An
important point from Part 1 is that the impact of the sequence of market returns
on our investment results depends on the investment policies we choose.
From
its peak in October 2007 through September 2013, the S&P 500 returned an
average of 2.19% a year. Those six annual returns might have arrived in any of
6! (6 factoral) different orders, which is to say by one of 720 different paths.
But if you invested $1,000,000 in the S&P 500 at the 2007 peak and still
held those stocks at the end of six years, you ended up with $1,138,544 no matter which of those paths the market
might have taken.
(My
charts show only 50 representative paths of the 720 so the graph doesn’t turn
into a blob.)
The
actual order of annual returns from 2007 to 2013 was:
19.76%

9.37%

7.96%

0.86%

27.33%

14.88%

Reverse
this sequence of returns, turn them upside down, shake them up, arrange them in
alphabetical order according to height — it doesn’t change the portfolio value
at the end of the six years. In other words, the stock market has no SOR risk,
and consequently, neither does a Buy and Hold strategy. (SOR risk arises from
buying and selling at uncertain prices at the 5 points in the middle of a
6year period.)
Safe
withdrawal rate (SWR) strategies, which sell a constant dollar amount of stocks
periodically, do have SOR risk.
Here’s a graph of an SWR strategy over the time period mentioned above in which
the investor started with a million dollar portfolio and withdrew $45,000 a
year.
Again,
there are actually 720 annual return paths the market could possibly have taken,
given all permutations of 6 annual returns. Those paths end up in different
places when you withdraw fixed dollar amounts periodically. The actual path the
returns followed during this time period went from a million dollars to $776,461
in this scenario.
The
worst path (returns ordered smallest to largest) would have taken the portfolio
to $765,052 by October 2013, and the best (the opposite order) to $917,005. And
that’s risk as finance defines it: uncertainty of outcomes. For this time
period, only 8 of the 720 possible paths led to worse returns than the actual outcome.
Today,
I’m looking at the risk associated with terminal portfolio values and not the
annual payouts, which also differ by spending strategy[1]. I’m less concerned with
fluctuations in annual payouts than I am with depleting the source of those
payouts.
I showed
algebraically in my last post that an investor can avoid this SOR risk by
selling a constant percentage of remaining portfolio value periodically, for
example, selling 4.5% of remaining portfolio value each year instead of a
constant $45,000. The same is true of buying in the accumulation phase.
Here’s
what those paths look like.
There are 720 possible paths
with this strategy, too, but notice a big difference between this and the
previous chart: all paths end up in the same place — $866,008 in our example.
When you withdraw a constant percentage of remaining portfolio balance
annually, you have no SOR risk. The ultimate portfolio value doesn’t depend on
the order of market returns.
We can eliminate SOR risk to
our portfolio’s terminal value by basing withdrawals on remaining portfolio
balance, but this does not eliminate SOR risk from our portfolio payout. In fact,
we cannot eliminate SOR risk from the payouts of any strategy that spends down a portfolio of stocks and bonds. We
simply cannot expect to safely withdraw a constant amount from a volatile
portfolio.
This brings me to what I
believe to be a critical point: when you buy and hold, or buy or sell a constant
percentage of your remaining portfolio balance periodically, you are gambling
that stock prices will be higher in the future. That’s market risk.
But when you withdraw (or
invest) constant dollar amounts periodically, or random dollar amounts, or
changing percentages of remaining portfolio balance, you are placing a large side bet on which path those market returns
will take to get there.
You’re adding a significant
amount of risk to your investment, as can be seen by the single outcome for
percentage withdrawals and a wide range of outcomes for constant dollar
withdrawals. The constant dollar withdrawal policy had a range of outcomes of
nearly $152,000 for a portfolio that started out with a million dollars.
We get compensated (over the
long term) for taking market risk. Sequence of returns risk, however, is not
market risk, but risk that an investor may add with her investment policy. The
market cannot reward you for that risk. Investors with SOR risk add additional
risk that is not diversifiable and with no expectation of additional reward.
What strategies escape
sequence of returns risk? Many of the columns I have read recently suggest that
the only way to avoid SOR risk is to avoid volatile assets like stocks, or at
least to reduce your exposure to stocks to reduce SOR risk. Though that will
certainly do it, that doesn’t appear to be the only way.
Buy and Hold is a special
case of percentage withdrawal strategies where the percentage sold simply
equals zero. There is no SOR risk. Though I have not done the math, I would
expect Value Averaging
to avoid SOR risk. As I have shown above, withdrawing a constant percentage of
remaining portfolio balance has no SOR risk.
Dollar Cost Averaging and Safe
Withdrawal Rate strategies are both exposed to SOR risk — they buy or sell
constant dollar amounts — and perhaps that is why they underperform in most
studies[2] that compare strategies.
Lastly, the number of
possible market return paths increases by a factorial every period. Given its source, you would
expect SOR risk to be cumulative and to grow rapidly with the number of interim
transactions, and it does. I ran a 30year set of S&P 500 annual returns
from 1983 to 2012 and found that the best and worst possible outcomes for a $1M
investment and $45,000 annual withdrawals ranged from about $39,000 to $42,000
after ten years. After thirty years, the range grew to $50,000 to $200,000.
So, here are my takeaway’s
from this post.
Sequence of return risk comes
from our investment policies, not from the market. It is the result of the
uncertainty of prices at the interim buy/sell transactions after the initial
investment. There is no SOR risk with Buy and Hold because there are no interim
transactions. There is also no SOR risk when we buy or sell amounts based on
remaining portfolio balance, as I showed algebraically in my last post.
SOR risk increases
dramatically over longer time periods because there are far more interim
transactions that introduce more price risk.
SOR risk cannot be
diversified away, nor are we compensated for it.
Choosing an accumulation or
spending strategy that introduces additional risk that is undiversifiable and
uncompensated cannot be an optimal approach in either phase.
There's more to Sequence of Return risk and it's going to take a few more posts to cover it. I hope you'll stick with me for the next post on this topic, Sequence of Returns Risk and Payouts.
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