Imagine going for a weekend upstate New York. You rent a car, load your destination into your phone’s GPS. It lets you know that you have about a two-hour journey ahead of you, and it suggests that you take the highway.
About an hour and a half into your drive, your GPS notices that there is an accident on the highway up ahead. It knows that it will slow you down, so it reacts by advising you to take a different route, using back roads, in order to get to your destination as quickly as possible. Because of the accident, it’s going to take a bit longer (not much—just 20 minutes or so)—but you’re back on track.
This example is very similar to Betterment’s goal-based advice; just as the GPS recommends the best route to take to reach your destination, we recommend the smart path to take to reach your financial goals. And just as the GPS updates its recommended route based on road conditions and accidents, we update our advice based on various circumstances, such as a shorter time horizon as you approach your target date, or a market downturn.
Because our advice is constantly taking these factors into account, you’re always taking on the right level of risk and saving the right amount (if you’re following our advice). Historical data suggests that customers who follow our advice will stay on track to reach their goals, even in a market downturn as bad as the 2008 crisis.
How Our Advice Works
At the beginning of your journey with Betterment, we’ll recommend your starting risk level. We’ve chosen this risk by considering what stock allocation would be appropriate in a bad-market scenario. That means that even in a worse-than-expected market, you’ll be taking on the right level of risk for the goal you want to achieve, and you’ll be set up to ultimately reach your goal.
Second, we’ll estimate how much you need to save, and adjust that not for average returns, but, to be conservative, slightly below-average returns (the 40th percentile, if you’re being precise). So we’ve built in some degrees of conservatism from the outset.
From that point, you’re on your way but not on your own. As you get closer to your goal, making your time horizon shorter, we’ll update our advice for your recommended risk level and suggested monthly savings amount.
While you might experience interim losses or market drops before your goal’s target date, subsequent positive returns are likely to offset them. Close to your target date, your portfolio will be designed to take on less risk, as you will have less time to recover. As a result, you won’t take on significant goal risk, which is the chance you’ll miss your goal by a large amount of money or time.
In the case of a really big market drop, we might advise you to do something about it, such as make a deposit, which will help keep your goal on track. But if it’s early on in a long-term goal, it’s unlikely you’ll need to change anything significantly, because you still have a lot of saving to do.
Historical Performance of Our Advice
To see how this advice plays out, let’s review a scenario that many people worry about: a goal that has two pretty unpleasant market drawdowns over its term.
We’ll use a hypothetical investor who opens a Betterment Major Purchase goal with $100,000 on Jan. 1, 2000. The goal has a target date of March 2009, and a target balance of $150,000. We’re using a Major Purchase goal because the investor intends to completely liquidate that goal at the target date (as opposed to a Retirement goal that wouldn’t be liquidated all at once).
This time period (January 2000 to March 2009) was one of the worst times to invest. The investor would have had to contend with both a market drop from 2000 to 2004, and the fact that the market would have dropped right at the end of her investing period, in 2008-09.
Recommended Asset Allocation
Because this was a Major Purchase goal (where the funds are liquidated at the target date), Betterment would have recommended a high stock allocation early on, but decreased that significantly as the goal date approached. When the goal has roughly one year left, our advice would have been to have 27% stocks, with 18% of the portfolio in cash. The graph below depicts our allocation advice over the term of the goal.
Recommended Asset Allocation, 2000-2009
Portfolio Weight in Stocks and Bonds as the Investor Nears Goal
Below we show the cumulative returns of the portfolio. This investor would have seen two large drawdowns over her investing period, in 2001 and 2008.
Compared with keeping the initial allocation, the allocation takes on less risk over time. This means it goes down slower when markets fall, but also up slower when they rally. Over this period, the investor would have seen a cumulative return of 28.6%, which averages out to 2.7% per year. Even in a pretty unlucky environment, still positive returns.
Growth of First $1 Invested, 2000-2009
At the very end it avoids the crash a bit, not because we saw it coming, but because it wasn’t appropriate to take on lots of risk so close to the goal date. Note that the portfolio still experienced drawdowns along the way, in fact, for most of the first three years. Would you have stuck with Betterment through that period?
In the beginning, it seems possible the investor would hit her target with no savings, given the $100,000 starting balance. Of course, we realize markets rarely deliver average returns: It bounces up and down around the average. Early on in this goal, market returns are below average (global stock markets measured by the ACWI ETF dropped nearly 50%), and so the probability of achieving her goal dips below 50%.
Probability of Success, 2000-2009
This causes our advice to change: Our response is to do the one thing that’s guaranteed to improve the investor’s odds—increase her monthly savings amount. Starting in late 2001 (during the crash) through mid-2003, we’d recommend an increasing savings amount—up to $250 a month. At that point, the market starts increasing rapidly.
Recommended Monthly Savings Amount, 2000-2009
Rather than reduce savings, we view this as a chance to increase the probability of the investor achieving her goal.
Results: Portfolio Value
But, here is the key graph—the portfolio value. In this case, the investor was aiming for a final value of $150,000. As you can see, even with savings, the portfolio value was flat for the first three years. That would have been a long time to stick with an investment manager, even if this was just what global markets were doing.
Starting in 2003, the stock market takes off, and the combination of savings plus returns gets us to our goal in 2007, two years early. However, if the investor had stayed invested, she’d have experience a pretty dramatic, significant drawdown toward the end. But because Betterment was recommending decreasing risk, it’s not a big deal. And, even despite the 2008 crisis, she reaches her goal.
Portfolio Value, 2000-2009
Even better than probability of success is projected shortfall in a bad market, given the current balance and savings rate. We can see below that while the crash in 2008-09 definitely hits the balance, the expected shortfall from our goal is relatively minor.
Shortfall Amount, 2000-2009
As time time horizon reduces, and the portfolio risk reduces, we decrease the uncertainty of the outcome. The graph below depicts, for any point in time looking forward, the expected range of outcomes at the target date. The range does follow portfolio returns and savings paths, but is always decreasing at the effects of time and portfolio risk reduce.
Uncertainty Reduces Over Time, 2000-2009
A good financial advisor is always updating advice to take into account your current situation and goals. This might mean adapting to setbacks and unlucky outcomes, but being proactive about what clients need to do in order to get back on track. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll have losses in your portfolio at some point in time, so it’s critical to plan for how those setbacks impact your plan. While Betterment can’t guarantee risk-free high returns, we can guarantee we’ll always be giving you advice that’s personalized to your goals and circumstances, and completely up to date.
View all of the graphs from this article in the carousel below.
A word about backtested performance data: These results are hypothetical and past performance does not guarantee future results. The Betterment portfolio historical performance numbers are based on a backtest of the ETFs or indexes tracked by each asset class in a Betterment Taxable portfolio. All percentage returns include the Betterment fee (0.15% for $100,000 or more, charged quarterly), standard rebalancing, reinvesting dividends and the expenses of the underlying ETFs. All values are nominal. Monthly contributions are assumed to be made at the beginning of the month. Performance returns are calculated using the time-weighted rate of return methodology that ignores cash flows. We’ve updated our pricing structure since this article was published. Learn more at betterment.com/pricing.
Data and performance returns shown are for illustrative purposes only. Though we have made an effort to closely match performance results shown to that of the Betterment portfolio over time, these results are entirely the product of a model. Actual individual investor performance has and will vary depending on the time of the initial investment, amount and frequency of contributions, and intra-period allocation changes and taxes. Please see additional details at: https://www.betterment.com/returns-calculation/.
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