One of the things I like about the safe withdrawal rate is that it’s a rare financial metric that accounts for the worst case. While everyone else was comparing withdrawals to average returns, William Bengen had the foresight to study every investing period he could find and determine the maximum amount of money that a retiree could have safely withdrawn over 30 years even in the worst possible timeframe to retire. By flipping the problem from an exercise in chasing ever-shifting averages to studying worst-case scenarios, Bengen’s safe withdrawal rate really did make life after accumulation a lot safer for retirees.
Look at the title image of a pair of grain silos and imagine your comfort level with them filled with just enough grain to barely make it through an average year. Now picture them with enough grain to survive the worst famine on record. That’s a huge difference, and Bengen’s new perspective completely changed the way people think about retirement.
As helpful as that is, however, not everybody is in the phase of career and life where retirement is an impending concern. But I still find the approach enlightening, so let’s expand our thinking. Have you ever wondered what a similar metric might look like for accumulators seeking to guarantee long-term success in uncertain markets? Put another way, what percentage of your crop must you save in those silos every year in order to fill them by a certain date? And if the stored grain grows and shrinks on its own like money invested in stocks and bonds, how would that affect the results?
If that type of question feels as interesting to you as it does to me, this article is for you.
Unless you’ve been living out in the wilderness for the last few weeks, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard about the recent events with GameStop. The idea of everyday people using social media to band together and soak predatory hedge funds makes for a great story, and it has already driven a crazy amount of previously uninterested investors towards exploring what it would take to ride the same wave.
One such inquiry from a good friend was a bit of of a wakeup call. The same person who never before expressed the slightest interest in investing suddenly wants to know how to buy the next potential short squeeze stock he saw people talking about online. This article is not only for him, but also for the many other people new to investing who are wondering the exact same thing.
This is awesome! How do I join in! 🚀🚀🚀🚀🚀
Contrary to what you might expect from a guy who writes extensively about low-risk index investing, I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. It’s your money, I’m sympathetic to the underlying motivation that goes way beyond making a quick buck, and some investing lessons are best learned through good old-fashioned experience. But there are definitely some massive risks lurking in the shadows just waiting to take down naïve investors who may not fully understand what they’re getting into. So if you’re following the GameStop news and considering getting in on the action, here’s how you can do it responsibly without going full Leeroy Jenkins.
When discussing investing options, the single most common referenced metric has got to be the average return. Reams of books and blogs have been written on individual asset classes and composite portfolios with the highest average returns looking both backward and forward, and amateur and professional investors alike spend more time than they probably want to admit thinking about how to maximize their own average return. Long-term averages are both set on a pedestal and also taken for granted, as many people idolize the average to the point where they’re willing to ignore very real risks under the belief that superior performance is inevitable if they only wait long enough.
But what happens when the long-term average return never manifests in your own portfolio even over extended timeframes? Was the data wrong? Did the markets change?
As I blindly swung my arm to swat at the tedious drone of the alarm on the night stand, it was pretty much a morning like any other. I labored out of bed, trudged my way through the early routine on autopilot, and set out on my long morning commute down highway 280 towards San Jose. I always found that stretch of road to be an interesting experience in dual realities, as the stunning views of the bay and surreal scene of clouds pouring over the mountaintops were all too often completely hidden by relentless inner thoughts of important job tasks needing immediate attention. Silicon Valley attracts a certain type of always-on engineer and actively feeds their obsessions, and my blossoming career as a successful product designer at a job I loved had long since shaped me into eager, if anxious, submission.
For anyone not paying attention to the news, the Mega Millions lottery in the United States just topped a billion dollars and is quickly rising even higher. You read that right — a Billion with a B. For the meager price of a $2 ticket, some lucky person will eventually break their way onto the list of the world’s wealthiest people. Talk about an impressive return on investment! Of course the odds of actually winning that money are beyond astronomical, and one in 300 million is a difficult number to even comprehend.
Every once in a while life takes the opportunity to throw you a curveball and dump some good financial fortune in your lap. Whether it’s a bonus at work, a family inheritance, or a lucky night in Vegas, an influx of cash is generally a welcome sight. But because of the rarity of these life events, most people are usually caught a bit off guard and are unprepared for what to do next. Set aside for a moment the fantasies we all have about crazy things we might do if we won the mega lottery — what exactly is one supposed to responsibly do with a financial windfall?
I don’t think many people will be surprised to learn that I’m not a fan of using single averages to describe portfolio returns or over-simplified metrics like standard deviation to measure risk. Both of those numbers obscure so much information that they often lead to disappointing investing decisions and give backtesting a bad name. I personally have a much more nuanced perspective that embraces the idea of unpredictability in financial planning while keeping things in terms that make sense in the real world, although I’m well aware that uncertainty is a very difficult concept to understand and an even more difficult one to apply.
So sometimes even the simplest questions can trip me up. For example:
What expected return would you use for the Three-Fund Portfolio for your own financial planning?
A fellow Boglehead asked a really good question recently, and I think it’s something we’ve all considered at some point:
Why shouldn’t my asset allocation be 100% stocks during the accumulation phase?
After all, the typical justification for a heavy stock portfolio sounds pretty darn compelling. They historically have a higher return than bonds in the long run, which means bonds are defensive assets that reduce volatility but do not necessarily increase returns. On top of that, interest rates are so low today that bonds look particularly unappealing. So if you can handle the bad years and pile as much money into stocks as possible you’ll be much better off and can feel free to be defensive with a larger pile of money once you retire.
Well you know what? If you’re the type of investor with a rock-solid stable job, few financial commitments, and the personality to ride out both short-term and prolonged market pain without sweating your account balances, then putting all of your money in stocks is just fine. The Total Stock Market portfolio is included on the site because I appreciate that it’s a good choice for many people.
But I’m going to go out on a limb and surmise that you’re reading a blog about portfolio theory because you believe that just maybe there’s another side to the story. You’ve come to the right place, as I’m a strong believer in the power of asset allocation in creating positive and pleasant investing outcomes. So for those interested in a different perspective, I’d like to try my hand at making the case for broad asset allocation in all phases of life.
Why consider diversifying away from stocks not just tomorrow but today?
One of the things I’ve always found interesting about engineering — whether it’s making a new product or creating new spreadsheets — is that it’s a continuous learning process. One new design may address an old question but raise a new one, and the search for new insights continues. Sometimes working on a tool requires new methods that are interesting in their own right, and developing them can lead to new ideas you weren’t even looking for.
Financial independence – the concept of establishing a sustainable system where your investments can cover your expenses, making work optional – is an issue of particular interest to me, and from the popularity of the Withdrawal Rates calculator I gather that it is for many others as well. Of all the things money can buy, I have a difficult time imagining something more valuable than the freedom to live on your own terms free of financial worry. While I’ve previously discussed the effect of asset allocation on the retirement half of the FI equation, the natural next question is: