How the Sequence of Portfolio Returns Could Impact Your Retirement


A look at how variable rates of return do (and do not) impact investors over time.

What exactly is the “sequence of returns”?

The phrase simply describes the yearly variation in an investment portfolio’s rate of return. Across 20 or 30 years of saving and investing for the future, what kind of impact do these deviations from the average return have on a portfolio’s final value?

The answer: no impact at all.

Once an investor retires, however, these ups and downs can have a major effect on portfolio value – and retirement income.

During the accumulation phase, the sequence of returns is ultimately inconsequential.

Yearly returns may vary greatly or minimally; in the end, the variance from the mean hardly matters. (Think of “the end” as the moment the investor retires: the time when the emphasis on accumulating assets gives way to the need to withdraw assets.)

An analysis from BlackRock bears this out. The asset manager compares three model investing scenarios: three investors start portfolios with lump sums of $1 million, and each of the three portfolios averages a 7% annual return across 25 years. In two of these scenarios, annual returns vary from -7% to +22%. In the third scenario, the return is simply 7% every year. In all three scenarios, each investor accumulates $5,434,372 after 25 years – because the average annual return is 7% in each case. (1)

Here is another way to look at it.

The average annual return of your portfolio is dynamic; it changes, year-to-year. You have no idea what the average annual return of your portfolio will be when “it is all said and done,” just like a baseball player has no idea what his lifetime batting average will be four seasons into a 13-year playing career. As you save and invest, the sequence of annual portfolio returns influences your average yearly return, but the deviations from the mean will not impact the portfolio’s final value. It will be what it will be. (1)

When you shift from asset accumulation to asset distribution, the story changes.

You must try to protect your invested assets against sequence of returns risk.

This is the risk of your retirement coinciding with a bear market (or something close).

Even if your portfolio performs well across the duration of your retirement, a bad year or two at the beginning could heighten concerns about outliving your money.

For a classic illustration of the damage done by sequence of returns risk, consider the awful 2007-2009 bear market. Picture a couple at the start of 2008 with a $1 million portfolio, held 60% in equities and 40% in fixed-income investments. They arrange to retire at the end of the year. This will prove a costly decision. The bond market (in shorthand, the S&P U.S. Aggregate Bond Index) gains 5.7% in 2008, but the stock market (in shorthand, the S&P 500) dives 37.0%. As a result, their $1 million portfolio declines to $800,800 in just one year. (2)

If you are about to retire, do not dismiss this risk.

If you are far from retirement, keep saving and investing knowing that the sequence of returns will have its greatest implications as you make your retirement transition.


▲ Sequence of return risk – saving for and spending in retirement

Poor returns have the biggest impact on outcomes when wealth is greatest. Using the three sequence of return scenarios – Great start/bad end in blue, steadily average in grey and bad start/great end in green – this chart shows outcomes assuming someone is saving for retirement in the top chart and spending in retirement in the bottom chart.

  • The top chart assumes that someone starts with $0 and begins saving $10,000 per year. In the early years of saving, the return experience makes very little difference across sequence of return scenarios. The most powerful impact to the portfolio’s value is the savings behavior. However, the sequence of return experienced at the end of the savings timeframe when wealth is greatest produces very different outcomes.
  • The bottom chart shows the impact of withdrawals from a portfolio to fund a retirement lifestyle. If returns are poor early in retirement, the portfolio is what we call ‘ravaged’ because more shares are sold at lower prices thereby exacerbating the poor returns that the portfolio is experiencing. This results in the portfolio being depleted in 23 years – or 7 years before the 30 year planning horizon. If, instead, a great start occurs the beginning of retirement and the same spending is assumed, the portfolio value is estimated to be $1.7M after 30 years.

The key takeaway to understand is how important it is to have the right level of risk prior to as well as just after retirement because that is when you may have the most wealth at risk. You should consider to mitigate sequence of return risk through diversification, investments that use options strategies for defensive purposes or annuities that offer principal protection or protected income.



This material was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc., and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. This information has been derived from sources believed to be accurate. Please note – investing involves risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. This is neither a solicitation nor recommendation to purchase or sell any investment or insurance product or service, and should not be relied upon as such. All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.

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