A fee-based Certified Financial Planner (CFP) recently created a comprehensive financial plan for one of his clients. The client, whom I’ll call Jim, sent me the plan and asked for my opinion. The report included an assessment of Jim’s risk tolerance. It said Jim should have a low-cost, diversified portfolio. It also showed how much he should save each year to fund his retirement.
This all looked good. But what I read next gave me cold-water shivers. The advisor wrote:
“When you retire, you can withdraw an inflation-adjusted 4 percent per year, and your money should last until you’re 95 years old.”
The advisor inserted a bar graph. According to the report, if the portfolio averaged a compound annual return of 7 percent per year, and if inflation averaged 3 percent per year, and if Jim withdrew an inflation-adjusted 4 percent per year and if Jim didn’t live past his 95th birthday, then Jim wouldn’t run out of money. There were a lot of ifs in there. But something else worried me more.
Jim’s financial advisor abused the 4 percent rule. For example, Jim pays total investment fees of 1.7 percent per year. If Jim withdraws 4 percent and he pays investment fees of 1.7 percent, that’s 5.7 percent coming out of his portfolio during the first year of his retirement.
The 4 percent rule is part of financial planning lore. Plenty of studies have back-tested a variety of conditions for diversified portfolios. Such research says retirees should be able to withdraw an inflation-adjusted 4 percent from their portfolios every year. When doing so, their money should last at least 30 years. Such back-tests started in 1926. That means the 4 percent rule would have survived a 30-year period that included the crash of 1929-1930. It would have survived the stock market crash of 1973-74. It would have survived runaway inflation in the 1970s. It would have survived the Bear Markets of 2001-2002 and 2008.
But the 4 percent rule might have a single kryptonite: high investment fees.
First, let me explain how the 4 percent rule works. Assume a 60-year old man retired in 1973. He had $100,000 invested: 60 percent in U.S. stocks and 40 percent in Intermediate U.S. government bonds (*see endnote). During his first year of retirement, he withdrew 4 percent, or $4000. He then increased each annual withdrawal to cover the rising cost of living.
Annual Inflation-Adjusted Withdrawals On A $100,000 Portfolio
The First Ten Years Of Retirement
In 1973, he would have withdrawn $4,348. This is based on 4 percent of his portfolio, plus an upward adjustment for that year’s inflation. In 1974, he would have withdrawn $4,885. That’s $537 more than the previous year. But it covered the 12.34 percent inflation rate in 1974. In 1975, the investor would have withdrawn $5,224. That covered the 6.94 percent inflation rate for 1975. By continuing to match withdrawals with inflation, the retiree ensures the same year-to-year purchasing power until he’s pushing daisies.
At this point you might wonder how long the money would last. The portfolio itself would gyrate with the market. Sometimes it would rise. Other years it would fall…sometimes a lot. But if the investor paid low annual investment fees, he would still have money left, even if he lived to be 105 years old.
You might not want to live until you’re 105. But if you pay 1.7 percent in annual investment fees, like my friend Jim, you might run out of money before running out of breathe. Note the yellow and the green lines on the chart below. Both lines represent $100,000 portfolios, comprising 60 percent U.S. stocks and 40 percent U.S. bonds.