My name is Mark Goodfield. Welcome to The Blunt Bean Counter ™, a blog that shares my thoughts on income taxes, finance and the psychology of money. I am a Chartered Professional Accountant. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humour/sarcasm. You've been warned. Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation or law.

Monday, March 22, 2021

How much do you need to retire in Canada? (Part 4)

In the first three parts of this series, the focus was on the safe-withdrawal rate for retirement. Today, in the final installment of this series, I revisit factors I discussed in my 2014 retirement series that can impact both the funding of your retirement nest egg and your withdrawal rate in retirement. The randomness and unpredictability of these factors can derail even the most detailed retirement plans.

How long am I going to live?

In Canada, depending upon which study you utilize, the average male will now live to approximately 80 years old and the average female to around 84 years old. There is also around a 50% chance that one spouse will live to age 90 if both are alive at 65 years old and a 20% chance one spouse will reach 95, again depending upon which study you review. These numbers are not intended to provide absolute actuarial accuracy but to reflect your planning needs. Bottom line: There is a good chance one spouse will still be alive at 95 years old.

The fact that we don’t know how long we’ll live creates the ultimate dilemma of retirement: do you scrimp in the early years of retirement, when you are likely healthier and full of energy, to ensure you have money to support yourself if you live longer than average?

I have seen far too many people die without spending their nest egg and enjoying their retirement (and as the Michael Kitces studies noted earlier in this series reflect, most people’s nest eggs seem to last longer than expected). I am in the camp that values those early retirement years, without being reckless about saving. Based on the studies, I would consider erring slightly on the side of early-retirement spending.

Interest Rates

We have been in an unprecedentedly low-interest environment for many years, and it’s now been exacerbated by COVID. This has weakened the benefit of GICs, term deposits and similar investments to fund and keep funding retirement. Bonds have been a bit of a buffer, but if rates turn upward, bonds may not provide the backstop they have over the last few years.

There is no consensus answer for this issue. Many investment advisors are suggesting a higher allocation to equities, but this involves far more risk than many people are willing to assume. So, this is a current-day quandary that has no clear answer.


In addition to being in a low-interest rate environment, we have also been in a period of low inflation. Post-pandemic, it is unclear if inflation will rear its ugly head again, but a strong recovery could be problematic. An economic environment of low market returns and high inflation can severely impact the funds you accumulate to fund your retirement and the real returns you achieve in retirement.

Sequence of returns risk

Sequence-of-returns risk for purposes of retirement planning refers to the random order in which investment returns occur and the impact of those random returns on people who are in retirement. In plain English, it relates to whether you are the unlucky person that retires into a bear market or the lucky person who retires into a bull market. This is important because if your returns are poor early on, your retirement nest egg will not last as long as someone who had good returns early in retirement.

The sequence of returns phenomenon is illustrated very clearly on page 7 of this report by Moshe Milevsky and by W. Van Harlow of Fidelity Research Institute. In this example, two portfolios have the same return over 21 years but in inverse order. The portfolio with the positive returns initially ends up worth $447,225 in year 13, while the portfolio with the negative returns was depleted in year 13.

If you are looking for solace about retiring at a market peak, read this blog I posted in 2019. There I discuss an article by Norman Rothery on the sustainability of the 4% rule even when you start your retirement in a poor market.

Michael Kitces, whom I referenced in my blog post a couple weeks ago, has also written extensively on the sequence of return phenomenon. As noted in the prior posts in this series, Mr. Kitces has used the worst years in history as his floor for the 4% rule, and the rule held up. Here are a few helpful links on his sequence of returns articles:

Can you solve for the sequence of returns?

Finally, Mr. Kitces and Wade Pfau, whom I noted in Part 2 of the series, both seem to agree that people can reduce the impact of sequence of returns near to or early in retirement by using something called a rising equity glidepath in retirement.

This strategy has you starting retirement with a lower equity component in your portfolio—30%, for example—and increasing it throughout retirement to, say 65% or 70%. The advice is counterintuitive, since consensus advice has always been to reduce equity as we age. But as Mr. Kitces and Mr. Pfau point out here and here (at the 6:12 mark), the glidepath actually reduces losses in your nest egg when you most need it (at the beginning of your retirement) and allows for recovery in later years as your equity increases. You may lessen your child’s inheritance, but you may protect yours.

I am not saying yeah or nay on the glidepath alternative but rather providing you with some alternative thoughts.

Your principal residence

While most of us would love to ignore the value of our home for purposes of our retirement planning, the reality is that for most Canadians, our homes will in small or large part fund our retirements. For some, their home will just backstop any retirement shortfall; for many, their retirement funding includes at least the incremental capital benefit of downsizing their home; and for most, retirement can only be fully funded by selling their home at some point in their retirement.

Parenthetically, the same applies to business owners, who often consider selling the business to support their retirement plans. Business owners do need to add several factors when planning their retirement.

The scary thing about relying upon your home is that its reliability for retirement funding depends on a key variable: its value upon sale (and continued tax-exempt status).

What will my house be worth?

Over the last 10 years, house prices have skyrocketed in most Canadian cities. The million-dollar question is whether these increases in value will continue. Interest rates may increase. Government policy may change. And baby boomer sellers may eventually outnumber younger buyers.

What can I do?

Almost all the factors discussed in this post are impossible to plan for. However, you can adapt and compensate in two ways.

Work Longer

While the old retirement ideal was to sit back and sip cocktails in retirement, many now believe in finding part-time work during the victory lap period of life—or even full-time work doing something you enjoy that pays less. People often say it makes them feel more alive and keeps them mentally sharp, while providing the added benefit of not dipping into their capital. Remembering this may provide comfort if you need to work after you retire to account for the factors above.

Reduce your yearly withdrawal rate

Although possibly challenging, if your nest egg takes a hit due to any of the above factors, you can reduce your yearly withdrawal rate from, say, 4% to 3%, by some dollar value, or the future inflation withdrawal rate as suggested earlier in the series. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but you may need to forgo some short-term plans, perhaps travel for a year or two. As we learned this year, we can all adapt far better than we ever thought if we absolutely need to.

Life is hard enough to plan when things are status quo. It really gets challenging when random economic factors impact your life or retirement planning. The best we can do is recognize these factors exist and adapt and adjust when they arrive.

The content on this blog has been carefully prepared, but it has been written in general terms and should be seen as broad guidance only. The blog cannot be relied upon to cover specific situations and you should not act, or refrain from acting, upon the information contained therein without obtaining specific professional advice. Please contact BDO Canada LLP to discuss these matters in the context of your particular circumstances. BDO Canada LLP, its partners, employees and agents do not accept or assume any liability or duty of care for any loss arising from any action taken or not taken by anyone in reliance on the information on this blog or for any decision based on it.

Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation.

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