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Doing the (Stock Market) Math: Three Rules for Retired Investors

By Jacob Wolinsky. Originally published at ValueWalk.

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If you’re making withdrawals from your retirement account, you need to understand the math behind your financial advisor’s strategy. Peter Mougey says you should make sure they are following three critical math rules.


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Retirees who make regular withdrawals from their portfolio have specific risks that younger investors don’t need to worry about. That’s why it’s so important to understand the math behind what you’re doing—especially in a time of market turmoil like the one we’re in now.

“If you’re in this category, you’ll want to talk to your financial advisor right now,” says Peter Mougey, national securities and investment fraud attorney with Pensacola, Florida’s Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor, P.A. “Don’t keep blindly moving ahead, hoping to catch the rebound. And don’t leave their office until you’re sure you understand the math.”

Math Rules For Retirees

Here are three “math rules” retirees should keep in mind as they talk to their advisors:

Retiree Math Rules #1: In a declining market, withdrawing too much money can lead to the death spiral.

Let’s look at a scenario where you’re withdrawing way more than 4 percent a year from a portfolio that’s $100,000 and heavily weighted to stocks. Right now, due to the coronavirus market, you could be down to $80,000. If you are also taking out $1,000 per month, or 12 percent, since the beginning of the year, it is possible your life savings has declined to $75,000. If the market continues its gyrations while you make $1,000 monthly withdrawals to the year-end, your portfolio could be close to $60,000.

Next year, in order to support this $1,000 per month withdrawal, your portfolio would need to return 20 percent. This is almost impossible over the long-term. To recover to the $100,000 and support the withdrawal, the market would need to bounce approximately $50,000, or almost 80 percent, to return to $100,000. If the market declines, older, retired investors making regular withdrawals may find themselves in what Mougey calls the death spiral.

“The golden rule of investing while taking withdrawals: don’t go backward to the point that you enter the death spiral and recovery is impossible,” says Mougey. “To avoid this, you and your advisor may need to look out for a couple of red flags.”

#2: Don’t withdraw more than 4 or 5 percent (even in the best of times).

First, add up your monthly cash needs throughout the year. If your total cash need is more than 4-5 percent, you are likely withdrawing too much. Many financial advisors tell retired investors they can rely on the average long-term stock market return. Often the range they rely on is 10-12 percent. This is bad advice, says Mougey.

“I have seen the devastation this advice causes more times than I can count,” says Mougey. “An advisor may say, ‘Why work when your withdrawals are more than you are making now?’ The financial advisor recommends a portfolio of almost all stocks and higher-risk bonds to support taking distributions at this level. It is not a matter of if this advice will end up ruining your life savings; it’s a matter of when.

“The academic and industry literature suggests portfolios can sustain only 4-5 percent over the long-term,” he adds. “The further you get away from 4 or 5 percent, the higher the risk you’ll be involved in a death spiral that you can’t ever recover from.”

#3: Stocks are a young person’s game (too many stocks = too much volatility).

If you’re retired and your portfolio is almost all stocks, stock mutual funds, and high-yield bonds (often called junk bonds), you are exposed to too much volatility. Granted, stock returns are much higher than bonds, but the additional return comes with much higher risk. Volatility that comes with stock portfolios, coupled with withdrawals, is a recipe for disaster for retired investors. Quite simply, you don’t have 20 years to allow averages to smooth volatile stock returns.

The sequencing of stock returns is what makes this a game of Russian roulette. Yes, stock returns may average 10-12 percent, but they’re not like a CD that pays the same amount every year. For example, stocks may have the following returns over four years: Year 1: 15 percent, Year 2: 27 percent, Year 3: 5 percent, Year 4: -10 percent. This is often referred to as the “sequence of returns.” If the positive three years come first, the retiree may have a chance. But if during the first year of retirement, the market declines 10 percent and the investor withdraws 10 percent, the chances of recovery are low. The sequence of returns demonstrates why a retired investor can’t rely on averages.

Your investment-grade bonds allocation should be about your age, says Mougey. For example, if you are 70, then you should have no more than 20-30 percent in stocks. Fewer stocks and more investment-grade bonds will reduce volatility, minimize the harm sequence of stock returns can cause, and allow you to enjoy retirement without outlasting your money.

Is it time to rebalance your portfolio? Get “skinny” and stop taking withdrawals for a while? Go to cash? It depends on your situation, says Mougey—just make the decision deliberately and with both eyes open.

“Don’t just keep doing what you’re doing and hope for the best,” he says. “These are extraordinary times, and hope is never a strategy. Neither is blind trust in your advisor. Many are great, but some aren’t. Make sure you’re fully aware of the issues and engaged in making the best decision for your life and your future.”


Peter Mougey is a partner in the Pensacola-based law firm Levin Papantonio and the chair of the firm’s securities department. He concentrates his practice in the areas of complex litigation, financial services, securities litigation, and whistleblower or qui tam litigation.

Mr. Mougey advocates for the rights of investors as both the past president and member of the board of directors of the national securities bar, PIABA, which was established in 1990 to promote and protect the interests of the public sector in securities and commodities arbitration. Mougey has spent much of his career leveling the playing field for investors. He has proposed reforms to combat Wall Street fraud, through a new fiduciary standard in accordance with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. He has also spearheaded communications with state and federal regulators to ensure that investors’ voices are heard.

Mr. Mougey has represented over 1,500 state, municipal, and institutional entities, as well as tribal sovereign nations, in litigation and arbitration around the globe. In addition, he has represented more than 3,000 individual fraud victims in state and federal court and arbitrations. Mr. Mougey has been recognized as a transformational leader in and out of the courtroom and is often called upon to simplify the country’s most complex cases.

He has also served as chairman of the NASAA Committee, Executive Committee and FINRA’s Improving Arbitration Task Force. Currently, Mr. Mougey serves on the PIABA Foundation charged with educating investors in conjunction with the SEC. In recognition of his long-term and sustained dedication to promote the interests of investors, he received the PIABA Lifetime Distinguished Service Award from his peers.

Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor, P.A., has been in existence for more than 65 years. It is one of the most successful plaintiff law firms in America. Its attorneys handle claims throughout the country involving prescription drugs, medical devices, defective products, securities, and consumer protection.

Based on law firm verdicts and settlements exceeding $4 billion, its securities fraud lawyers are committed to seeking justice for the victims of investment fraud and misconduct. Led by attorney Peter Mougey, the past president of the national securities bar PIABA, the securities and business tort department has represented more than 1,500 investment fraud victims across the country in state and federal court and securities industry arbitration.

To learn more, please visit www.levinlaw.com.

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