Many people are counting on an 8% compound interest to get them to retirement. Dave Ramsey’s book “Total Money Makeover” even claims a 12% return! Where on earth did these numbers come from? Are they at all a reasonable expectation?
What is the Long-Term Return on the S&P 500?
To start, I plotted the S&P daily opening values since 1871 (when they started tracking) and added a trendline. I choose to use a trendline to back out all of my expected returns so that all of the data within the range count towards the return. Because the odds of buying at the beginning and selling right at the end are astronomical, I think this trendline method gives a better idea of what people actually experience.
Looking at the equation of that trendline, I could conclude that the S&P 500’s annual return is 4.49%. That is a lot less than 8%.
As you can see though, we need to look a lot closer at the data to see if it actually matches in the trendline. With this zoomed out view, it is impossible to tell if the first 100 years are skewing the trendline down away from the 8% people expect. Because we are seeking the exponential return, a logarithmic graph should show us the data more clearly.
There! Now you can actually see the data. As suspected, the old data is very different from the new data. We are going to have to consider this data in pieces based on historical changes.
I’m going to walk you through several historical periods to get you adjusted to what is historically normal. If you want to just skip to the current period, be my guest and scroll down to 1995.
1871-1914: Industrializing World before the World Wars
During this exciting 38 year period where we experienced serious industrial expansion, urbanization, and erected the brand new Statue of Liberty, the annual S&P 500 return was only about 1.9% growth. Yup, definitely skewing the data down.
1914-1945: World Wars and The Great Depression
During this 31 year period the overall return was only about 1.32%: -1.1% during WW1, 2.14% between the two wars, and 4.83% during WW2. I find the cycle between the wars particularly important to look at as we are currently going through massive build ups followed by devastating crashes. The difference here is that we were still on a global gold standard so the recovery didn’t involve a boost from printed money (inflation).
1945-1971: Tense Global Cooperation
This 26 year period the US experienced several civil rights movements and the major world powers fought the cold war and indirect wars though Korea and Vietnam. This is our first period to yield high S&P 500 returns at 8.9%! Yay!
1971-1995: Goodbye Gold Standard
In my opinion, this is the most important dividing line in our financial history, the flight to fiat currency. In 1971 we got the "Nixon Shock" and the US Dollar decoupled from gold. Since 1971, the very essence of what money is has changed. All major currencies have abandoned any physical backing and floating exchange rates emerged. I don’t know that we can really count any data prior to 1971 towards identifying trends. (see fiat currency).
During this again profitable period of 24 years, the S&P 500 grew by 8.5%, but it lost some ground in the monetary policy switch and shifted to the right before resuming the growth.
1995-Present: Federal Reserve Induced Oscillation
In the piloting world, there is something called PIO, pilot induced oscillation. This is caused by a pilot pulling up, but the airplane delaying its response. The pilot’s instinct is to pull up harder, but when the plane finally starts responding, it is too hard of a pull, sending the plane towards a stall. To correct the error, he or she will quickly nose over and try to dive. Again, the delayed response of the plane intensifies the action as it convinces the pilot to keep pushing down. If the pilot doesn’t fight the instinct to recover, the rollercoster motions will increase in intensity until it suddenly stops and the plane lay in pieces on the ground.
I fear we are experiencing the same phenomenon in the financial world:
Since entering this increasing rollercoaster of crashes and bailouts and bubbles, we’ve dropped back down to, a 4.4% annual return on the S&P 500. That’s just under the all-time historic average of 4.5%, but this time we aren’t gold backed.
That 4.4% might actually be a little high. The graphed data includes 2.5 full cycles: three ups, but only two downs. The next bear market will push the trendline down.
Now I understand that I'm looking at much less data now making the numbers somewhat cherry picked. It is over 20 years though. 20 years is definitely significant in a 40 year career path. I don't really care if I can count on a 100 year return of 8%. I don't plan on working 100 years!
I can't use more data because things probably won't work out the way they did over 20 years ago. Can we really pull numbers to predict the future from before Bill Clinton and Greenspan (former Chairman of the Federal Reserve) started playing with money? I'm worried we can only really expect the 4-5% overall return until money game shifts again. When it does shift, who is to say it will be back to the 8% we got for only 50 years out of 147 or the 8% we got for only 24 of the 47 non-gold backed years?
Unfortunately, one of my hypothesis is that it will actually be a lot worse. If you recall the PIO example, it doesn’t just oscillate forever, expect a catastrophic collapse:
Dotcom boom and bust
With the excitement of the internet, new companies popped up all over and investors poured money into anything ending in “.com”. No one cared how much a company earned, only how many views they received. The Dotcom bubble had formed and the S&P 500 spent 5 years shooting up at a rate of 24.8% annualized.
Eventually, it became clear that many of these companies had failed business models and were going bust and there was a major sell off. The S&P 500 plummeted for two and a half years at a rate of -18.0%. The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates and encouraged investing.
With the slashed interest rates and incentives, it became very easy to buy a home. With the extra buying of houses, the sticker prices of the houses increased. At first, the increased price simply offset the decreased interest rate, but then people started noticing trends and got greedy. With the house prices shooting up, people started buying houses and using them as banks. Some would buy as big of a house as they could with special interest only loans. The assumption was that they would sell it in a few years for much more than they were in debt for and turn a huge profit. Others took out home equity lines of credit on the appreciation they received on the home they already owned. With this buying frenzy, prices continued to shoot up, and paper wealth abounded. The S&P 500 again shot up for 5 years, this time at an annualized rate of 11.0%. People had thought they found the secret to unlimited wealth. That is, until some people started realizing they couldn’t actually afford the payments that the bank was so willing to sign them on.
Banks began to receive house keys as people walked away from their mortgages. As the buying frenzy reversed, house prices plummeted, destroying the crazy dream of living off home appreciation and putting many families “under water” owing more than their home was worth. The S&P 500 dropped at an annualized rate of a whopping -38.5% for one and a half years. Again the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates, but this time to unprecedented levels. In the dotcom aftermath the interest rates were slashed from around 5% to 1-2%, but this time they went all the way down to 0.1% for years. In addition, the Federal Reserve bought up securities, increasing the money supply.
Again the Federal Reserve is fueling a crash by creating a “bailout bubble”. Each one getting larger than the one before. The interest rates stayed at experimentally low levels low for a full decade. For some reason, people are again thinking this can go on forever and the S&P 500 has grown at a rate of 12.1% for almost 9 years. Investors have become complacent knowing that the Fed refuses to let the market slide and will bail them out in the case of disaster. That’s what it did all through Obama’s administration, but who knows where the new Federal Reserve Chairman and Trump have their priorities: normalizing or market stability?
I worry the next crash will actually break confidence in the US Dollar. I don’t see any way the Federal Reserve can avert the oncoming crisis. I see two options:
1. They could continue to raise rates and shrink their balance sheet (sell the securities acquired after 2008). This would send the stock market into a crash and increase the price of servicing the debt to levels we can’t pay, causing countries to drop the dollar. The dollars would all find their way back home and become worthless.
2.They could reverse rhetoric and start easing to save their struggling economy, but sacrifice the dollar in inflation, also triggering countries to not want the dollar or dollar securities.
Luckily, I am not the one choosing the options. My hope is that there is a third option that those in power will come up with once they notice the cliff they are running towards.
It is hard to know what this will do to the S&P 500. The hundreds of years of data is somewhat useless since we have never had a market like the one we have today. My personal guess is it will crash, then grow but mostly due to inflation.
It all comes out in the inflation wash
If you read my explanation of what inflation really is, you understand that we are really hovering around a 5% inflation! In other words, unless the stock market starts beating its 4% growth, your gains are just adjusting your money to inflation (or pent up inflation). If you have a mixed portfolio with bonds, you're losing to inflation. By all means, that is much better than losing the full 5% to inflation, but it does make retiring a challenge.
I re-ran my retirement numbers with the following grim assumptions:
1. Any money I gain in the stock market will be negated by inflation
2. Any pay increases you gain will be negated by a higher cost of living and taxes
In effect, it is as if we just kept replaying today over and over until retirement.
The good news is with these assumptions, we expect to be millionaires in today's money before I'm 50! The bad news is my husband will have to work till he's 69 before we can retire. Luckily, I should eventually be able to help him out, so I doubt it will really be that long. The numbers are still sobering though. Even maxing out our 401K ($18,000/year) isn't necessarily going to cut it.
If you want to run your own numbers with these depressingly conservative assumptions to see what could be ahead, here's a simple and free spreadsheet.
If anyone is telling you long term rates (especially Dave Ramsey's crazy 12% expectation), ask how they derived those numbers. The data can be cropped, skewed, and made to tell anything you want. When it comes to something as important as retirement planning, you've got to do your own thinking and figure out what makes sense to you (and don't forget inflation!).
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed or certified financial coach, planner or adviser, just an enthusiast. Anything I recommend should be personally analyzed and discussed with your financial adviser.