Hedging Your FI Equities Portfolio

Hedging Your FI Equities Portfolio

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I might make a small commission at no additional cost to you.

The biggest risk of your portfolio not lasting your retirement timeline is if the stock market plunges within the 8 years that you retire, which is better known as sequence of returns risk. This is because historically, when a recession or depression happens, it means a huge market dip that doesn’t rebound fully for a few years.

So, for anyone who has worked in finance, the first solution you think of is pretty simple. Why not just buy puts on the equites portion of your portfolio? A put is an option where you have the option to sell a security at a certain price on or before an expiry date. When you buy a put, you make money on your put when the current security’s market price is below at the price you picked. The price you picked is called the strike price. Since you’re worried about the stock market going down, buying SP500 puts is a great way to hedge against market downturn risk.

While the market is dumping, odds are that your bonds will increase in price due to the Fed lowering interest rates, as they do in times of economic stress, so no hedge needed for bonds. In our case, the bonds you own are treasuries backed by the US government, not municipal or corporate bonds, which would probably not do very well as corporates correlate more with stocks than interest rates and munis can declare bankruptcy (see Puerto Rico and Detroit, amongst others).

SP500 options (SPY) are exercisable anytime before the option expires. They are American-style exercise.

Why is this ideal? If you buy puts and the market dumps 50 percent in a recession, you’ll still have your “starting FI number” because you hedged against a market downturn by buying puts on the SP500. Another way of thinking about puts is buying insurance on a house. Let’s say the house is flooded or burned and only worth half the amount. The insurance company will compensate you to the prior agreed upon price when you signed the insurance contract. You are made whole, just as you would have been in the case of buying puts.

Michael Kitces, click on the photo to go to his page.

Early Retirement Now did an incredibly thorough series on the SWR and found that sequence of returns is 2 times as important as average returns. Michael Kitces found that the correlation between the SWR and real return rates peak in year 9 and goes down from there. The correlation between year 6 and 9 only increases from .7 to .82 though, so to me it’s not worth it to buy extra puts for years 6-9. Since the longest time period SPY puts are offered for is 3 years, it’s not really worth it for me to buy more than 2 different contracts. Once in year 0, and once in year 3.

To see the prices for puts on the SP500, you need to look at the option chain for SPY. You can do it on this webpage, or any webpage that shows the SPY option chain. Each option contract is 100 units of SPY. So for this screenshot, each contract you buy is worth $27,788 since unit of SPY is worth $277.88. For most people with FI numbers less than $1M, you’d need to buy ~36 contracts at this current price. You would need to buy the contract at the “ask” price — that is the price someone is willing to sell to you at. In this case, buying a put that expires Dec 18, 2020, with a strike price of 280 would cost you $29.99 per unit of SP500. The cost to buy the contract would be $2999. A simple way to think about it would be that this insurance will cost you 10 percent over the course of 3 years. 3 percent a year for equities insurance isn’t terrible if you only need to buy it for a few years to fend off a market downturn.

Potential Risks & Downside

The options exchange (CBOE and CME) go out of business. Likelihood: Extremely extremely unlikely. The CBOE and CME have a member based clearing structure. The biggest banks have “bought” into the clearinghouse by putting up a lot of capital in case one of its members fails. Even before that the seller of the contract ponies up margin each day whenever the price of the option moves in your favor. Even after all those safeguards, I believe the US government would let a bank fail before an exchange or clearinghouse. Since there are so few large exchanges for derivatives (3, by my count), I highly highly highly doubt that the government would ever let that happen.  There are about 10 large banks, so letting a few fail isn’t the worst thing (I know it was bad, but it could’ve absolutely been so much worse). If that happened, there would be catastrophic consequences for any derivative markets and just financial markets in general.

You’ve spent a 10 percent premium on your put option. 3 percent insurance per year to protect your equities is not atrocious in my opinion. You would also miss out on the returns for the premium that you just paid. On the bright side, you’re now enjoying a “loss” on the premium you paid in year 3 if it expires worthless. If the market has appreciated considerably, congrats! You get to net that against your gains for the year and carry the rest of the loss forward. You can carry losses up to $3k per year until you run out of losses. If the market has gained in the last year of your option, it might be worth it to net it against your gains if you’re in a 15-20% LTCG bracket.

Portfolio Allocation

For simplicity, we’ll take the 75/25 split the Trinity study recommends for stocks and bonds. You’re only paying the premium on the stock portion of your portfolio, not the entire thing. So the premium on your current FI number is 7.5 percent.

Looking at the market returns for the SP500 and just even eyeballing, the market has dumped no more than 50 percent over a period of 1-3 years. There aren’t any flat years (less than 2 percent gains) in a row, and the market has only actually had 4 periods where there was more than 1 down year in a row. There are 14 periods, with much longer streaks where the market has been up consecutively.

Seeking Alpha

I’m not saying there couldn’t be a down period that is a decade long. There absolutely could be. Anything is possible. But if you read my post on why the SP500 is not the Nikkei, you can see why I don’t think the US market would have more than 2-3 down years in a row at most.

Will I enact this scenario prior to my retirement? It depends on when the market finally takes a nose dive. I don’t plan on being financially independent for another 5-10 years. If the market dives before my retirement years, then I probably wouldn’t buy put options. If it still hasn’t taken a dump 2 years prior to my retirement, then I would highly consider it. If it still hasn’t by the time I’m financially independent in 5-10 years? Absolutely.

What are some strategies you’ve considered for sequence of returns risk? Is anyone planning on employing some kind of strategy right before they become FI?

Portions of this may be unclear, so if you have any questions please feel free to ask. Some of these concepts might need a longer blog post, so please let me know and I can revise on it for the future :).

*I’m not guaranteeing the strategy will work nor is this a recommendation. It is simply my opinion. Please read the legal disclaimer in the “about” section.


Author: Olivia

Olivia worked in finance and wants you to learn the secrets of financial independence. She believes there are so many ways to monetize your life and make money doing the things you're already doing because so many companies offer free money.

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12 thoughts on “Hedging Your FI Equities Portfolio

  1. I have never heard of puts – Just shows how ignorant I am. However, I think 10% is a huge amount to pay. I don’t know – just my opinion.

    To have 1,000,000 to live off later, I will need to buy puts for the years 4-6 (100,000) plus for years 1-3 (110,000) – I will have to make 1,210,000 instead of making $1,000,000. That is 21 % extra.

    Instead, if I just made 1,210,000 and withdrew 40,000 a year (4% of the 1,000,000 that i would have after the puts), my withdrawal rate is around 3.3%, which is almost assuredly safe.

    Isn’t that better than definitely spending 210,000 dollars?

    1. Thanks for the comment! This shows I didn’t explain the sequence portion correctly and I’ll go back and fix that this weekend. The main point here is that the market will move during the period you have puts. You don’t have to save an extra 20 percent. You can just save 1M. You can only buy a three year long put at a time. Ie, the expiry only goes out to that date. You can’t buy a year 4-6 put in the first year, only when your first put expires.

      So the point of the sequence picture/info above is to say that the market’s ratio of down to up years is incredibly low. Since we’re at the cusp of a market downturn *sometime* in the next decade at least, it’s worth it to spend the premium insuring your portfolio. If the market experiences a downturn BEFORE I retire in a decade, I would highly reconsider this strategy. It’s only if we’re in a historically long positive market streak that I would consider the scenario (ie, right now we’re in a 9 year positive streak, which is at the extreme in terms of market streaks)

      Assumption: You stop saving at 1M. The cost of the premium comes from the portfolio.

      There’s two similar cases in my opinion:

      Case 1: Bull market, you spend your 10% premium once, and the market crashes within the first three years. You’re made whole and your portfolio goes one to increase in the rebound.

      Case 2: Bull market for 1st three years, so you end up with more than 1M at the end of your three year period even with the cost of the premium. You buy insurance for the next period (4-6). Either it continues to be a bull market or the market experiences a downturn. If it’s a bull market, then at this point your portfolio is nearly double your starting FI number now. If the market takes a downturn in years 3-6, you’ll still have nearly 50 percent more in your portfolio that you started with.

      Then there’s case 3, in which the market does experience a market downturn before you retire. In that scenario, I would reconsider this scenario.

      Does this above make more sense? I’ll add in some numbers this weekend to make it more concrete.

      1. Got it, Thanks!

        What I am worried about most is, it not changing much for a while. Like it happened in the 1960s?

        Our plan is to keep making some extra income for the first decade so that we don’t withdraw 4%. If we withdraw something like 2% for ten years, may be it will grow some. And then when we withdraw what was 4% of the original ( plus inflation), it would be less than 4%. What are your thoughts?

        1. There were a few dips in the 1960s, but overall it was something like 1 slight down year followed by 3 years of up years. So in that case, you’d still end up with more capital at the expiry of your puts.

          I think that 2 percent plan is probably really really solid (though I haven’t run the numbers). Even if the market drops 50 percent in the first year, I can’t see it going that wrong. I think cfiresim.com actually encompasses the test case you’re thinking of. http://www.cfiresim.com/ So you can run the numbers there to see if it works!

  2. We’ve kept a few years of cash on the sidelines going into retirement. We also went very conservative on our stock to bond ratio (40/60) due to sequence of return risk. We fear eroding our nest egg during the first few years. We’re missing out on some gains, but luckily we’ve made up for it with our single lithium stock (not something I recommend).

    I could read about puts until the end of my days and still find the process too tedious.

    FYI, I’m happy to see you discuss Kitces. He’s tops.

    1. That’s great! That’s my biggest fear too. This past weekend though, has made me reconsider all this research into SWR. I’m only in the midpoint of my FIRE journey, so no need for too much pressure on myself to get the end correctly! If I give myself enough time, I’m sure I’ll discover other bloggers have already done the research I’m considering doing or do more research spread out over a few years instead of right now! That correlation with years since retirement by Kitces was incredible, look cool research! LOL. Hey, you have to have some excitement with investing if you like it :). As long as you are good on capital!

      Give it a bit :). Maybe one day it will wear on you haha. Options are not bad!

      Kitces is so cool! Any other recommendations? I only accidentally discovered him when I was trying to find some random info on SWR.

  3. Thought about replying on Twitter, but came here to make sure I had the entire picture.

    Counterparty risk worries me -> even though yes, buying puts on the cboe or cme should be relatively riskless (with respect to counterparty risk), if things get too ugly, both sides of your bet are toast.

    Academically, it makes sense, and I’m looking forward to your post on why the s&p isn’t the Nikkei. I understand the optimism, but as someone in finance, id ask you still keep in mind past performance doesn’t guarantee future performance and also history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself but it does rhyme.

    I’m seeing weakness is many many spots and honestly, I do see a 10-20 year recovery. It hurts as a personal finance blogger.

    Great article, and I can tell you put a lot of research in for this one.

    1. Very true! I’m sure pre-2008 no one really thought posting counterparty collateral to a singular bank would cause issues. Too big to fail! Fun.

      I write about the Nikkei here: https://www.birdsofafire.com/nikkei-65-percent-historical-high-1989-sp500/
      I probably should update that post with a link!

      Yeah, past performance doesn’t guarantee, but we have to start somewhere! It is hard to predict, with all the QE a few years ago that was sloshing around, you’d think we would’ve been in a downturn by now, but haven’t yet. Is it possibly due to the increase of money being invested in the market due to robo-advisors? Maybe the next recession will cause brick and mortar stores to fail, paving the way for more online ventures. For me, that would be good, as my nest egg isn’t near the end, and any future dollars put in it will increase more rapidly. For others though, it’s going to be a scary time and that’s unfortunate.

      Thanks Erik! I appreciate it :).

  4. Why not ladder your puts over more periods to DCA yourself and also realize losses quicker in an uptrend market-more of a pita to implement I guess? Also, buying ATM puts is expensive. Why not buy OTM puts at levels where you begin to jeopardize your FI. Maybe that’s a 15% or 20% drawdown or greater. Will be much more cost effective and if you can’t handle a drop like 20% day one in retirement then you’re not ready to retire or maybe in the wrong portfolio to stomach for the long term. Just my .02. BTW, I like the post/site. People run away from these things because it sounds hard to implement but lots of research supports this as a viable solution especially if bonds are entering a less Attractive period over the long term.

    1. Hey Kevin! I’ve written those ideas down for the next time I take a stab at a FI hedge. Good thing I have 5 years before I have to make a cost haha. All good points, and I’ll have to build a better model to see how the numbers turn up. I’m not sure buying slightly cheaper options OTM would save that much if I’m lowering my strike to 90% of my FI portfolio. I’d have to see how much I could lower the strike and still breakeven on average based on historical returns.

      As for DCA options… yes, it will be cheaper to buy puts ATM of the original strike if the market continues to trend up, but I’m trying to limit downside and decrease sequence of returns risk.

      Open to any ideas that are cheaper and that will still limit sequence of returns risk though :). I don’t think portfolio hedges are discussed often on the blogs I follow, so would love to hear about it!

  5. Dang Olivia….this is really good stuff. I’m 15yrs into finance and a pretty big early retirement nerd and hadn’t thought about a total stock market or SPY put option. I may need to play around with this insurance strategy in the very near future, especially when I’m planning on retiring early next year and over 90% of my net worth are market sensitive. If it weren’t for the risks of rising interest rates, I’d just beef up a bond allocation (stagflation can wreck that too). I love REITs, but not enough history to show how they perform in a non-real estate driven recession.

    Keep up the good work

    1. Thanks Mr. Shirts! Definitely a lot of other things to test as you can see from the comments. But I’ve got a few years until FIRE so can definitely work on the research in the meantime. Maybe every few months I’ll run some kind of new iteration on SWR or another hedging idea. Always open to thoughts:).

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