The DANGER of the 4 percent rule

The 4% withdrawal rule was established as a safe way to approach retirement withdrawals from your accounts and avoid depleting your portfolio too early.

If you have read retirement articles, or books, you must be familiar with the rule by now.

To understand the danger of the 4% withdrawal rule, you need to understand what happens in retirement and be fully aware of which camp you fall in. Here are the possible retirement options:

  • Pension Plan: You retirement income is covered based on a percentage of their earned income and years of contributions in the plan. Those with a full pension plan don’t have to worry about any 4% withdrawal rule. It’s the gold-plated retirement plan.
  • Defined Contribution Plan: Your retirement contributions are matched by your company but investing it is usually left to you to manage. A fee advisor could help you out if you are stuck here.
  • Personal Savings: Just like the defined contribution plan, you are left on your own to manage everything. How much you use in retirement is a very important factor. This is your money in your RRSP, TFSA or non-registered account.

Obviously, you might be retired but still work part-time to keep busy and earn an income but how do you know if you don’t have to work? How much do you need to have? Is the 4% withdrawal rule really safe?

Avoid outliving your retirement portfolio!

DANGER of the 4 Percent Rule

What I find is missing from the 4% withdrawal rule is that it is not stress-tested against market crashes and low interest-rate environment. How many soon to be retiree had to keep on working in 2009 because their portfolio got decimated?

If the 4 percent rule is the rule of thumb, what can you do to protect yourself against a market crash? Do you simply move your equity investment to bonds? If so, you lose the potential equity market appreciation that the 4% withdrawal rule is expecting to cover to avoid running out of money.

If your portfolio doesn’t grow, your 4% is less and less. Retirement needs have a fixed minimum of funds and not just a percentage value for a portfolio.

Avoid the 4 percent rule

Large equity exposure can work in retirement. I have seen it, and I hear about it from readers as well.

The way they make it work is by investing in income producing assets. That’s why the cornerstone of my retirement strategy is Dividend Income and not a 4% withdrawal rule.

Let’s be clear that I think there is a big difference between getting a 4% dividend income versus withdrawing 4%. Even when you assume the initial amount of money is the same, the dividend income doesn’t require you to sell any investments whereas the 4% retirement withdrawal rule might.

It’s true that both reduce your network by 4% but not the same way and the consequences of the action is very different for future income or growth.

As soon as you have to sell investments, you become at the mercy of the markets. Let’s assume you are 70 and you have a portfolio with 70% in a bond index and 30% in equities. With both of the indexes paying less than 3% in income, you have to make up for the shortfall by selling.

Every time you sell, you reduce the future income you might earn. As you get older, you earn less but you are also shifting more into bonds if you don’t believe in holding equities. By the time you are 80, you spent 10 years selling 1% of your portfolio to cover the shortfall of the income.

The only way to avoid that is to actually have more savings so that the 3% or even 2% satisfies your income needs or that you have another source of income. Obviously, there are so many ways the 4% withdrawal rule can play out but in the end, you always end-up selling portion of your investment to have the money which consequently impacts future growth for however many years you might need it which is also unknown.

Stress-Free Retirement is about Income

As you can see, successful retirement is all about the income. Even the young retirees have many sources of income.

Early retirement is really a form of Financial Freedom but “normal” retirement is no different. Rather than being self-employed or having businesses that generate the income feeding your financial freedom, you have a portfolio to do just that.

How much you need is a different question but a relatively easy one to answer – check my retirement number.

I believe the 4% withdrawal rule is a good guideline to help with calculation but there are major risks in applying this rule blindly. If you can find a way to need less than 4% of your portfolio in retirement than you are doing well by restraining your spending but you also need to find a way to ensure your portfolio is doing its work.

90% of my portfolio holdings increase their dividends annually. Not only can I keep up with inflation, I get a raise! As such don’t think about hitting a home run with a Canadian penny stocks unless your dividends already cover your needs.

Retirement’s Unknown Variables

Life expectancy is a big problem in retirement as we can’t predict when our last day will be.

The experts got it wrong for the major pension plans in Canada as many were, and still are, underfunded.

Not only that, the low-interest rate market compounded the effect of longer age expectancy. How do you think you can manage to sustain your retirement in those conditions if you take money out?

Risks when investing is attributed to the market fluctuations. If the market fluctuations don’t affect your income, which is the case with dividends, then what’s the risk? The risk becomes inherent to the corporations and their ability to stay in business and make profits.

Even when you look back at 2009, only some blue chip companies stopped paying dividends and some others stopped increasing their dividends but many continued not only to pay but also to increase their dividends. Even when the shares were trading at a discount. In short, the dividend income was safe while the portfolio value fluctuated temporarily.

Be careful what investment strategy you choose to grow your wealth as it might not satisfy your retirement needs unless you have more than you think you might need. You basically need to stress test your portfolio with the following

  • Market fluctuation at different stages (1st year, 3rd year, 7th year and so forth)
  • Low-interest rates (which usually impact bonds)
  • Percentage of dividend cuts (depending on your investments, it’s important to test this)

After you stress test your retirement plan, you should come up with your own withdrawal rule.

DISCLOSURE: Please note that I may have a position in one or many of the holdings listed. For a complete list of my holdings, please see my Dividend Portfolio.

DISCLAIMER: Please note that this blog post represents my opinion and not an advice/recommendation. I am not a financial adviser, I am not qualified to give financial advice. Before you buy any stocks/funds consult with a qualified financial planner. Make your investment decisions at your own risk – see my full disclaimer for more details.