I respond to readers’ comments and questions
“Three steps to planning your spending in retirement” was published by (the Australian website) Firstlinks on 7 July 2021, having appeared earlier as the leading article in the (London) FT Money edition in April, under the title “Your pension, your risk, your choice.” From the 100+ comments on the FT website and the 14,000 reads on Firstlinks, it was helpful to many readers. But they also had comments and follow-up questions.
On August 11 on Firstlinks I responded to three of them: flexible withdrawals, using equity dividends for safety, and tax.
First, as background, let me summarise the approach I described that I use for my wife and myself.
I identified two independent financial risks: that we might live longer than most people of our age, and that our equity investments might drop in value early and stay low for a while, making us withdraw spending money from a depleted pot. To reduce the chance of each to no more than 25%, we selected a planning horizon of 31 years (based on our ages), and invested five years of withdrawals in short-term securities (our insurance bucket), because historical statistics suggested that a falling equity market recovered in real terms within 5 years 75% of the time. We calculated the sustainable annual after-inflation and before-tax withdrawals that went with this combination, and invested everything that was not in the insurance bucket in a global equity index fund (our growth bucket). There was lots more, but that’s the essence of it.
I appreciate the Australian comments that I’ve over-thought the issue, and that my analysis and introspection must make retirement impossibly difficult for me. “Lighten up,” I was told. Invest in well-run companies; the rest will take care of itself.
Thanks for your concern. I’m actually thoroughly enjoying retirement – particularly because of my analysis. The worry is over. I re-examine our position every year, and adjust our withdrawals a little bit, as I’ll explain in a moment. The other 364 days, I’m happy.
With no insurance bucket, and 100% in well-run companies (tough to identify them in advance, isn’t it, and it’s too late after the badly-run ones reveal themselves), that wouldn’t have worked if, for example, we had retired at the start of 1973 (the worst-case historical test, and worse than I’m planning for, obviously, but still very instructive). I used US stats, and found that the first two years of equity real returns were -8.3% and -34.2%. After 5 years the cumulative equity real return was still worse than -30%. Subtracting 5 years of withdrawals, the remaining assets were down to 33% of their original value. What would the insurance bucket have achieved? The bucket itself would have been exhausted (slightly earlier than expected, because cash cumulative returns were -7% over the period), and the remaining assets would be down to 43% of their original value. That may not sound like much of an achievement, but future withdrawals from that point forward would have been at 70% of the original withdrawal rate, compared with 53% with the growth-only approach. Sad, but noticeably better.
A number of British readers said that they use flexible withdrawals in response to changes in the market value of their growth pot. An excellent idea! I do too. But I don’t vary the withdrawal in proportion to the market swing (like reducing it by 30% if the future indicated supportable withdrawal rate is 70% of the initial rate). Instead, I spread the amount of the swing (30%, in this example) over our remaining planning horizon, to smooth it out. The swing in your pension pot’s value caused by a large proportion being in equities could result in a very large swing in the amount withdrawn if spreading isn’t applied. If you can stomach the volatility, that’s terrific. It’s those who’d prefer smaller, more gradual swings that the spreading process appeals to.
Spreading relies on a belief in (or at any rate a hope for) “mean reversion,” the notion that, over the long term, returns will come back to the average. But if future market declines are steeper and longer than before, the gradual declines in withdrawals won’t be enough. It’s a risk to be conscious of. My spreading test of that worst-case 1973 scenario resulted in a lowest withdrawal (in 1979) of 90% of the initial rate, reasonable stability thereafter for some years, followed by a gradual climb back to the initial rate in 1993.
I wonder how the reader with a 100% equity portfolio would have reacted by the time 1975 arrived. Regardless, it’s easier to cope in hindsight!
I’m reminded of the saying that “no battle plan survives its first contact with the enemy.” That’s right: no plan will ever work out perfectly. But the work that’s gone into the plan will help you adapt, as circumstances change – that’s why we plan. And that gives you resilience.
Using equity dividends for safety
An excellent comment said, in essence, that the safety bucket should take into account the cash flow from equity dividends, and that this would increase the size of the growth-seeking bucket. Quite right. But too deep a thought for the initial article.
As an example, with a 30-year planning horizon and a 5-year safety bucket, and using my 4% real annual return assumption for equities, a 1% dividend yield used towards the withdrawal would reduce the initial size of the safety bucket by about 1/3, a 2% dividend yield would reduce it by about 2/3, and a 3% dividend yield would reduce it to virtually zero.
That ought also to increase the implied sustainable real withdrawal. And it does. But by very little, unfortunately. Even the 3% dividend yield only increases the annual withdrawal by about 2%.
In most countries, each year’s withdrawal is subject to tax, so you don’t get to spend it all. For many, tax will itself be a significant expenditure. So if there’s a way to minimize it, that becomes important.
I have no general principles for you. That’s because tax regimes vary from country to country. It’s as if you’re asked to approach the taxing authorities with all your money stuffed in various pockets in the clothes you’re wearing, and they say, “From Pocket A we’ll take 40%, from Pocket B 20%, you can keep whatever is in Pocket C, from Pocket D …” And so on.
Naturally, before you approach them the following year, it makes sense to rearrange your money across the pockets. But finding out how to do this is difficult, and whole tribes of people make their living by getting to know the complexities and advising non-technical citizens like you and me about how to minimize the total.
Also, while in some countries moving money from A to B is sensible, in other countries the opposite is true; and yet other countries use a different alphabet entirely, which sounds like Greek to you.
That’s why tax is hugely important, and why I have no general principles for you.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.