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Summary

  • The Perfect Withdrawal Rate (PWR) is the rate of regular portfolio withdrawals that leads to a zero balance over a given time frame.
  • 4% is the commonly accepted lower bound for safe withdrawal rates, but this is only based on one realization of history and the actual risk investors take on by using this number may be uncertain.
  • Using simulation techniques, we aim to explore how different assumptions match the historical experience of retirement portfolios.
  • We find that simple assumptions commonly used in financial planning Monte Carlo simulations do not seem to reflect as much variation as we have seen in the historical PWR.
  • Including more stress testing and utilizing richer simulation methods may be necessary to successfully gauge that risk in a proposed PWR, especially as it pertains to the risk of failure in the financial plan.

Financial planning for retirement is a combination of art and science. The problem is highly multidimensional, requiring estimates of cash flows, investment returns and risk, taxation, life events, and behavioral effects. Reduction along the dimensions can simplify the analysis, but introduces consequences in the applicability and interpretation of the results. This is especially true for investors who are close to the line between success and failure.

One of the primary simplifying assumptions is the 4% rule. This heuristic was derived using worst-case historical data for portfolio withdrawals under a set of assumptions, such as constant inflation adjusted withdrawals, a fixed mix of stock and bonds, and a set time horizon.

Below we construct a monthly-rebalanced, fixed-mix 60/40 portfolio using the S&P 500 index for U.S. equities and the Dow Jones Corporate Bond index for U.S. bonds. Using historical data from 12/31/1940 through 12/31/2018, we can evaluate the margin for error the 4% rule has historically provided and how much opportunity for higher withdrawal rates was sacrificed in “better” market environments.

Source: Global Financial Data and Shiller Data Library. Calculations by Newfound Research. Returns are backtested and hypothetical. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Returns are gross of all fees. Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions. None of the strategies shown reflect any portfolio managed by Newfound Research and were constructed solely for demonstration purposes within this commentary. You cannot invest in an index.

But the history is only a single realization of the world. Risk is hard to gauge.

Perfect Withdrawal Rates

The formula (in plain English) for the perfect withdrawal rate (“PWR”) in a portfolio, assuming an ending value of zero, is relatively simple since it is just a function of portfolio returns:

The portfolio value in the numerator is the final value of the portfolio over the entire period, assuming no withdrawals. The sequence risk in the denominator is a term that accounts for both the order and magnitude of the returns.

Larger negative returns earlier on in the period increase the sequence risk term and therefore reduce the PWR.

From a calculation perspective, the final portfolio value in the equation is typically described (e.g. when using Monte Carlo techniques) as a log-normal random variable, i.e. the log-returns of the portfolio are assumed to be normally distributed. This type of random variable lends itself well to analytic solutions that do not require numerical simulations.

The sequence risk term, however, is not so friendly to closed-form methods. The path-dependent, additive structure of returns within the sequence risk term means that we must rely on numerical simulations.

To get a feel for some features of this equation, we can look at the PWR in the context of the historical portfolio return and volatility.

Source: Global Financial Data and Shiller Data Library. Calculations by Newfound Research. Returns are backtested and hypothetical. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Returns are gross of all fees. Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions. None of the strategies shown reflect any portfolio managed by Newfound Research and were constructed solely for demonstration purposes within this commentary. You cannot invest in an index.

The relationship is difficult to pin down.

As we saw in the equation shown before, the –annualized return of the portfolio– does appear to impact the ­–PWR– (correlation of 0.51), but there are periods (e.g. those starting in the 1940s) that had higher PWRs with lower returns than in the 1960s. Therefore, investors beginning withdrawals in the 1960s must have had higher sequence risk.

Correlation between –annualized volatility– and –PWR– was slightly negative (-0.35).

The Risk in Withdrawal Rates

Since our goal is to assess the risk in the historical PWR with a focus on the sequence risk, we will use the technique of Brownian Bridges to match the return of all simulation paths to the historical return of the 60/40 portfolio over rolling 30-year periods. We will use the historical full-period volatility of the portfolio over the period for the simulation.

This is essentially a conditional PWR risk based on assuming we know the full-period return of the path beforehand.

To more explicitly describe the process, consider a given 30-year period. We begin by computing the full-period annualized return and volatility of the 60/40 portfolio over that period.  We will then generate 10,000 simulations over this 30-year period but using the Brownian Bridge technique to ensure that all of the simulations have the exact same full-period annualized return and intrinsic volatility.  In essence, this approach allows us to vary the path of portfolio returns without altering the final return.  As PWR is a path-dependent metric, we should gain insight into the distribution of PWRs.

The percentile bands for the simulations using this method are shown below with the actual PWR in each period overlaid.

Source: Global Financial Data and Shiller Data Library. Calculations by Newfound Research. Returns are backtested and hypothetical. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Returns are gross of all fees. Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions. None of the strategies shown reflect any portfolio managed by Newfound Research and were constructed solely for demonstration purposes within this commentary. You cannot invest in an index.

From this chart, we see two items of note: The percentile bands in the distribution roughly track the historical return over each of the periods, and the actual PWR fluctuates into the left and right tails of the distribution rather frequently.  Below we plot where the actual PWR actually falls within the simulated PWR distribution.

Source: Global Financial Data and Shiller Data Library. Calculations by Newfound Research. Returns are backtested and hypothetical. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Returns are gross of all fees. Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions. None of the strategies shown reflect any portfolio managed by Newfound Research and were constructed solely for demonstration purposes within this commentary. You cannot invest in an index.

The actual PWR is below the 5th percentile 12% of the time, below the 1st percentile 4% of the time, above the 95th percentile 11% of the time, and above the 99th percentile 7% of the time.  Had our model been more well calibrated, we would expect the percentiles to align; e.g. the PWR should be below the 5th percentile 5% of the time and above the 99th percentile 1% of the time.

This seems odd until we realize that our model for the portfolio returns was likely too simplistic. We are assuming Geometric Brownian Motion for the returns. And while we are fixing the return over the entire simulation path to match that of the actual portfolio, the path to get there is assumed to have constant volatility and independent returns from one month to the next.

In reality, returns do not always follow these rules. For example, the skew of the monthly returns over the entire history is -0.36 and the excess kurtosis is 1.30. This tendency toward larger magnitude returns and returns that are skewed to the left can obscure some of the risk that is inherent in the PWRs.

Additionally, returns are not totally independent. While this is good for trend following strategies, it can lead to an understatement of risk as we explored in our previous commentary on Accounting for Autocorrelation in Assessing Drawdown Risk.

Over the full period, monthly returns of lags 1, 4, and 5 exhibit autocorrelation that is significant at the 95% confidence level.

Source: Global Financial Data and Shiller Data Library. Calculations by Newfound Research. Returns are backtested and hypothetical. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Returns are gross of all fees. Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions. None of the strategies shown reflect any portfolio managed by Newfound Research and were constructed solely for demonstration purposes within this commentary. You cannot invest in an index.

To incorporate some of these effects in our simulations, we must move beyond the simplistic assumption of normally distributed returns.

First, we will fit a skewed normal distribution to the rolling historical data and use that to draw our random variables for each period. This is essentially what was done in the previous section for the normally distributed returns.

Then, to account for some autocorrelation, we will use the same adjustment to volatility as we used in the previously reference commentary on autocorrelation risk. For positive autocorrelations (which we saw in the previous graphs), this results in a higher volatility for the simulations (typically around 10% – 25% higher).

The two graphs below show the same analysis as before under this modified framework.

Source: Global Financial Data and Shiller Data Library. Calculations by Newfound Research. Returns are backtested and hypothetical. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Returns are gross of all fees. Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions. None of the strategies shown reflect any portfolio managed by Newfound Research and were constructed solely for demonstration purposes within this commentary. You cannot invest in an index.

The historical PWR now fall more within the bounds of our simulated results.

Additionally, the 5th percentile band now shows that there were periods where a 4% withdrawal rule may not have made the cut.

Source: Global Financial Data and Shiller Data Library. Calculations by Newfound Research. Returns are backtested and hypothetical. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Returns are gross of all fees. Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions. None of the strategies shown reflect any portfolio managed by Newfound Research and were constructed solely for demonstration purposes within this commentary. You cannot invest in an index.

Conclusion

Heuristics can be a great way to distill complex data into actionable insights, and the perfect withdrawal rate in retirement portfolios is no exception.

The 4% rule is a classic example where we may not be aware of the risk in using it. It is the commonly accepted lower bound for safe withdrawal rates, but this is only based on one realization of history.

The actual risk investors take on by using this number may be uncertain.

Using simulation techniques, we explored how different assumptions match the historical experience of retirement portfolios.

The simple assumptions (expected return and volatility) commonly used in financial planning Monte Carlo simulations do not seem to reflect as much variation as we have seen in the historical PWR. Therefore, relying on these assumptions can be risky for investors who are close to the “go-no-go” point; they do not have much room for failure and will be more likely to have to make cash flow adjustments in retirement.

Utilizing richer simulation methods (e.g. accounting for negative skew and autocorrelation like we did here or using a downside shocking method like we explored in A Shock to the Covariance System) may be necessary to successfully gauge that risk in a proposed PWR, especially as it pertains to the risk of failure in the financial plan.

Having a number to base planning calculations on makes life easier in the moment, but knowing the risk in using that number makes life easier going forward.

Nathan is a Vice President at Newfound Research, a quantitative asset manager offering a suite of separately managed accounts and mutual funds. At Newfound, Nathan is responsible for investment research, strategy development, and supporting the portfolio management team.

Prior to joining Newfound, he was a chemical engineer at URS, a global engineering firm in the oil, natural gas, and biofuels industry where he was responsible for process simulation development, project economic analysis, and the creation of in-house software.

Nathan holds a Master of Science in Computational Finance from Carnegie Mellon University and graduated summa cum laude from Case Western Reserve University with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering and a minor in Mathematics.