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“Compendium of sustainable withdrawal rates, part 1” is eligible for CE credits, see Accreditation details for more information.

Course summary: Financial planner and market theoretician Jim Otar walks advisors through sustainable withdrawal rates (SWR) for many different variables, asset allocation methods and withdrawal strategies. You must successfully complete the course “Purpose-Driven Sustainable Withdrawal Rate” first before taking this course.

In a previous course on this topic, we defined Sustainable Withdrawal Rate (SWR) as the maximum amount of money that you can withdraw from a portfolio throughout retirement with an acceptable risk of depletion for a specific time horizon. We categorized each retirement expense into one of three groups: Essential, Basic, and Discretionary. Each category has its own definition of “acceptable risk of depletion.” We developed a base case to calculate the SWR for various ages.

We continue using this base case as the benchmark for evaluating other strategies. It uses the S&P/TSX index as the equity benchmark, plus an average dividend yield of 2.5%, less average total costs of 2%. The fixed income return is historical 6-month CD plus 0.5%, net of all costs. This reflects approximately a bond ladder with an average maturity of 5 to 7 years.

Rebalancing occurs annually, if the target asset mix deviates by more than 3%. Withdrawal amount is indexed to historical CPI rate annually.

In this course, we will review a variety of retirement income strategies. It has two parts. In Part 1, we analyze:

  • Investment Performance: The impact of alpha and beta on SWR
  • Asset Allocation: Age-based (regular and accelerated), glide path (up and down), presidential cycle, P/E ratio

In Part 2, we cover:

  • More Asset Allocation: Growth harvesting and asset dedication
  • Time Segmentation: Bucket strategies
  • Withdrawal Strategies: Freeze COLA, limit withdrawals based on portfolio growth or value, pay-cut
  • Various Equity Benchmarks: Canada, USA, Britain, Japan, Australia

How do we optimize the asset mix? A common method is the efficient frontier. It optimizes the asset mix by seeking the maximum growth at minimum volatility (standard deviation of returns). This is important during the accumulation stage.

However, the math is entirely different in distribution portfolios. The volatility of returns is much less significant than sequence of returns. During the distribution stage, our primary objective is portfolio longevity, not growth. Therefore, we play with the asset mix to maximize the SWR using the entire market history, covering all black swan events.

In this course, we want to bring awareness to how each strategy impacts retirement income. The intent is not to endorse a specific strategy, but to make it easier for you to make an informed choice. If you have been wondering about a particular strategy and it is not included here, your feedback is welcome.

It is important to reiterate that all probabilities, outcomes and conclusions are based on historical market performance. Future black swan events could be more extreme than in the past. Therefore, it is essential to review retirement plans periodically to include and adjust for future market events and changing client needs. Planning is an ongoing process.

Impact of Alpha

Alpha is a measure of how a portfolio performs relative to its benchmark index. All else being equal, a positive alpha means that your equities are performing better than the index and a negative alpha means they are performing worse. How does alpha impact the SWR?  Here are the numbers:

Table 1: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses (Optimum Equity/Fixed Income)
Worse:
Alpha = -2%
Base Case:
Alpha = 0%
Better:
Alpha = 2%
602.80% (50/50)3.03% (55/45)3.59% (55/45)
653.07% (50/50)3.31% (55/45)3.85% (55/45)
703.46% (50/50)3.68% (55/45)4.20% (55/45)
754.07% (40/60)4.29% (55/45)4.83% (60/40)
Table 2: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses (Optimum Equity/Fixed Income)
Worse:
Alpha = -2%
Base Case:
Alpha = 0%
Better:
Alpha = 2%
603.35% (60/40)3.67% (60/40)4.34% (60/40)
653.69% (60/40)4.01% (60/40)4.64% (60/40)
704.22% (60/40)4.51% (60/40)5.13% (60/40)
755.05% (40/60)5.31% (60/40)5.89% (60/40)
Table 3: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses (Optimum Equity/Fixed Income)
Worse:
Alpha = -2%
Base Case:
Alpha = 0%
Better:
Alpha = 2%
604.13% (40/60)4.48% (70/30)5.50% (70/30)
654.68% (45/55)5.13% (70/30)6.08% (70/30)
705.43% (50/50)5.93% (65/35)6.78% (70/30)
756.73% (55/45)7.07% (55/45)7.92% (70/30)

Alpha has a significant impact on the sustainable withdrawal rate for all three expense categories. The higher alpha, the larger is the SWR.

Impact of Beta

Beta measures the volatility of your equities relative to its benchmark index. What if your equities perform the same as the benchmark but with a lower volatility (beta less than one), or higher volatility (beta larger than one)?

Here are sustainable withdrawal rates for each situation:

Table 4: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses (Optimum Equity/Fixed Income)
Lower Volatility:
Beta = 0.8
Base Case:
Beta = 1
Higher Volatility:
Beta = 1.2
602.95% (65/35)3.03% (55/45)3.12% (45/55)
653.22% (65/35)3.31% (55/45)3.36% (45/55)
703.62% (65/35)3.68% (55/45)3.73% (45/55)
754.23% (65/35)4.29% (55/45)4.33% (50/50)
Table 5: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses (Optimum Equity/Fixed Income)
Lower Volatility:
Beta = 0.8
Base Case:
Beta = 1
Higher Volatility:
Beta = 1.2
603.36% (60/40)3.67% (60/40)3.94% (55/45)
653.71% (60/40)4.01% (60/40)4.24% (55/45)
704.28% (60/40)4.51% (60/40)4.79% (60/40)
755.17% (50/50)5.31% (60/40)5.48% (50/50)
Table 6: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses (Optimum Equity/Fixed Income)
Lower Volatility:
Beta = 0.8
Base Case:
Beta = 1
Higher Volatility:
Beta = 1.2
604.01% (70/30)4.48% (70/30)4.98% (65/35)
654.71% (70/30)5.13% (70/30)5.56% (70/30)
705.52% (60/40)5.93% (65/35)6.40% (70/30)
756.62% (60/40)7.07% (55/45)7.47% (65/35)

Beta has a minor impact on the SWR for essential expenses; some impact on basic expenses; and a large impact on discretionary expenses. However, this impact might not be what you expect.

The general belief in the financial industry is that lower volatility is better for portfolios. The aftcast shows the exact opposite: Reduced volatility clearly reduces the SWR. In other words, if you were to withdraw the exact same amount from a portfolio with an index return (beta equals one) and then somehow manage to reduce its beta while keeping its alpha exactly the same, you will end up with a shorter portfolio life. If you want to keep the same portfolio longevity with a lower beta, you must then increase its alpha. If it weren’t so, cash-in-the-bank would have yielded a longer portfolio life (or a higher SWR) than a portfolio with an optimum asset mix. And we all know it does not.

Keep in mind that during the distribution stage, it is not the volatility of returns that reduces the portfolio’s longevity, but the sequence of returns and inflation. (See the course, “Determinants of Growth in Distribution Portfolios” for a more in-depth analysis of this topic.)

Impact of Asymmetric Beta

After the 2008 crisis, some fund managers manufactured a new line of products which they claim have a lower volatility with a downside limit, making fluctuations asymmetrical.  While these strategies might look attractive in theory, we don’t know yet how they will perform during future black swan events. Here, we look at two scenarios:

  • The equity portion of the portfolio has a beta of 0.6 (60% volatility of the index) and its loss is designed not to exceed  10%.
  • The equity portion of the portfolio has a beta of 0.7 and its loss is designed not to exceed never  15%.

These loss limits apply to the equity portion of the portfolio and the overall loss will likely be lower when the entire portfolio is considered.

Here are the sustainable withdrawal rates:

Table 7: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses:

Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses (Optimum Equity/Fixed Income)
Beta = 0.6
Max. Equity Loss=10%
Beta = 0.7
Max. Equity Loss=15%
Base Case:
Beta = 1
602.92% (65/35)2.96% (70/30)3.03% (55/45)
653.25% (65/35)3.26% (70/30)3.31% (55/45)
703.67% (65/35)3.67% (70/30)3.68% (55/45)
754.39% (70/30)4.30% (70/30)4.29% (55/45)

Table 8: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:

Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses (Optimum Equity/Fixed Income)
Beta = 0.6
Max. Equity Loss=10%
Beta = 0.7
Max. Equity Loss=15%
Base Case:
Beta = 1
603.17% (60/40)3.29% (60/40)3.67% (60/40)
653.55% (60/40)3.67% (60/40)4.01% (60/40)
704.14% (60/40)4.23% (60/40)4.51% (60/40)
754.98% (60/40)5.09% (60/40)5.31% (60/40)
Table 9: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses (Optimum Equity/Fixed Income)
Beta = 0.6
Max. Equity Loss=10%
Beta = 0.7
Max. Equity Loss=15%
Base Case:
Beta = 1
603.93% (70/30)4.05% (70/30)4.48% (70/30)
654.44% (65/35)4.60% (70/30)5.13% (70/30)
705.17% (55/45)5.35% (60/40)5.93% (65/35)
756.46% (35/65)6.44% (60/40)7.07% (55/45)

With asymmetric beta, we observe a lower SWR than in the base case. The cost of maintaining a lower beta exceeds the benefits of limiting losses. Keep in mind, this conclusion needs to be revisited after the next black swan event using data from the actual experience.

Impact of Rebalancing

Some investors rebalance annually if the asset mix deviates from its target even by one dollar. Others leave the asset mix alone unless the deviation is larger than a specific threshold, such as 3% or 5%. How do different rebalancing thresholds impact the SWR?

In High Expectations & False Dreams: One Hundred Years of Stock Market History Applied to Retirement Planning (2001), I show that rebalancing once every four years can increase portfolio life. The best results were obtained when rebalancing was done only at the end of the U.S. Presidential election year to synchronize it with the well-known Presidential Cycle.

Here are the sustainable withdrawal rates for rebalancing threshold and frequency:

Table 10: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses
Annual Rebalancing Threshold = 0%Base Case:
Annual Rebalancing Threshold = 3%
Annual Rebalancing Threshold = 5%Rebalance every Four Years
603.04%3.03% (55/45)3.06%3.21%
653.33%3.31% (55/45)3.33%3.48%
703.70%3.68% (55/45)3.72%3.85%
754.29%4.29% (55/45)4.32%4.49%
Table 11: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses
Annual Rebalancing Threshold = 0%Base Case:
Annual Rebalancing Threshold = 3%
Annual Rebalancing Threshold = 5%Rebalance every Four Years
603.67%3.67% (60/40)3.68%3.84%
653.98%4.01% (60/40)4.01%4.22%
704.50%4.51% (60/40)4.52%4.70%
755.33%5.31% (60/40)5.31%5.52%
Table 12: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses
Annual Rebalancing Threshold = 0%Base Case:
Annual Rebalancing Threshold = 3%
Annual Rebalancing Threshold = 5%Rebalance every Four Years
604.50%4.48% (70/30)4.48%4.64%
655.13%5.13% (70/30)5.12%5.46%
705.91%5.93% (65/35)5.92%6.06%
757.05%7.07% (55/45)7.05%7.18%

Increasing the rebalancing frequency from annual to once every four years provides a slightly larger SWR in all expense categories. That is because in multi-year down markets, the rebalancing process compounds permanent losses. Rebalancing every four years helps you avoid such losses. On the flipside, in an up market it allows you to compound gains more effectively. It is also important to note that automatic monthly or quarterly rebalancing options that some funds offer can harm portfolio longevity.

If rebalancing annually, variations of the threshold between 0% and 5% have no perceivable impact on the SWR. If you want to reduce costs related to frequent rebalancing (capital gains taxes, trading costs, your time), use a 5% threshold.

Impact of Not Rebalancing

In this scenario, we start with the optimal asset allocation. Withdrawals are initially from the fixed-income portion of the portfolio until it depletes. After that, withdrawals are taken from the equity portion. Throughout this process, the portfolio is never rebalanced.

Here are the sustainable withdrawal rates:

Table 13: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses
No RebalancingBase Case
603.41%3.03% (55/45)
653.68%3.31% (55/45)
704.04%3.68% (55/45)
754.58%4.29% (55/45)
Table 14: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses
No RebalancingBase Case
603.54%3.67% (60/40)
653.89%4.01% (60/40)
704.39%4.51% (60/40)
755.06%5.31% (60/40)
Table 15: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses
No RebalancingBase Case
604.56%4.48% (70/30)
655.03%5.13% (70/30)
705.65%5.93% (65/35)
756.96%7.07% (55/45)

Not rebalancing at all during retirement increases the SWR for essential expenses only, i.e. early black swan events are managed better. As for basic and essential expenses, there was little or no improvement.

Figure 1: Typical average asset mix for the no rebalancing strategy, starting with 50/50 asset mix, 3% initial withdrawal rate

Figure 1: Typical average asset mix for the no rebalancing strategy, starting with 50/50 asset mix, 3% initial withdrawal rate

Age-Based Asset Allocation

With the age based asset allocation, the equity percentage in the portfolio is reduced with each passing year. The popular formula is:

Equity % = 100 – Age

For example, at ages 60, 65, 70 and 75, the equity allocation is 40%, 35%, 30% and 25%, respectively.

Here are sustainable withdrawal rates:

Table 16: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses
Age BasedBase Case
602.55%3.03% (55/45)
652.90%3.31% (55/45)
703.27%3.68% (55/45)
753.91%4.29% (55/45)
Table 17: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses
Age BasedBase Case
602.91%3.67% (60/40)
653.37%4.01% (60/40)
703.89%4.51% (60/40)
754.56%5.31% (60/40)
Table 18: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses
Age BasedBase Case
604.30%4.48% (70/30)
654.79%5.13% (70/30)
705.55%5.93% (65/35)
756.70%7.07% (55/45)

Accelerated Age-Based Asset Allocation

This provides a more aggressive portfolio than the standard age-based asset allocation described above. The formula is:

Equity %  =

Accordingly, at ages 60, 65, 70 and 75, the equity allocation is 64%, 58%, 51% and 44%, respectively. The following charts show the average asset mix for both types of age-based asset allocation strategies for comparison.

Figure 2: Typical average asset mix for the Age-Based Asset Allocation Strategy

Figure 2: Typical average asset mix for the Age-Based Asset Allocation Strategy

Figure 3: Typical average asset mix for the Accelerated Age Based Asset Allocation Strategy

Figure 3: Typical average asset mix for the Accelerated Age Based Asset Allocation Strategy

Here are the sustainable withdrawal rates:

Table 19: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses

Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses
Accelerated Age BasedBase Case
602.57%3.03% (55/45)
652.98%3.31% (55/45)
703.35%3.68% (55/45)
753.92%4.29% (55/45)
Table 20: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses
Accelerated Age BasedBase Case
603.47%3.67% (60/40)
653.67%4.01% (60/40)
704.12%4.51% (60/40)
755.02%5.31% (60/40)
Table 21: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses
Accelerated Age BasedBase Case
604.40%4.48% (70/30)
655.07%5.13% (70/30)
705.73%5.93% (65/35)
756.83%7.07% (55/45)

Age-based asset allocation strategies provide a markedly lower SWR for all expense categories. There are two reasons for that:

1.       As time goes on, more of the assets are allocated to bonds. This reduces volatility. Reducing volatility while keeping the same alpha on the equity side reduces the SWR, as we have seen earlier with the impact of beta.

2.       Unlike conventional bonds, equities provide some degree of inflation protection. With age-based asset allocation strategies, as time goes on the portfolio has less and less equities, diminishing any opportunity to protect against inflation.

The Glide Path

Downward Glide Path: The investor allocates 50% of the portfolio to equities during the first 10 years of retirement, 40% during the next 10 years, and 30% after that for the rest of his life.

Upward Glide Path: This is the opposite of the downward glide path. The proponents of this strategy claim that the impact of the sequence of returns is highest during the early years of retirement, hence the lower equity allocation during that period. The investor allocates 30% of his portfolio to equities during the first 10 years of retirement, 40% during the next 10 years, and 50% after that for the rest of his life.

Figure 4: Typical average asset mix for the Downward Glide Path

Figure 4: Typical average asset mix for the Downward Glide Path

Figure 5: Typical average asset mix for the Upward Glide Path

Figure 5: Typical average asset mix for the Upward Glide Path

Here are the sustainable withdrawal rates:

Table 22: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses:

Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses
Downward Glide PathUpward Glide PathBase Case
602.87%2.98%3.03% (55/45)
653.14%3.26%3.31% (55/45)
703.54%3.65%3.68% (55/45)
754.17%4.30%4.29% (55/45)
Table 23: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses
Downward Glide PathUpward Glide PathBase Case
603.44%3.33%3.67% (60/40)
653.78%3.69%4.01% (60/40)
704.34%4.17%4.51% (60/40)
755.12%4.96%5.31% (60/40)
Table 24: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses
Downward Glide PathUpward Glide PathBase Case
604.28%4.33%4.48% (70/30)
655.03%4.82%5.13% (70/30)
705.78%5.46%5.93% (65/35)
756.97%6.69%7.07% (55/45)

As we see here, glide path strategies consistently produce a lower SWR compared to the base case.

Asset Allocation based on Presidential Cycle

Historically, markets grow below average during the first and second years of the Presidential term. The picture becomes brighter in the third and fourth years. Since 1900, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) grew on average 6.6%, 1.1%, 11.5%, and 7.8% during the first, second, third and fourth years of the Presidential term, respectively.

We anticipated better outcomes by harmonizing the asset mix with this cycle, just as we did with rebalancing. Using aftcasting, we calculate the optimal equity allocation for Canadian markets as: 55%, 50%, 70% and 70% during the first, second, third and fourth years of the presidential term, respectively.

Here are sustainable withdrawal rates:

Table 25: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses:

Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses
Presidential CycleBase Case
603.05%3.03% (55/45)
653.32%3.31% (55/45)
703.67%3.68% (55/45)
754.31%4.29% (55/45)
Table 26: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses
Presidential CycleBase Case
603.57%3.67% (60/40)
653.88%4.01% (60/40)
704.47%4.51% (60/40)
755.22%5.31% (60/40)
Table 27: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses
Presidential CycleBase Case
604.43%4.48% (70/30)
655.03%5.13% (70/30)
705.88%5.93% (65/35)
757.01%7.07% (55/45)

The results are clearly not better than the base case. We saw earlier that rebalancing every four years based on presidential cycle produced clearly better results than the base case. Following this strategy reduced the negative effects of a potential multi-year bad sequence of returns, while keeping the asset mix reasonably steady.

Here, we go one step further: We create significantly larger fluctuations in the asset mix throughout the presidential cycle. However, not all cycles form a bad sequence of returns. Changing the entire asset mix — as opposed to rebalancing it — leads to overkill. The strategy does not, therefore, produce better results than the base case.

Asset Allocation based on Price-to-Earnings (P/E) Ratio

The P/E ratio is a fundamental indicator for stocks. Because we are interested in the entire market, we use the average P/E for the entire index. It consists of the P/Es of all stocks in the index. This gives us a measure of market exuberance or lethargy. If the P/E is a low number (say, below 10) it indicates an undervalued equity index with upside potential. On the other hand, if it is a high number (say, over 20), it indicates an overvalued index.

After a long, secular bullish trend, an overvalued index eventually corrects itself, often violently. This creates an adverse sequence of returns, which can reduce portfolio life drastically. By correlating the asset mix of the portfolio to market P/E, we’re trying to minimize this damage.

We optimize the asset mix as a function of P/E for maximum SWR and generate the following formula:

Equity % = 90 – (2.7 X PE )

Keep in mind, the P/E ratio is only one of the many factors that can influence future performance. Markets can continue being overvalued for several years before a significant correction takes place. We don’t recommend abandoning equities altogether just because of a high P/E. By the same token, we do not recommend allocating excessive amounts to equities just because the P/E is low.  We maintain a minimum 30% and maximum 70% equity allocation regardless of the result of this formula. Here are examples of asset allocations for various P/E ratios:

Table 28:  Asset Allocation in the calendar year following the PE ratio observed:

Market Average P/E Ratio at the End of the Year:Asset Mix during the Following Year: (Equity/Fixed Income)
570 / 30
1063 / 37
1550 / 50
2036 / 64
2530 / 70
3030 / 70

Here are sustainable withdrawal rates:

Table 29: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Essential Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for ESSENTIAL Expenses
P/E BasedBase Case
603.65%3.03% (55/45)
653.96%3.31% (55/45)
704.38%3.68% (55/45)
755.03%4.29% (55/45)
Table 30: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Basic Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for BASIC Expenses
P/E BasedBase Case
603.99%3.67% (60/40)
654.35%4.01% (60/40)
704.87%4.51% (60/40)
755.75%5.31% (60/40)
Table 31: Sustainable Withdrawal Rate for Discretionary Expenses:
Retirement Age:SWR for DISCRETIONARY Expenses
P/E BasedBase Case
604.62%4.48% (70/30)
655.12%5.13% (70/30)
705.75%5.93% (65/35)
756.82%7.07% (55/45)

We observe that P/E-based asset allocation produced a significantly larger SWR for essential expenses. It generated a less significant improvement for basic expenses. As for discretionary expenses, there was no significant difference.

We conclude that P/E-based asset allocation can make an important contribution in reducing the effect of “unlucky” outcomes. However, it has an insignificant effect for the median outcome over the long term.

Now that you’ve finished reading, complete the exam to receive your CE credits. If your score is 85% or higher for Part 1 and Part 2 of this course, send an e-mail to jim@retirementoptimizer.com with your name and proof of your score (a screen shot will do) to get a free retirement calculator based on aftcasting and a free, read-only pdf copy of Jim Otar’s 525-page book, Unveiling the Retirement Myth.

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