What Is a Black Swan Event?
Financial professional-turned-writer, Naseem Nicholas Taleb, wrote the book The Black Swan after the 2008 stock market crash. He pointed out an interesting problem with statistical modeling in financial planning.
For most of history, swans were large birds known for their striking, white color. In fact, swans were considered nearly synonymous with the color white for centuries. Referring to a “black swan” meant something completely impossible or presumed not to exist. That is, until 1697, when seafaring explorers discovered black swans in the southern hemisphere of the New World.
Thinking about the discovery of black swans lead Taleb to think of an interesting logic problem—how many white swans would you have to see in order to predict the next one would be black? His answer: You wouldn’t. You didn’t even know they existed, so you would never predict one, no matter how many swans you saw.
Essentially, you don’t know what you don’t know, and so your statistical model may be missing a critical factor in calculating financial projections. You must account for unforeseen black swan events in the construction of the retirement portfolio.
The Ten Principles of Retirement Portfolio Design:
- The future is always uncertain and bad things—like fat tails and burst asset bubbles—happen when least expected, so retirees and those nearing retirement should plan to withstand the worst possible economic outcomes while positioned to participate in the hoped-for best. Retirees are therefore well-advised to focus on risk mitigation in addition to asset class diversification, choosing investment vehicles that hedge and minimize risk, especially tail risk.
- In an unfortunate turn for current retirees and those nearing retirement, our economy faces serious demographic headwinds. At the same time, tax increases and government-benefit decreases seem inevitable while life expectancy improvements mean a retirement that may last for 30 years or more.
- Markets may be extremely volatile during this period and, as in Japan over the past thirty years, entire decades may be “lost.” Between October 2007 and February 2009, for example, the S&P 500 stock index fell over 50% then almost doubled from its low through February 2011. The historical prices tracked by Yahoo Finance reveal that from 2000 through 2009 the broad market index fell over 25% (from 1,469 to 1,074), dealing buy-and-hold investors a loss of capital, time and opportunity. Buying-and-holding in roller coaster-like equity markets can result in entire decades of lost potential growth. Nor is capitulating and moving to the sidelines an adequate response: Most retirees cannot afford to miss snapback opportunities. They need to make money even in bad economic times and, especially, in secular bear markets.
- The Federal Reserve can intervene specifically to drive interest rates paid on savings as low as possible and keep them there for as long as needed. This means very low returns on bank deposits, Treasuries and investment-grade corporate bonds for the foreseeable future, driving investors to take on greater and greater risk even in fixed income instruments. But bond markets, including those for government and municipal paper, can be volatile and are not immune to significant losses. In fact, all asset prices may end dramatically lower when Fed intervention ends.
- Reflecting adverse demographic trends, slow growth and heavily indebted consumers, a “new normal” of below-average investment returns may have already set in to reduce the weighted average return on a portfolio of 60% stocks/40% bonds to levels below historical averages over the coming decade despite the potential volatility risk which, in effect, will have to be endured uncompensated. A more conservative portfolio consisting of 40% stocks/60% bonds will likely deliver even lower annual returns. In the new normal, the risk/return ratio is not likely to favor the investor, while low returns may necessitate dipping into principal.
- Research confirms that the primary risk that must be managed by retirees as they take withdrawals from their accumulated savings is “sequence” risk. Ignored at one’s peril, it reflects not the average return over a period of years, but the sequence of those returns. Some generations are lucky: they retire when share prices are low and cash out as shares rise into a market boom, so their savings can sustain a dream retirement with wealth left over. Negative returns in early withdrawal years can result in shockingly rapid asset depletion: unlucky generations cash out in such declining markets and their savings can be quickly depleted resulting in a nightmarish retirement characterized by insufficient cash flow and painful belt tightening.
- Retirement savings by definition are intended to be spent down over one’s life expectancy. They should be distinguished from legacy assets that are intended for wealth transfer to future generations. Historical studies of the past century conducted by Jim Otar have shown that from age 65, a sustainable withdrawal rate offering the highest likelihood of success in lifetime portfolio survival cannot exceed 3.6% per annum. Thus, if you are 65 and need income of $36,000 per year, adjusted for inflation to maintain purchasing power, you should have $1 million set aside to rest assured that you and your spouse won’t run out of money. Taking a higher percentage each year risks premature depletion even in good times; it can be a recipe for retirement disaster in bad.
- As advocated by Warren Buffet and other classic value investors, risk-management to achieve capital preservation is the first order of business when it comes to long-term investment success. As a corollary, Buffet-like investors deem it well worthwhile to forego some upside potential (even half or more) to increase stability of principal. This truism is even more fundamental to retirement asset management: Principal protection, stability and liquidity trump maximizing upside performance for core holdings dedicated to providing lifelong income that can grow to keep up with inflation.
- Since even bear markets rally and the most astute prognosticator may be wrong, an optimal core portfolio protects against market declines while participating in positive price movements even in extended down markets. Insulating the investor from loss obviates the need for market timing and circumvents the behavioral tendency to buy high, sell low and miss market snapbacks.
- In assembling a “core” retirement portfolio, ongoing counterparty risk must be continually evaluated and managed at the lowest possible cost to the investor. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (“S&P 500”) is an unmanaged, market capitalization weighted index of 500 widely held stocks, with dividends reinvested, and is often used as a proxy for the stock market and cannot be invested in directly. The term “black swan” refers to very low probability events that are major market shocks able to wreak investment havoc.
Equity Indexed Annuities (EIAs) are not suitable for all investors, but may provide part of the core retirement portfolio designed to help protect retirees from black swan events. EIAs permit investors to participate in only a stated percentage of an increase in an index (participation rate) and may impose a maximum annual account value percentage increase. EIAs typically do not allow for participation in dividends accumulated on the securities represented by the index. Annuities are long-term, tax-deferred investment vehicles designed for retirement purposes. Withdrawals prior to age 59-1/2 may result in an IRS penalty; surrender charges may apply. Guarantees based on the claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company.
In all cases, the retirement portfolio should be monitored and adjusted based on market conditions. Alpha measures the difference between a portfolio’s actual returns and its expected performance, given its level of risk as measured by Beta. A positive (negative) Alpha indicates the portfolio has performed better (worse) than its Beta would predict.