What Do Low Interest Rates Mean For Your Retirement?

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A 2013 study from Prudential considered whether a hypothetical 65-year old female retiree would have enough retirement income to last her lifetime. In their scenario, they calculated a 21% possibility of failure, given market volatility and longevity risk. When they added in a third factor of “an extended period of low interest rates”, the failure rate rose to 54%.

How to Make the 4% Rule Work for You

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Retirement planning today has largely shifted from guaranteed income from pensions to withdrawal strategies from 401(k) accounts and IRAs. Most financial planners recommend retirees start with an initial withdrawal rate of 4%. This approach was developed because historically, a 4% withdrawal rate, adjusted for inflation each year, would allow a retirement portfolio to last for 30 years under almost all circumstances.

The market was up in each of the past six years, which can give retirees a false sense of security about increasing their spending. In recent years, investors could take out 5%, 6%, or more from their portfolio and still end the year with more money than they started with. Markets go up and down, and if you withdraw all of your gains when the market is up, you can run into trouble when the market drops by 20 or 30 percent.

I find the challenge many retirees face with the 4% rule is forgetting to budget for unexpected expenses. If they have $1,000,000, a 4% withdrawal would be only $40,000 a year (before taxes). They can get by on this amount, but when their car needs replacing, they want us to send another $25,000. Suddenly, their annual withdrawal is up to $65,000. The next year, they need $10,000 for a new roof, and the next year, it’s something else. The issue is rarely reckless spending, but failing to set aside money for these unanticipated expenses.

The danger is that if a retiree takes too much, too soon, there won’t be enough remaining principal in their account to last for 30 years. Diminishing your account early in retirement means that future dividends and capital gains will be smaller in dollar terms, and cannot adequately replenish the annual withdrawals. Then the retiree may have to make drastic changes in their spending and lifestyle to avoid depleting their account. If there is a multi-year correction (like 2000-2002), combined with several years of large withdrawals, it is possible a retiree could see their portfolio drop to one-half their starting value in just five years.

I write this because the first challenge with the 4% rule is that many retirees don’t follow it and take out much more when the market is up. The good news, however, is that for the great majority of history, a 4% withdrawal rate was actually extremely conservative.

In a recent article by Michael Kitces, he examined the 4% rule, looking at 115 rolling 30-year periods, invested in a 60/40 portfolio. He found that in more than 90% of the periods, after 30 years of inflation-adjusted 4% withdrawals, a retiree would have finished with more money than they had at the beginning of retirement. In fact, the median wealth after 30 years, was 2.8 times the initial principal. The 4% rule was not an average withdrawal rate, but based on surviving a steep and prolonged downturn like The Great Depression.

Looking at all 115 30-year periods, Kitces found that retirees could have withdrawn a range of 4-10% of their initial principal, with a median of 6.5%. The 4% rule is the lowest withdrawal rate that worked, and since we don’t know future returns, the safest assumption. While that’s no guarantee that the 4% rule will work in the future, investors should feel very confident with this approach.

Now for some even better news: looking at all 115 periods, Kitces found that whenever the portfolio had grown to 50% above the starting value, withdrawals could be increased by 10%. This “ratchet” approach could be done every three years, and is on top of annual increases for inflation.

For example, let’s consider a retiree who started with a $1 million portfolio and experienced 3% inflation for 5 years. The annual withdrawal amount would have started at $40,000 (4%) and grown to $46,371 with inflation. If the portfolio were now to exceed $1.5 million, we could ratchet up their spending by an additional 10%, to $51,008 and that would become the new annual withdrawal amount.

Here’s a summary of how to make the 4% rule work for you:

1) Make sure you stick to a 4% withdrawal and don’t forget to set money aside for unexpected expenses.
2) Remember that the 4% rule is based on the worst case scenario of terrible market performance.
3) You can plan to increase your withdrawals each year for inflation.
4) If your portfolio grows to 50% above your initial starting value, you can ratchet up your annual withdrawal by an additional 10%.
5) Finally, recall that the 4% rule worked for a portfolio comprised of 60% stocks, 40% bonds. Don’t think that you can apply the 4% rule to a portfolio that is 80% invested in cash or CDs. It’s stocks that fuel the growth which enables the withdrawals to be increased.

How Much Can You Withdraw in Retirement?

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With corporate pensions declining in use, retirees are increasingly dependent on withdrawals from their 401(k)s, IRAs, and investment accounts. The challenge facing investors is how to plan these withdrawals and not run out of money even though we don’t know how long we will live or what returns we will receive in the market on our portfolio.

Pensions and Social Security provide a consistent source of income that you cannot outlive. When I run Monte Carlo simulations – computer generated outcomes testing thousands of possible scenarios – we find that the larger the percentage of monthly needs that are met from guaranteed sources, the lower chance the investor will run out of money due to poor market performance from their portfolio.

If you do have a pension, it is very important to consider all angles when deciding between a lump sum payout and participating in the pension for the rest of your life. It is not a given that you will be able to outperform the pension payments, especially if you are healthy and have a long life expectancy.

The most obvious way to avoid running out of money (called longevity risk by financial planners) would be to annuitize some portion of your portfolio through the purchase of an immediate annuity from an insurance company. While that would work, and is essentially the same as having a pension, very few people do this. You’d be giving up all control of your assets and reducing any inheritance for your beneficiaries. With today’s low interest rates, you’d probably be less than thrilled with the return. For example, a 65-year old male who places $100,000 in a single life immediate annuity today would receive $542 a month.

The problem with annuitization, besides giving up your principal and not leaving anything for your heirs, is that it doesn’t allow for any increase in expenditures to account for inflation. There are three approaches we might use to structure a withdrawal program for a retiree.

1) Assume a fixed inflation rate. In most retirement planning calculators, projected withdrawals are increased by inflation to maintain the same standard of living. After all, who doesn’t want to keep their standard of living? The result of this approach is that the initial withdrawal rate then must be pretty low. 20 years ago, the work of William Bengen established the “4% rule” which found that a withdrawal rate of 4% would fund a 30-year retirement under most market conditions.

On a $1 million portfolio, 4% is $40,000 a year. But that is just the first year. With 3% inflation, we’d plan on $41,200 in year two, and $42,436 in year three. After 24 years, withdrawals would double to $80,000. The 4% rule is not the same as putting your money in a 4% bond; it’s the inflation which requires starting with a low initial rate.

While we should plan for inflation in retirement, this method is perhaps too rigid in its assumptions. If a portfolio is struggling, we’re not going to continue to increase withdrawals by 3% and spend the portfolio to zero. We have the ability to respond and make adjustments as needed.

2) Take a flexible withdrawal strategy. We may be able to start with a slightly higher initial withdrawal rate if we have some flexibility under what circumstances we could increase future withdrawals. In my book, Your Last 5 Years: Making the Transition From Work to Retirement, I suggest using a 4% withdrawal rate if you retire in your 50’s, a 5% rate if you start in your 60’s, and 6% if retiring in your 70’s. I would not increase annual withdrawals for inflation unless your remaining principal has grown and your withdrawal rate does not exceed the original 4, 5, or 6%.

This doesn’t guarantee lifetime income under all circumstances, but it does give a higher starting rate, since we eliminate increases for inflation if the portfolio is shrinking. Under some circumstances, it may even be prudent to reduce withdrawals to below the initial withdrawal amount temporarily. That’s where having other sources of guaranteed income can help provide additional flexibility with your planning.

3) Use an actuarial method. This means basing your withdrawals on life expectancy. Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) are a classic example of an actuarial strategy: you take your account value and divide by the number of years of life expectancy remaining. If your life expectancy is 25 years, we take 1/25, or 4%. The next year, the percentage will increase. By the time someone is in their 90’s, their life expectancy will be say three years, suggesting a 33% withdrawal rate, which may work, but obviously will not be sustainable. However, the more practical problem with using the RMD approach is that many people aren’t able to cut their spending by 20% if their portfolio is down by 20% that year. So even though it has a sound principle for increasing withdrawals, the withdrawal amounts still require flexibility based on market results.

But there are other ways to use the actuarial concept, and even my approach of different rates at different retirement ages is based on life expectancy. There’s no single method that will work in all circumstances, but my preference is to take a flexible strategy. But this does mean being willing to reduce spending, and forgo or even cut back inflation increases, if market conditions are weak.

We have a number of different tools available to evaluate these choices throughout retirement, but the other key factor in the equation is asset allocation. Bengen found that his 4% rule worked with equity allocations between 50% and 75%. Below 50% equities, the portfolio struggles to keep up with inflation and withdrawals become more likely to deplete the assets in the 30-year period. Above 75% equities, the portfolio volatility increases and rebalancing benefits decrease, increasing the number of periods when the 4% strategy would have failed.

When sorting through your options, you need candid and informed advice about what will work and under what circumstances it would not work. We hope for the best, but still have a plan for contingencies if the market doesn’t cooperate as we’d like. We will be able to consider all our options as the years go by and be proactive about making adjustments and corrections to stay on course. For any investor planning for a 30-year retirement, it’s not a matter of if the market will have a correction, but when. It’s better to have discussed how we will handle that situation in advance, rather than waiting until the heat of the moment.

Retirement Withdrawal Rates

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If you’re close to retirement, a key planning question is How much can I withdraw from my portfolio annually?  Or in financial planning terms, what is a safe withdrawal rate?  It’s a challenging question because we don’t know future rates of return.  But what we do know is that you can’t just project “average” or historical returns in a straight line and use that as your basis for withdrawals.

Unlike a portfolio in accumulation, a portfolio under distribution is greatly dependent on the order of returns.  We might have a 7% average return over 30 years, but in certain rare circumstances, a portfolio under distribution could be wiped out if there were negative returns in the first handful of years.  This is known as sequence of returns risk.

Today, we have several reasons to believe that future returns may be lower than historical returns.  This impacts the level of withdrawal that we can safely achieve in a retirement portfolio.  In my planning process, I use projected returns rather than historical returns, because I am concerned that historical returns may over-estimate the likelihood of success.

This issue is too complex to address in the space of a blog post, but I want to educate as many people as possible about the challenges of funding a retirement in a lower return environment.  I have written a whitepaper on this subject and strongly encourage anyone interested in their retirement to read more:

Five Reasons Your Retirement Withdrawals are Too High

If you’re not close to retirement, this is still a relevant issue because the amount you need to accumulate is determined on your future retirement withdrawal rate.  A simple way to calculate your finish line is by multiplying the reciprocal of your withdrawal rate times your annual need.

For example, a 4% withdrawal rate (1/25), gives us a multiplier of 25.  A 5% withdrawal rate equals a multiplier of 20.  If your annual need is $100,000, your portfolio target would be $2,500,000 under a 4% withdrawal program. Decreasing the withdrawal rate from 5% to 4% would increase your portfolio target from $2 million to $2.5 million.  And that’s why the safe withdrawal rate matters to everyone seeking financial independence.