over 40-year periods, and closer to 30% over 50-year periods. FIRE likely means a retirement period longer than 30 years. Modelling longer time periods using historical sampling becomes problematic because we have data for a limited number of historical 50-year periods.
One way to address this issue is with Monte Carlo simulation. Monte Carlo is a technique where an unlimited number of sample data sets can be simulated to model uncertainty without relying on historical periods. Even with Monte Carlo simulation, there is an obvious risk to using historical data to build expectations about the future. The world today is different than it was in the past. Interest rates are low, and stock prices are high. While it may be reasonable to expect relative outcomes to persist, such as stocks outperforming bonds, small stocks outperforming large stocks, and value stocks outperforming growth stocks, the magnitude of future returns are unknown and unknowable. To address this for financial planning, PWL Capital uses a combination of equilibrium cost of capital and current market conditions to build an estimate for expected future returns for use in financial planning. This process is outlined in the 2016 paper Great Expectations.
Using the December 2017 PWL Capital expected returns for a 50% stock 50% bond portfolio we are able to model the safe withdrawal rate for varying durations of retirement using Monte Carlo simulation. We will assume that a 95% success rate over 1,000 trials is sufficient to be called a safe withdrawal rate. For a 30-year retirement period, our Monte Carlo simulation gives us a 3.5% safe withdrawal rate. Pretty close to the original 4% rule, and spot on with Wade Pfau’s global revision of Bengen’s analysis. Now let’s say a 40-year old wants to retire today and assume life until age 95. That’s a 55-year retirement period. The safe withdrawal rate? 2.2%. I think that this is such an important message. The 4% rule falls apart over longer retirement periods. So far we have talked about spending a consistent inflation adjusted amount each year in retirement. One way to increase the amount that you can spend overall is allowing for variable spending. In general this means spending more when markets are good, and spending less when markets are bad. The result is more spending overall with a lower probability of running out of money. The catch is that you have to live with a variable income or have the ability to generate additional income from, say, working, to fill in the gaps when markets are not doing well.
We also need to talk about fees. Fees reduce returns. Fees may be negligible if you are using low-cost ETFs, but they become extremely important if you are using high-fee mutual funds, or if you are paying for financial advice. The safe withdrawal rate in the worst 30-year period in the US drops to 3.56% with a 1% fee, making the 4% rule the more like the 3.5% rule after a 1% fee.
Adding a 1% fee to the Monte Carlo simulation reduces the safe withdrawal rates by around 0.50% on average. In both cases this is a meaningful reduction in spending. Of course, fees need to be considered alongside the value being received in exchange for the fee. This value should be heavily tied to behavioural coaching and financial decision making. There have been two well-known attempts to quantify the value of financial advice, one by Vanguard and one by Morningstar. Vanguard estimated that between building a customized investment plan, minimizing risks and tax impacts, and behavioural coaching, good financial advice can add an average of 3% per year to returns. Morningstar looked at withdrawal strategies, asset allocation, tax efficiency, liability relative optimization, annuity allocation, and timing of social security (CPP in Canada), to arrive at a value-add of 2.34% per year.
PWL Capital’s Raymond Kerzerho has also written on this topic, finding an estimated value-add of just over 3% per year. Based on these analyses, one could argue that paying 1% for good financial advice could even increase your safe withdrawal rate. I would not go that far, but the point is that while fees are a consideration, they may be worthwhile in exchange for good advice.
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When the Social Security Act was passed in
1935, retirement officially began at 65. And the life expectancy at the time was 58. So from the very outset, “retirement”
wasn’t exactly considered a universal experience. But over the last century as life expectancies
have climbed, the concept of retirement has become synonymous with the final chapter in
a person’s life. Then, the book “Your Money or Your Life”
came out in the 90’s and introduced a radical concept The author, Vicki Robin, proposed that by
living with extreme frugality for a few years, younger people could essentially become “retired”
long before old age. She claimed to have achieved financial independence…
in her 20’s! Today, the phenomenon of financial independence
at a young age goes by the acronym “FIRE”. It stands for “Financial Independence; Retire
Early”. And it’s no fringe movement – FIRE has been
covered by the New York Times, Market Watch, and Forbes.
And it’s got more and more millenials wondering
“could I quit my day-job too?” This isn’t about dropping out of society
or living in a cave… necessarily. FIRE practitioners work extremely hard while
living far below their means for years to amass enough savings to leave the workforce. And it doesn’t mean you’ll spend your
newfound freedom just hanging out in bowling alleys like Jeff Lebowski. Many people who manage to retire early continue
to work–but only on projects they’re passionate about. But the question remains… is it possible
to achieve through savings alone? Peter Adeney, aka “Mr. Money Mustache”,
might be considered the modern FIRE movement’s founding father. Adeney was working as a software engineer
while living dramatically below his means during his 20’s. He took his savings and paid off debt and
invested it it in stock-index funds. By 2005 and in his early-30’s, Adeney and
his wife had amassed around $600,000 and a paid-for home. He calculated he had enough to leave the work-force-permanently.
Adeney suggests that Early-Retirement is possible
through three fundamental concepts: Frugality, Investing, and the “4% Rule” of withdrawals. Let’s face it – unless you luck into a large
windfall of cash, you’ll have to save up a serious nest egg to retire. And the simplest way to do that is to slash
your lifestyle. Normally, financial advisors suggest a 10-15%
savings rate to retire at a normal age of 65 or so. Want to retire ahead of schedule? Then you’ll have to level that up. Most early-retirees adopt a 50% to 75% savings
rate… or more! It’s not uncommon for them to cut restaurants
& bars, buy cheap cars, bike to work, make do with a smaller house, and avoid luxuries
like gyms, fancy vacations, and expensive hobbies. Simply stashing cash into a bank account is
a good start. But the FIRE proponents rely on the power
of the markets to boost their savings rates. Assuming you saved your money into a general
stock-market index fund, you might expect 7-10% rate of return, based on historical
Any experienced investor will tell you that
year-to-year returns will swing wildly, maybe even crash! So that’s where the third rule comes in… A 1998 study by Trinity University concluded
that a 4% annual withdrawal rate of your money in retirement should allow you to never out-live
your money – even in a bad economy. This means that even with the dramatic ups
and downs of the stock and bond market, as long as your yearly expenses stay below 4%
of your total savings, you should be able to live off them for… well, theoretically,
forever. Put another way: you take your annual spending
needs, then multiply it by 25. That’s the amount you need to become financially
independent. By now I imagine you’re wondering what it
would take if YOU wanted to to retire early. I think it’s time to… RUN THE NUMBERS! Let’s imagine you have a household income
of $85,000, but you live way below your means and only need $35,000/yr to be happy.
According to our rule of 4%, you’ll need
$875,000 in the bank in order to be financially independent. Through extreme thrift and aggressive cost-cutting,
you’re able to save $50,000/yr, which comes to 59% of your annual income. At that rate of savings, and assuming your
stock-index funds got an average return of 7%, you’ll have hit your goal in… 12 years. A good income, frugal living, and compound
interest are a powerful wealth-building combination. You might be wondering “What if I don’t
make a ton of money? Is this realistic?” A common critique of the Early Retirement
movement is that Adeney and other leaders of the movement had high-paying jobs in medicine
or engineering. Making big bucks can certainly speed up the
process. But it’s not a requirement. Take Jillian Johnsrud. She began working towards financial independence
at age 19. Her husband served in the armed forces and
she worked in customer service and sales. Over the next 13 years they made an average
household income of $60,000, with no year over six-figures. And by 32 Jillian had saved enough to be completely
financially independent. All while raising adopted & biological children
and climbing out of $52,000 of debt. She uses her freed-up time to travel the country,
write, and raise her children.
Today she does some work as a writer and coach,
but it’s on her terms. If you think that “early retirement” is
all about lounging around and avoiding work, you’ve missed the point. Instead, it’s about taking an active step
to replace a job you hate with work you love… and often finances are the biggest hurdle. As Adeney says about the FIRE phenomenon:
“Early retirement means quitting any job you wouldn’t do for free – but then
continuing right ahead with work in something that works for you, even when you don’t
need the money.” And if you’ve already got a fulfilling job
you love– congratulations, you already have the benefits of early retirement without having
to save up for it! So whether or not you want to sprint toward
early retirement, the mindset of reducing your lifestyle, living simpler, and building
a more rewarding work-life is something we should all be aiming for. And that’s our Two Cents! If you were to retire today, what would you do with your newfound freedom? Tell us about it in the comments.