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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How much money do you think you would need to be able to retire? It’s a question that a lot of people have asked their financial advisers and it’s one that seems to have a different answer for just about every time it’s asked. And the reason for that is simple the amount of money that you need to be able to retire depends entirely on how much money you think you can earn in retirement through interest and dividends and maybe even a part-time job if that’s your thing, and perhaps even more importantly how much money you’re actually going to need to survive in retirement. And that number seems to change each and every time you ask as well because projections of things like medical expenses change as time goes on. And I’m sure those of you who are nearing retirement watching this video know medical expenses just seem to be going through the roof, particularly for retirees. But that doesn’t really help us it doesn’t give us a goal to strive for as we’re going through our working careers. We may not be able to come up with an exact number that we’ll need but can we come up with something that’s at least going to be close? Well today I’m going to talk about something called the 4% rule and how it gives us that goal to shoot for.
I’m also going to be talking about some other factors to keep in mind when you’re using this rule of thumb as well as some situations where you’re going to want to avoid the 4% rule in entirely. Let’s get started. So what is the 4% rule? It’s a rule of thumb that’s used to determine the amount of funds that you will withdraw from a retirement account each year. It’s also sometimes called the safe withdrawal rate because the money you take out usually consists mostly of interest and dividends, and thus your principal either stays the same or goes down a little bit but not too much. In fact in 1994 a financial advisor named William Bengan did an exhaustive study of historical returns in the market focusing heavily on the severe Market crashes of the great Depression and the early 1970s and concluded that even during those hard Times no historical case existed where the safe withdrawal rate exhausted a retirement portfolio in less than 33 years.
And for most of us 33 years would easily cover our retirement. The idea behind the rule is that once you have approximately 25 times your annual expenses saved for retirement you should be able to retire with reasonable certainty that you could survive until death on your savings. Because at that point the amount that you take out for your annual expenses would be approximately 4% of your retirement savings. And when I say 4% of your retirement savings I mean your entire retirement savings anything that’s been earmarked to use only in retirement this includes 401ks IRAs and any other ways you’ve saved a nest egg for retirement.
For example if you had $450,000 in your 401k and $50,000 personal IRA then you would have $500,000 in all of your retirement accounts and your initial withdrawal on the first year retirement would be 4% of that $500,000 or $20,000. So some other factors that you’re going to want to keep in mind when using the 4% rule in addition to keeping an eye on your expenses, is to account for inflation. The 4% rule believe it or not actually allows you to increase the amount you withdraw to keep Pace with inflation. You can account for this either by just setting a flat 2% increase to your withdrawals each year which is the target inflation rate by the Federal Reserve or by just looking to see what the inflation rate was for the current year and adjusting based off of that. Now you might be wondering how this could possibly be I mean if you increase how much you would withdraw to keep up with inflation won’t you eventually run out of money? It’s a legitimate question but as it turns out no.
And it’s because over the long term the market goes up. Now there are a lot of numbers that are thrown around by financial advisors about how much the market actually goes up I’ve heard anything from 6 to 10% a year on average. I’m going to be conservative here and go with the 6% end of the scale. So let’s go back to the example I’ve been using in the video you start off retirement with $500,000 in savings, and in the first year of retirement you withdraw $20,000 or 4% of your savings. And I’m also using a compound interest calculator here, and it assumes that whatever you withdraw is withdrawn right at the start of the year.
So the $20,000 is going to be withdrawn on January 1st of every year. I’m only noting that because it makes it a worst case scenario you were to say withdraw $20,000 over the course of an entire year but you did it in installments of $1,600 each month you would be able to earn interest on the rest of the money that you hadn’t yet withdrawn throughout the rest of the year and thus you’re ending net worth would end up being a little bit higher than it will be in this example. So on January 1st you withdraw $20,000, meaning you only have $480,000 left in your nest egg. But over the course of the year the market goes up by 6% which means the value of your portfolio at December 31st would be $508,800. Now in year two of retirement you increase your withdrawal by 2%. So on January 1st of the second year of your retirement you withdraw $20,400. That brings your portfolio value down from $508,800 to $488,400. But again the market goes up 6%, which by December 31st brings the total value of your portfolio up to $517,704. If you were to continue to calculate this out for 30 years you’re ending net worth would be $787,716.90, almost $300,000 dollars more than what you started with in retirement! But of course this is just a rule of thumb so there are situations where you’re going to want to avoid using this all together.
One of those situations would be if your portfolio consists of a lot more higher risk Investments then say your typical index funds and bonds that are usually in a retirement portfolio. This is because obviously a higher risk investment can go down a lot faster than your typical retirement portfolios, which can be extremely devastating especially early on in retirement. Also this rule of thumb only really works if you stick to it year in and year out. And if you’re not going to be able to do that then you don’t want to use this as your retirement goal, because even violating the rule for one year to splurge on a major purchase can have a severe effect on your retirement savings down the road because the principal from which the interest and dividends that you get to survive is compounded from gets reduced. Let me give you an example of how this works: Say that in addition to taking out the $20,000 your first year in retirement, you decide to treat yourself with a new car and figuring that you’ll be traveling a lot during retirement you want to get one that’s good, big, and comfortable as well as reliable.
So for this example let’s say you get a new Toyota 4Runner for about $35,000. Now I know that you could probably find it for cheaper used, but not everybody likes to buy cars used I know my dad didn’t and besides this is just an example. So you drop $35,000 on a new car and you still have to have money to live so the $20,000 still does come out of your retirement, meaning that you only have $445,000 leftover. Now admittedly the market still does go up about 6% leaving you with a nest egg of $471,700 at the end of the year.
And even if you were to stick to the 4% withdrawal rate for the rest of retirement which, would be 30 years in this example, by the 27th year you would be taking out more than you earned an interest and dividends as well as how much the market went up. And by the 30th year of retirement you would withdraw $35,516, but with interest, dividends, and Market appreciation your portfolio would have only gained $33,209 in value.
And that could put you in a pretty dangerous position should the market go down for a couple years, or if you have some kind of medical emergency. Now I don’t want to make it seem all bad, I mean unless you retired early, after 30 years in retirement you’re probably in your 90s and don’t need the money to last very much longer and even in this example you still do end with $586,000. It could be worse right? However I do want to bring your attention to the difference that this made. This one purchase made your ending net worth that you could have left as inheritance to your children or grandchildren or even donated to charity go from $787,000 all the way down to $586,000, that’s a difference of over $200,000. And all that’s with just one splurge. But that’ll about do it for me I hope you enjoyed the video and if you did or if you learned something be sure to like And subscribe I’ve got a lot more of these Finance coming out in the near future as well as some more book summaries and other fun stuff.
But with that being said, thanks for watching and have a great day. .
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