Fiology Lesson 44: Sequence of Returns Risk


Fiology thanks the FI community’s subject expert Karsten “Big Ern” Jeske of Early Retirement Now for shaping this lesson.

Stoicism is a practical philosophy that provides a way to think about how we interpret stimuli, both positive and negative, so that we can respond in a controlled and appropriate manner.Indeed, for buy-and-hold investors, the compound average growth rate (CAGR) of your portfolio is the only determinant of the final portfolio value.

However, in the real world, we are rarely just buy-and-hold investors. While saving for retirement we make regular contributions and in retirement, we take regular withdrawals from our nest egg. The additional cash flows into and out of the portfolio now imply that the sequence of returns over your investment and retirement horizon will have an impact on how well we do with our investments. Hence, the name Sequence Risk. Especially for retirees, the sustainability of our withdrawal strategy could be severely compromised if we retire around the peak of the market and right before a major bear market. Even if the market eventually recovers again, the fact that we were withdrawing from our portfolio while prices are depressed means that we deplete our nest egg so much more rapidly. It means we’re burning the candle of our retirement nest egg on both ends, essentially, it’s the opposite of dollar cost averaging! In fact, all past instances where the 4% Rule would have failed are attributable to weak returns early on during retirement, e.g., the Great Depression and the 1970s and early 1980s.

Read:  Sequence Risk and Dollar Cost Averaging  at


Read:  Understanding Sequence Of Return Risk – Safe Withdrawal Rates, Bear Market Crashes, And Bad Decades  by Michael Kitses of

Read:  The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 14: Sequence of Return Risk  by Karsten “Big Ern” Jeske of

Read:  The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 15: More Thoughts on Sequence of Return Risk  by Karsten “Big Ern” Jeske of

Listen:  035 | Sequence Of Return Risk | Early Retirement Now  by Brad Barrett and Jonathan Mendonsa of

Take Action:  Sequence Risk impacts savers and retirees differently, thus, there are also different recommendations:


  • Don’t sweat sequence risk (too much): If you are just starting your path to save for retirement or even if you’re three to five years away from retirement the prospect of a bear market around the corner is a lot less concerning. If the drop in the stock market is followed by a swift recovery as has been common historically, you can even greatly benefit from that scenario through dollar cost averaging!

Current and soon-to-be-retired:

  • Thinking about retiring as soon as you hit your FI number, i.e., 25x expenses? Don’t be too impatient about retiring. You might set yourself up for failure because you are more likely to retire at the market peak right before Sequence Risk strikes again. It might be best to target a higher savings target (i.e., a lower safe withdrawal rate) just to be sure.
  • Retirees might consider a bond glidepath: Pick a higher bond share early on to hedge against bad equity returns during the first few years of retirement. But shift back into equities again because we need equities with their much higher expected return to sustain a retirement over the decades.
  • Another way to mitigate Sequence Risk would be to tie the withdrawal rates to financial fundamentals, especially stock valuations like the Shiller CAPE Ratio. Withdraw a lower percentage from the portfolio when equities are expensive and a drawdown is more likely, but then also increase the withdrawal percentage after stocks drop and valuations become more attractive again.

Additional Resources:

Read:  The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 22: Can the “Simple Math” make retirement more difficult?  by Karsten “Big Ern” Jeske of

Read:   The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 19: Equity Glidepaths in Retirement  by Karsten “Big Ern” Jeske of

Read:  The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 20: More Thoughts on Equity Glidepaths  by Karsten “Big Ern” Jeske of

Explore:  CAPE ratio historical data  by Robert Shiller of

Read:  The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 18: Flexibility and the Mechanics of CAPE-Based Rules  by Karsten “Big Ern” Jeske of

Listen:  066 | The Emergency Fund…Is It A Bad Idea? | Big ERN The Reveal  by Brad Barrett and Jonathan Mendonsa of

Quotes: “Any goal worth achieving involves an element of risk.” – Dean Karnazes is an educational resource designed to teach Financial Independence (FI). We scoured the internet to find content from the best and brightest of the FI community and created lessons covering the critical concepts.

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  1. Wow this advice comes across to me as backwards. It says “Withdraw a lower percentage from the portfolio when equities are expensive” – no. Buy low, sell high. When equities are expensive its ok to withdraw – its when they drop and you keep withdrawing the same dollar value that’s the problem. That’s selling low.

    • You confuse withdrawal rates with valuation and tactical asset allocation. I certainly recommend shifting out of equities and into other assets (e.g. bonds) when equities are expensive (relative to bonds), hence my reference to the equity glide paths. A similar flavor is the “Prime Harvesting” approach by McClung I discussed in Part 13 of my series. I like this approach even though it seems a little bit like a glidepath in disguise.

      But withdrawing and consuming more when equities are expensive (e.g. 1929, 2000, likely 2018) is a recipe for disaster. Would you then want to reduce you withdrawal percentage when equities are cheap again? That would imply your withdrawals have higher volatility and larger drawdowns than your portfolio. Good luck with that!

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