The one risk we tend to ignore: Sequence of Returns

By Larissa Fernand |  20-09-21 | 

Sequence-of-returns risk, or sequence risk, is something that is grossly overlooked.

This is the risk that comes from the order in which your investment returns occur. It is the risk of the market declining in the last few years of your working life and early years of retirement, coupled with withdrawals, that detrimentally attacks the longevity of a portfolio.

This issue is particularly relevant during the first few years before and after retirement. When you start making portfolio withdrawals, the value of your portfolio reflects both market performance and cash outflows, which can be a double whammy during extended market downturns.

AMY ARNOTT, portfolio strategist for Morningstar, explains it in a very simple fashion.

The amount you have: Rs 10,000. The amount you plan to withdraw:  Rs 1,000 per year.

If you earn 10% (first year), 10% (second year), and -10% (third year), you'd end up with Rs 8,000 by the end of the third year.

But if the returns happen in the reverse order: -10% (first year), 10% second year, and 10% (third year), you’d end up with Rs 7,580 by the end of the third year.

Why? Because the negative return at the beginning of the period (when more assets are in the account) carries more weight in the overall results. The portfolio doesn’t benefit as much in rupee terms from the two years of positive returns because there are fewer rupees remaining.

Different Sequence, Different Results


Let’s complicate it a bit, by making it more real.

  • Retiring age: 65
  • Retired in the year: 2000, just as the market was heading into a 3-year downturn
  • Starting value of all equity portfolio: $1,000,000
  • Annual withdrawals: $40,000
  • Increase in withdrawals to account for inflation: by 3% each year
  • Actual returns: Morningstar US Market Index starting in 2000

The portfolio’s value would have been nearly cut in half by the end of the third year. As a result, the portfolio didn’t benefit as much in dollar terms from the market’s rebound starting in 2003. Adding insult to injury, the portfolio would have suffered another major blow when the market dropped about 37% in 2008.

Because this sequence of returns was so negative, the portfolio never fully recovered. By age 85, the individual’s portfolio value would be down to about $644,000. That's probably enough to sustain an average spending level, but it doesn't leave a huge cushion for extra costs late in life such as long-term care.

If the sequence of returns had been reversed (the Morningstar US Market Index earned the same returns as it did from 2000 through 2020, but in reverse order), the picture would be far brighter. By age 85, the portfolio’s value would be down from its peak, but still close to $2.7 million.



In a later article we shall look at how you can combat it.

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ninan joseph
Sep 26 2021 12:50 PM
 It is for this reason, everyone should follow asset allocation and there should be a portion of money parked in fixed income portfolio (FD) irrespective of the interest rate. It is better to get 5% positive rate than having a portfolio giving out negative 10% capital loss. it would be heart wrenching to sell stock at this time when you know that the real value of the stock is much higher.
Stock market is such an animal that you can never time it. The best hedge to stock market is fixed income or FD. This will allow you to give this animal time to lick its wound during a downtrend and bounce back.
Lets go back to 2018 and 2019, market was hovering around 11,500 to 12,000 people were grumbling about lack of animal spirits etc, Bank FD rates were in the range of 8% to 8.5%. If you had adopted asset allocation, you would have invested in FDs (long term) and in stock market, then the market crashed in 2020, from 11,500 to 7,500. Pause for a second, think of the person who had invested his entire wealth in stock market, it was capital loss. But people who had invested in FD and stock market survived because they allowed the market to sober up. Hence it is critical to have asset allocation in place.
Remember it is better to have 5% return than trying to sell stock like HDFC at 750 in 2020 due to need for money.
Asset allocation is the only mantra
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