Sequence Risk's Impact on Your Retirement Money

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Sequence risk, or "sequence-of-returns risk," analyzes the order in which your investment returns occur. It affects you when you are periodically adding or withdrawing money to or from your investments. In retirement, it can mean that you earn a much lower internal rate of return than what you expected.

The best way to understand sequence risk is with an example. Learn more about how it works.

Key Takeaways

  • Sequence risk, or "sequence-of-returns risk," analyzes the order in which your investment returns occur.
  • The order in which the returns occur has no effect on your outcome if you aren't either investing or withdrawing regularly.
  • If a high proportion of negative returns occur in the early years of retirement, it may reduce the amount you can withdraw over your lifetime.

Accumulation: No Additions, No Sequence-of-Returns Risk

Suppose you invested $100,000 in the S&P 500 Index in 1996 and decided to leave it in for 10 years. These are the index returns year by year:

  • 1996: 23.10%
  • 1997: 33.40%
  • 1998: 28.60%
  • 1999: 21.0%
  • 2000: -9.10%
  • 2001: -11.90%
  • 2002: -22.10%
  • 2003: 28.70%
  • 2004: 10.90%
  • 2005: 4.90%

Your $100,000 grew to $238,673 in the 10 years. Not bad. Your $100,000 earned just over a 9% annualized rate of return.

If Returns Occur in the Opposite Order

Now, if those returns had played out in the opposite order, you still would have ended up with the same amount of money: $238,673.

  • 1996: 4.90%
  • 1997: 10.90%
  • 1998: 28.70%
  • 1999: -22.10%
  • 2000: -11.90%
  • 2001: -9.10%
  • 2002: 21.0%
  • 2003: 28.60%
  • 2004: 33.40%
  • 2005: 23.10%

Note

The order in which the returns occur has no effect on your outcome if you aren't either investing regularly (buying investments) or withdrawing regularly (selling investments).

Once you start withdrawing income, you're affected by the change in the sequence in which the returns occurred. At the end of the 10 years, you will have received $60,000 of income and have $125,691 left. Add the two together, and you get $185,691. That equals about a 7.80% rate of return. While it's not a bad return, it's not as good as the $222,548 you would have received if the returns had happened the other way around.

During your retirement years, if a high proportion of negative returns occur in the beginning years of your retirement, it will have a lasting negative effect and reduce the amount of income you can withdraw over your lifetime. This is called the "sequence-of-returns risk."

When you're retired, you need to sell investments periodically to support your cash-flow needs. If the negative returns occur first, you end up selling some holdings, and so you reduce the shares you own that are available to participate in the later-occurring positive returns.

Withdrawing Income and Getting the Same Returns

Now, let's suppose that—instead of the above scenario—you retired in 1996. You invested $100,000 in the S&P 500 Index, and you withdrew $6,000 at the end of each year. Over the 10 years, you received $60,000 of income, and you would have $162,548 of the principal left.

Add those two up, and you get $222,548. Again, you earned over a 9% rate of return.

Tip

Check out six guidelines you can use to help adjust your withdrawals in retirement.

How Sequence Risk Is Similar to Dollar-Cost Averaging in Reverse

Sequence-of-returns risk is somewhat the opposite of dollar-cost averaging. With dollar-cost averaging, you invest regularly and buy more shares when investments are down. In this case, a negative sequence-of-returns early on works to your benefit as you buy more shares.

When you're taking income, you're selling regularly—not buying. You need to have a plan in place to make sure you aren’t forced to sell too many shares when investments are down.

Protecting Yourself from Sequence Risk

Because of sequence risk, plugging a simple rate of return into an online retirement-planning tool isn't an effective way to plan. That would assume you earn the same return each year, but portfolios don't work that way.

In two situations, you may invest in exactly the same way—and during one 20-year period, you might earn returns of 10% or more. In a different 20-year time period, you might earn only 4% returns. 

Average returns don't work, either. Half the time, returns will be below average. Most people don't want a retirement plan that only works half the time.

A better option than using averages is to use a lower return in your planning; something that reflects some of the worst decades in the past. That way, if you get a bad sequence—a bad economy—you've already planned for it.

You could also create a laddered bond portfolio so that each year a bond matures to meet your cash flow needs, you would cover the first five to ten years' worth of cash flow needed.

Note

In this way, the rest of your portfolio can be in equities. Since this equity portion is, in essence, still in the accumulation phase, you can choose to harvest gains from it to buy more bonds in years during or after strong stock market returns.

The best thing you can do is understand that all choices involve a trade-off between risk and return. Develop a retirement income plan, follow a time-tested disciplined approach, and plan on being flexible.