Do Stock Market Numbers Really Matter?


  • Author Steve Selengut
  • Published September 13, 2018
  • Word count 1,512

The last "all time high" in the S & P 500 (2,873) was struck just over six months ago, on January 26th. Since then, it has been down roughly 10% on three different occasions, with no shortage of "volatility", and an abundance of expert explanations for this nagging weakness in the face of incredibly strong economic numbers.

• GDP is up, unemployment down; income tax rates lower, unfilled job numbers rising... The economy is so strong that, since April, it has become stable to upward in the very face of higher interest rates and an imminent trade war. Go figure!

But what impact does this pattern have on you, particularly if you are a retiree or a "soon-to-be"? Does a flat or lower stock market mean that you will be able to grow your portfolio income or that you will have to sell assets to maintain your current draw from your investment accounts? For almost all of you, unfortunately, it's the latter.

I've read that 4%, after inflation, is considered a "safe" portfolio withdrawal rate for most retirees. Most retirement portfolios produce less than 2% of actual spendable income, however, so at least some security liquidation is required every year to keep the power on...

But if the market goes up an average of 5% every year, as it has since 2000, everything is just fine, right? Sorry. The market just doesn't work that way, and as a result, there is absolutely no doubt that most of you are not prepared for a scenario even half as bleak as several of the realities packed inside the past twenty years.

(Note that it took the NASDAQ composite index approximately sixteen years to rise above its 1999 highest level...even with the mighty "FANG". All of its 60%+ gain has occurred in the past three years, much the same as in the 1998 to 2000 "no value" rally.)

• The NASDAQ has risen just 3% annually over the past 20 years including the production of less than 1% in spending money.

• In spite of the rally from 1997 thru 1999, the S & P 500 lost 4% (including dividends) from year end 1997 to year end 2002. This translates into a nearly 5% per year asset drain or a total loss of capital around 28%. So your million dollar portfolio became $720k, and was still yielding less than 2% per year of actual spending money.

• The ten year scenario (1997 through 2007) saw a modest 6% gain in the S & P, or growth of just .6% percent per year, including dividends. This scenario produces a 3.4% annual asset reduction, or a loss of 34%... your million was reduced to $660K, and we haven't gotten to the great recession yet.

• The 6 years from 2007 to 2013 (including the "great recession") produced a net gain of roughly 1%, or a growth rate of about .17% per year. This 3.83% annual reduction brought the $660k down another 25% leaving a nest egg of just $495k.

• The S & P 500, gained roughly 5% from the end of 2013 through the end of 2015, another 5% draw, bringing "the egg" down to roughly $470k.

• So, even though the S & P has gained an average 8% per year since 1998, it has failed to cover a modest 4% withdrawal rate nearly all of the time. ... i.e., in almost all but the past 2.5 years.

• Since January 2016, the S & P has gained roughly 48% bringing the 'ole nest egg back up to about $695k... about 30% below where it was 20 years earlier... with a "safe", 4% draw.

So what if the market performs as well (yes, sarcasm) over the next 20 years, and you choose to retire sometime during that period?

And what if the 4% per year withdrawal rate is a less than realistic barometer of what the average retiree wants to (or has to) spend per year? What if a new car is needed, or there are health problems/family emergencies... or you get the urge to see what the rest of the world is like?

These realities blow a major hole in the 4% per year strategy, particularly if any of them have the audacity to occur when the market is in a correction, as it has been nearly 30% of the time during this 20 year Bull Market. We won't even go into the very real possibility of bad investment decisions, particularly in the end stages of rallies... and corrections.

• The market value growth, total return focused (Modern Portfolio Theory) approach just doesn't cut it for developing a retirement income ready investment portfolio... a portfolio that actually grows the income and the working investment capital regardless of the gyrations of the stock market.

• In fact, the natural volatility of the stock market should actually help produce both income and capital growth.

So, in my opinion, and I've been implementing an alternative strategy both personally and professionally for nearly 50 years, the 4% drawdown strategy is pretty much a "crock"... of Wall Street misinformation. There is no direct relationship between the market value growth of your portfolio and your spending requirements in retirement, nadda.

Retirement planning must be income planning first and growth objective investing maybe. Growth purpose investing (the stock market, no matter how it is hidden from view by the packaging) is always more speculative and less income productive than income investing. This is precisely why Wall Street likes to use "total return" analysis instead of plain vanilla "yield on invested capital".

Let's say, for example, that you invested the 1998, retirement-in-sight, million dollar nest egg I was referring to above, in what I call a "Market Cycle Investment Management" (MCIM) portfolio. The equity portion of an MCIM portfolio includes:

• Dividend paying individual equities rated B+ or better by S & P (so less speculative) and traded on the NYSE. These are called "investment grade value stocks", and they are traded regularly for 10% or lower profits and reinvested in similar securities that are down at least 20% from one year highs.

• Additionally, especially when equity prices are bubbly, equity Closed End Funds (CEFs) provide diverse equity exposure and spending money yield levels typically above 6%.

• The equity portion of such a portfolio generally yields in excess of 4%.

The income portion of the MCIM portfolio, will be the larger investment "bucket" and it will contain:

• A diverse assortment of income purpose CEFs containing corporate and government bonds, notes, and loans; mortgage and other real estate based securities, preferred stocks, senior loans, floating rate securities, etc. The funds, on average, have income payment track records that span decades.

• They are also traded regularly for reasonable profits, and never held beyond the

point where a year's interest in advance can be realized. When bank CD rates are less than 2% per year as they are now, a 4% short term gain (reinvested at between 7% and 9%) is not something to sneeze at.

The MCIM portfolio is asset allocated and managed so that the 4% drawdown (and a short term contingency reserve) consumes just 70% or so of the total income . That's the "stuff" required to pay the bills, fund the vacations, celebrate life's important milestones, and protect and care for the loved ones. You just don't want to sell assets to take care of either essentials or emergencies, and here's a fact of investment life that Wall Street does not want you to know about:

• The gyrations of the stock market (and interest rate changes) generally have absolutely no impact on the income paid by securities you already own and, falling market values always provide the opportunity to add to positions...

• Thus reducing their per share cost basis and increasing your yield on invested capital. Falling bond prices are an opportunity of far greater importance than similar corrections in stock prices.

A 40% equity, 60% income asset allocation (assuming 4% income from the equity side and 7.5% from the income side) would have produced no less than 6.1% in real spending money, in spite of two major market meltdowns that rocked the world during those twenty years. And that would have:

• eliminated all annual draw downs, and

• produced nearly $2,000 a month for reinvestment

After 20 years, that million dollar, 1998, nest egg would have become roughly $1.515 million and would be generating at least $92,000 in spending money per year... note that these figures include no net capital gains from trading and no reinvestment at rates better than 6.1%. So this is, perhaps, a worst case scenario.

So stop chasing that higher market value "Holy Grail" that your financial advisors want you to worship with every emotional and physical fiber of your financial consciousness. Break free from the restraints on your earning capabilities. When you leave you final employment, you should be making nearly as much in "base income" (interest and dividends) from your investment portfolios as you were in salary...

Somehow, income production is just not an issue in today's retirement planning scenarios. 401k plans are not required to provide it; IRA accounts are generally invested in Wall Street products that are not structured for income production; financial advisors focus on total return and market value numbers. Just ask them to assess your current income generation and count the "ums", "ahs", and "buts".

You don't have to accept this, and you will not become retirement ready with either a market value or a total return focus. Higher market values fuel the ego; higher income levels fuel the yacht. What's in your wallet?

My articles always describe aspects of an investment process I have been using since the 1970's, as described in my book, "The Brainwashing of the American Investor". All the disciplines, concepts, and processes described therein work together to produce (in my experience) a safer, more income productive, investment experience. No implementation should be undertaken without a complete understanding of all aspects of the process.

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