1) First, some thoughts on the question "what would happen if everyone lived off capital?"

If people saved, rather than spent, every dollar they earned, it would initially slow down the velocity of money. Likewise if no one ever spent savings, it would initially slow down the velocity of money. Rather than maximizing immediate consumption, people would be savers first, then very frugal consumers.

However, in both these cases the slack would be picked up in either the business sector, or the government sector, since there is now have an over supply of savers looking to invest capital. This would, of course, lower the risk, as the companies would not have to jump too high a hurdle to make interest payments. When do you think government would likewise only spend capital?

The recent financial crisis could be thought of as the opposite case where everyone thought they could leverage and overspent. This increased the risk as savers willing to lend disappeared. The money given to the flexions' banks to save them, could be thought of as printed money put in a lock box called deleveraging. Hence an increase in the quantity but a slowing of velocity of money and a risk of deflation.

2) Now for some strategies for preserving capital. The idea is to be a saver first, a consumer second.

Lets assume we invested $1,000,000 in Vanguard's index fund in April 1987. And any week we ended up with more than $1,000,000.00 we withdrew the excess. Below I list the 52 week amounts withdrawn (assuming 364 day years, 364 = 7*52). While the average $138,000 seems generous, about top 5% of earners, it would still give you many years in a row of $0 withdrawn in the 2000's. But if you think these booms and bust are systematic, then a better strategy would be to only withdraw in any one year a set amount, and save the rest for those lean $0 years. The next 2 columns shows how much you would have withdrawn if that set amount was $125000 annually. The withdrawals come from from $1 million invested in stocks excess earned, first, and then, if needed, from the amount stuffed under the mattress (not literally, of course, but previously set aside as neither consumed nor invested in stocks) . The amount invested in stock is kept at $1 million, the excess not spent in any year is mattress padding for future years.

You can see that during the bounteous years of the 1990s, you could have set aside over $1 million without compounding to cushion those upcoming lean years.

(Note: fiscal years ending in April)

Rocky Humbert writes: 

Mr. Sears' approach towards capital withdrawals is nominal, not real. So in an environment of 10% inflation and a risk free rate of 10%, he would be shrinking the real value of his corpus as he withdrew 10% on average. Conversely, in a deflationary environment, with rates at zero, he would not be consuming at all even though the corpus of his portfolio would be growing in real terms. The reality is that inflation has been averaging between 2 and 3% for the last decades and that destroys the corpus over a lifetime.

This wealth illusion associated with inflation/money printing is prevalent among both retirees and working folks. It is an insidious behavioral bias and I believe affects both consumption and economic activity. The bias is one reason that deflation is a drag on medium term growth.

Ralph Vince adds: 

I believe inevitably governments, a century or several hence, will live off of their own capital, part of a social-evolutionary process.

A structured dismantling of future liabilities (undoing the mega-Ponzi Social Security in the US, for example, in an orderly manner through generational taper with newcomers to the job market putting 100% in self-directed, those leaving the job market, 0% self-directed) and would other future liabilities to a sustainable level, and some time later, to a level of easy sustainability would allow an ultimate sinking fund of future government liabilities, eventually reaching a level of self-sustainability.

At which point, one would HOPE taxes would end, unless the Catholic Church model is employed.

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

Everyone does live off of investment (I think this is what Russ means by "capital"). The one correlation that seems dismally robust is that, in spite of all efforts to "distribute" (sic) wealth, only the ratio of private investment to people working determines how high someone's pay can go. If there is low "capital" investment, people make very little; if there is high "capital" investment, they make much more. People instinctively know this; it is the reason we all have our eyes drawn to to displays of physical grandeur and, in the days of the gold standard, bank lobbies always had marble. But, since we live in the age of alchemy (the nominal wealth illusion the R-Man notes), "income" becomes more important than savings.

Ed Stewart writes: 

Stefan doesn't it matter how savings are deployed. Savings productively deployed in a way that increases output of goods and services increases total wealth (and if such capital is up per head, wages) but not all savings are equal in this regards. Savings deployed to fund a make-work project via government debt represents consumption. I question if in general, savings used to help another party pull forward consumption on net represents consumption and not savings, just redistributing wealth from shortsighted to farsighted — if that makes sense (??).

Russ Sears writes: 

Once again my e-mail's brevity and my poor writing causes some confusion. The "mattress" strategy was meant to be humorous, not literal. Implying you have many options as to how you use the "savings" to hedge inflation. This strategy was meant to illustrate how to take equity risk while still withdrawing a decent amount for consumption. $125000 is a decent amount in today's dollars to live off, but in 1988's dollars that was very high living, perhaps near top 1%. In the example, the amount withdrawn could easily be slowly increased for inflation, with interest earned on the savings or less savings. The bigger problem I have with my own example is what do you do if you retire/need money at the start of long term $0 return to $1,000,000 capital amount. But let us go over some inflation options:

1. Put savings back into equities…I believe, (only my opinion), this may be a good option if money keeps being put into the system due to low or negative inflation and hence likely low interest rates as we currently see. But, this also leaves you more open to risk of inflation killing the equity markets or long term bear markets in general. However, looking back long term equities returns should beat inflation if next 100 years is like last 100 years.

2. Put saved money into a long term bond fund. This could handle mild inflation, as long as it stays mild.

3. Put money initially into short term fund then as inflation gets "high" switch over to long term bond fund as inflation kicks up. But this leads to when is inflation "high" (10% seems to be Rocky's boggy). Perhaps the answer is when it starts killing equities returns because the market is worried about it. Then if you think this is the case start putting "more" of the savings into long term funds. You'll have to decide what "more" speed is and if inflation is "the cause" for poor equity returns.

4. A combination strategy.

How to invest for inflation is a tough subject which such a simple "living off capital" strategy was not meant to answer. I hope the above shows sufficiently that a disciple approach to withdrawals. even if adjust for some inflation is better than simply going with the wealth effect and spending as earned from equities. But in the end you are going to have to decide for yourself, what you think inflation will do and when it will do it. And then execute it. But at least a disciplined approach to withdrawals give you much more flexibility and with it a chance to meet this challenge.

Finally the reason "capital" was chosen instead of "investment" was to signify an investment that is somewhat dependent on a stable "monetary" base for entry and exit. As opposed to a more direct investment in human capital or even property which may out last a government and may more likely be inverse related to inflation.





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1 Comment so far

  1. jeff watson on April 9, 2014 10:36 am

    It’s real easy, don’t ever tap into the principal. I was taught that in 3rd grade.


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