Fiology: The Study of Financial Independence (FI)

FREE weekly lessons (straight to your inbox) on how to plan for and achieve Financial Independence.

Please enter your name.
Please enter a valid email address.
Please check the required field.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.
This is the header image for the Fiology lesson Sequence of Returns Risk: Don't Risk Your Retirement. The image depicts a sign that indicates warning, there may be trouble ahead, proceed with caution to indicate we need to be aware of the risks returns, positive or negative, can have on our intentions to retire early and stay retired.

Sequence of Returns Risk: Don’t Risk Your Retirement

Do not ignore sequence of returns risk.

Sequence of returns risk can make or break your plans of becoming and remaining financially independent or retired.

What determines our investment success? Silly question! Returns, of course! The higher the average compound return the higher your final portfolio value. 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 of returns 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.

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

Read:

Listen:

Take Action:

  • Sequence of Returns Risk impacts savers and retirees differently, thus, there are also different recommendations:

The Savers:

  • 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!

The 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:

Quotes:

“Any goal worth achieving involves an element of risk.” – Dean Karnazes

Fiology.com 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.

Get free weekly Fiology lessons straight to your inbox!

Please enter your name.
Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

3 thoughts on “Sequence of Returns Risk: Don’t Risk Your Retirement”

  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.

    Reply
    • 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!

      Reply

Leave a Comment