Dave Ramsey has added further evidence to the pile already in place attesting to how bad we are generally at math and probability. Sadly, he’s no better than the mass of us.
Let me hasten to emphasize up-front that Dave has done some fabulous work by helping many, many people to get out of debt, stay out of debt, budget effectively, live frugally and save aggressively. But when it comes to investing and to doing math, he is simply out of his depth. Let’s start with the backstory.
Ramsey is an author, radio talk show host, television personality, and motivational speaker. Most prominently, Ramsey’s syndicated radio program is heard on more than 500 radio stations throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in podcast format and on SiriusXM satellite radio. As he tells it, his burgeoning real estate business failed on account of excess debt. But he was able to fix his problems and, along the way, learned a number of lessons about money and himself. Ramsey formed his company in 1992, in his words, “to counsel folks hurting from the results of financial stress.” That led to books, media and the rest of his overwhelming success.
So far, so good. But there’s more.
There are any number of problems with various aspects of the investment advice Dave offers. Ramsey has repeatedly suggested that investors should expect returns of 12 percent annually, adjusted for inflation and should be able safely to withdraw 8 percent annually during retirement to provide needed income. For example, page xv of his book, Total Money Makeover, claims that “I…dare to state that you should make 12 percent on your money over time” (more here) and bases that conclusion on historical returns for the S&P 500 (the S&P has averaged 11.82 percent return annually from 1926 through the end of 2012). Ramsey also recommends a portfolio without bonds. Those expectations and recommendations are unrealistic as well as dangerous, as many have shown (see here, for example). Moreover, Ramsey only recommends (specific) commission-based brokers he has partnered with and mutual fund A-shares, presumably because fiduciaries would be required to disclose that Ramsey receives payment from them for soliciting clients on their behalf.
Ramsey has gotten a good deal of (mostly deserved) criticism recently from the financial planning community (see here and here, for example). I will focus today on the 12 percent claim. In response to the criticism, Dave invited Brian Stoffel, the author of a critical piece at The Motley Fool, to be a guest on his show yesterday to try to ameliorate the damage. Ramsey says that Stoffel, like The New York Times, simply doesn’t understand. According to Dave, the crux of the problem is “financial nerds” who “analyze and ‘analize'” (the last word in the quoted section is rendered by Ramsey as “aay-nal-ize“) but “don’t do their homework.” Once again, Ramsey’s defense is that folks are simply out to get the “big dog” Dave Ramsey (“trashing someone with a bigger brand” as he said on the show yesterday). You can listen to this segment of the show here (the relevant portion begins about 10:30 in).
Ramsey attacks Stoffel’s use of the 12 percent return assumption because his primary focus is how much people should save (Ramsey says at least 15 percent) and notes that if people had saved that amount over the long haul and invested in the growth-oriented mutual funds he recommends, they would have done quite well. But that, quite obviously, ducks the question. Those who saved and invested 15 percent of income over 20 years would indeed have helped themselves tremendously. But it doesn’t make the 12 percent claim accurate and doesn’t justify its use. It takes some understanding of basic math to understand why.
Ramsey keeps emphasizing an average annual return of 12 percent, based upon the average annual return of 11.82 percent for the S&P 500 from 1926 through the end of 2012. That isn’t a reasonable expectation during a secular bear market, but that is beside the point. When Dave uses that number (as in the tweet shown above, where he plugs 12 percent into a 40-year savings plan of $100 per month purportedly to realize $1,176,000), he uses it as if it were an annualized return. The actual annualized return of the S&P 500 over that same period is not 12 percent or even 11.82 percent. It is 9.786 percent. And when we adjust for inflation, the actual number is roughly 6.61 percent.
To his credit, as he promised on the show, Ramsey has now corrected his website such that a 12 percent return adjusted for inflation is no longer posited. But the real number is still 9.786 percent and that’s still a looooong ways from 12 percent.
Instead of expecting $1,176,000 after 40 years, as Ramsey’s tweet suggests, a real life investor earning market returns would have roughly $600,000. That amount is nothing to sneeze at, surely, but to notice the difference between $600,000 and over $1.1 million is hardly the “hair-splitting” that Ramsey claims. Why the discrepancy?
Market returns aren’t ongoing and consistent, which changes the mathematical results tremendously. For example (as Stoffel’s article points out), $1,000 invested in a year with 100 percent return will turn into $2,000. But a 50 percent loss the next year puts the investor back to square one — $1,000 — even though the average annual return over those two years is 25 percent. The average annual return is 25 percent but the annualized return is zero, zip, nada.
During the broadcast, Ramsey claims that the 12 percent assumption was merely a “teaching illustration” and “an example to inspire people.” I suppose it’s possible that such was his intent. But when he uses that example (even to inspire people), he uses the numbers erroneously and to dangerous effect. (And, by the way, an 8 percent retirement withdrawal rate is crazy dangerous — so is a retirement portfolio 100 percent invested in equities — but beyond the scope of this article).
On the show, Dave uses an example of an average American family earning $48,000 and saving $7,200 (15 percent) per year. With a 12 percent average annual return over 40 years, he says that they will have $7.4 million. However, the actual number is just under $6.2 million if the return were 12 percent annualized — already a $1.2 million difference. But using the more realistic and reasonable (because that is how the S&P actually performed) 9.786 percent annualized return, our average family would have roughly $3.6 million, only half of what Ramsey claimed. Again, that’s a healthy amount, surely (what’s a few million dollars amongst friends?), and would be a boon to nearly everyone, but it’s nothing like what Dave claimed it to be. Ironically, Ramsey notes the “joke line” he uses when he makes this pitch: “If I’m freakin’ half wrong, you’re still okay.” And that’s almost precisely the amount of his error.
So is any harm done, really? Dave seems to want to say that a $48,000 per year family retiring with $3.6 million isn’t bad at all. I get it. But not everybody hears “the message” early enough to do what he suggests. Let’s suppose our average family gets started late and only has — say — 15 years until retirement. They calculate that they will need roughly $600,000 saved to retire. They are very aggressive and begin saving $15,000 per year, more than double the standard Ramsey recommendation. Using a 12 percent annualized assumption, they expect to have accumulated over $625,000 in 15 years. Goal met! However, if they get standard historical market returns — 9.786 percent annualized — they will have accumulated over $100,000 less than that and be well short of their goal, requiring several more years of work (if the job and financial markets as well as their health allow). Perhaps a major market correction during that added work-time makes a lousy situation truly dreadful. Or perhaps, thinking all was well, the family doesn’t make timely adjustments to their plan (saving more perhaps) that might have allowed them to reach their goal on time. Dave’s 12 percent assumption really is dangerous after all.
Of course, as listening to the show discloses, Dave doesn’t see his error (“It’s my show!”). “We’ll agree to disagree,” he insists But we’re not talking about a mere difference of opinion. We’re talking about error, plain and simple. Ramsey simply doesn’t get the math, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. And his examples or illustrations or inspirational tales — whatever they are — are still significantly and demonstrably in error.
One final point. Ramsey fears that criticism of him (“discrediting me”) will cause people not to save and that would be a dreadful thing. I agree that it would be dreadful if people didn’t save. I agree that it would be terrible if anyone concluded from this piece (as Dave fears) that Ramsey “is a deadbeat, stay away from him.” As I emphasize repeatedly, nearly everyone needs to save more — a lot more — and do so consistently. Nothing I write here should be construed as suggesting anything different. But instead of knocking those who would rightly and accurately hold Ramsey to account for the advice he offers, Dave (for the benefit of all of those who do, would or might pay attention to him) should simply get the math right. Doing a lot of things right shouldn’t shield anyone — even Dave Ramsey — from being accountable to the truth and good practice.
It isn’t hard. It’s just math.
Hey, Bob: Is there any way to post with a pseudonym? I am surprised to see my name appear. Some people express their ‘brotherly love’ in a hostile or threatening way if they believe that you are criticizing their religion. I certainly don’t mean to imply that most people of whatever religion are dogmatic. The ones that are are plenty enough.
Yes, but you need to register the pseudonym and log-on using it.
I think that many of his followers including myself understand what the 12 percent is for illustration purposes. It really isn’t that important. We listen to him for his wisdom about life and money, and don’t really hang onto the 12 percent idea.
I get that, Tom. Compound interest *is* motivational and a very good thing. And perhaps the 12 percent idea isn’t dangerous for most. But it can be very dangerous for some (as I showed in the article). Most importantly, I would hate for Dave’s excellent work in other areas to be tarnished and his overall credibility damaged due to his lack of understanding about investing and simple math.
We’re not talking about a difference of opinion here. Dave is flat-out wrong. He should simply apologize, correct his error and move on.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
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Perhaps Dave didn’t understand the math. Or perhaps he does understand it, but he’s relying on the average annual return data because that is what the S&P and investment companies showcase in their ads and on their websites. Is it Dave Ramsey misleading investors, or is it investment companies misleading Dave? (and every other investor out there). The truth is that average annual returns do not depict the actual experience of the investor. However, I think the biggest issue is that it is still acceptable for average annual returns to be widely promoted.
Thanks for reading.
Since Dave has been made aware of the problems with his stated approach many times over many years, I doubt that he doesn’t understand the math. Unfortunately, it appears to me that the most likely explanation for his continued (and dangerous) misstatements about retirement planning and investment matters is that those misstatements drive consumers to Dave’s “ELPs” and those ELPs pay Dave for doing so.
I would guess if Ramsey really showed the math like a financial advisor then he might not be regarded as highly by those who don’t bother doing the math.
That and those same people might be less willing to engage an “ELP.”
Personal finance bloggers have critiqued Ramsey about this in the past, but it’s nice to see more of the planning community get involved, with people such as yourself, Jason Hull, Wade Pfau, Michael Kitces, Carl Richards, etc, joining the call for Ramsey to use correct math. I wrote a 17-pg research paper in 2009 on the soundness of Ramsey’s financial advice, addressing these same issues and more (self-serving alert: NY Times Bucks Blog writer Ann Carrns highlighted the paper in a May 2011 article titled ‘Dave Ramsey’s 12% solution’: http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/13/dave-ramseys-12-solution/). I have a hard time believing that he doesn’t understand the math, as it’s been explained in easy-to-understand examples on numerous occasions, and he’s not a dumb guy. Is ego keeping him from admitting the error?
By the way, Dave’s online calculator assumes monthly compounding. For example, put in 100,000 starting balance, 40 yrs, no contributions, 12% returns, and you end up with 11.9 million, an effective compound annual growth rate of 12.68%. This makes the numbers look even sweeter than the already optimistic 12% returns. Here’s the calc: http://www.daveramsey.com/articles/article/articleID/investing-calculator/category/lifeandmoney_investing/#/entry_form
But Stephanie is right–it’s unacceptable for avg annual returns to be widely promoted.
Thanks for reading and commenting. As I noted earlier, I suspect the reason for the apparent lack of understanding is Ramsey’s goal of getting as many people as possible to one of his ELPs.
Bob, those are ELPs (Endorsed Local Providers), not EPLs
Thank you. I have made the corrections. And thanks for reading.
I’m a big Ramsey fan, and Ramsey is dead wrong about this. I heard the interview with the Motley Fool writer, and Ramsey comes off as thin skinned and defensive; he used bully tactics like referring to credentials instead of arguing the facts, and intentionally mis-reading some parts of the article in an effort to discredit the author. He described the article as a “hit piece” when it wasn’t; and he took a lot of ad hominem shots at a guy who clearly agreed with the main thrust of the Ramsey message. To be honest, I do think less of him because of that interview, and I listen to him almost every day – for a couple of days after the interview, I couldn’t listen to him cause I just heard a pompous ass instead of motivational money guy.
Ramsey is simply wrong about his investment advice. Though I’m not smart enough to explain the difference to another person, I do know he takes too many short cuts with math (it’s really arithmetic). And I know he tends to accept high transaction costs. Frankly, I think it’s because he’s a real estate guy who is accustomed to high transaction costs. And I think he ignores the cost of information. For example, he seems to accept that you are paying for advice/expertise when you pay a load on a mutual fund. But if you get 95% return on of the result with 0.1% of the cost, you have to wonder whether that extra 5% is worth the extra cost. I’d have to think more to break out the example, but I hope the direction of the variables is shown. And I read that the 20% of mutual funds that beat the S&P 500 change every year, so even if you are paying for “expertise” that expertise may not be worth extra fees in any given year.
The main thrust of the Ramsey message is get out of debt; which is great. But once you are out of debt, you need to protect your capital and wealth, and he is not the man to do it. It’s one thing to say, “personal financial success is about changing behavior”. But once you change your behavior and paid the so called “dumb tax”, you owe it to yourself to really understand how to pick the proper financial instrument for your goals.
My 2 cent financial advice: follow Ramsey until you have some savings and no debt but the house. Then convert to a Bogle head, but keep your Ramsey behaviors.
It’s too bad Ramsey still holds true to this error. It’s actually a big one, and as you get more financially literate, Ramsey holds less credibility because of it.
Thanks for reading.
What I find interesting here is the fact that you are “splitting hairs” over interest rates. I am a novice investor and follower of Dave Ramsey having coordinated his Financial Peace University classes not only in my church but at my workplace which is a field that most do not pay attention to what is happening with their money and rely too much on others to take care of it. We have a society in general who are not saving or taking their financial future seriously to the point that they have no financial future. As you stated, he has helped many many people and families over the years and will continue to do so in the future. Most people do not understand money and look to those like yourself and Mr. Ramsey, to educate them as I’m sure that was the purpose of your article. How about working more on teaching people to save, live below their means and educating them as to how important it is to invest in their retirement for their overall financial future then “calling out” those you may not agree with. I will continue supporting the teaching of Mr. Ramsey to those who are willing to listen and get in control of their financial future and will caution them on what they hear and read and to seek those financial advisers and professionals that do not teach them about what is occurring with their money. I wish you continued success in your future.
I appreciate that you’re here and I appreciate your loyalty to Ramsey, but when it comes to investment management and retirement planning, it is badly misplaced. We aren’t talking about a difference in interpretation or opinion. Dave comtinues to push misleading and dangerous ideas. For profit.
Moreover, as my article demonstrates, we are hardly picking nits. When you factor in his recommended and utterly irresponsible 8 percent retirement withdrawal rate as well as his ridiculous and foolish 100 percent stock retirement portfolio, it’s obvious that Dave is badly out of his depth.
Finally, if you had been a regular reader here, you would have recognized that I routinely call for people to save more. But that’s beside the point. Ramsey’s good work in that area doesn’t absolve him for the bad investment advice. Dave regularly calls on people to be accountable for their actions. Why do you have a problem with Dave being accountable for his?
I agree that Dave may push out questionable numbers. I spent 22 years running my independent stock brokerage, a Series 7 person and RIA. I sold the business in 2002 and haven’t missed the stress. Ramsey never ever never takes into consideration that some people will take sleeping well at night and are willing to give up a few % points to do so. In the early 80’s I was a commodity broker and saw people make enormous amounts of money but also saw people loose enormous amounts of money. Does Dave ever stray into the risk / reward idea and maybe not everyone wants to take the risk of 12% returns.
So now I am retired with have seven figures of money saved. Some gives me a guaranteed return (something that makes Dave cringe) but it gives me a cozy feeling that I know for a fact how much money I get. Some is in large cap long history dividend paying companies. Then there is a small bit that takes a tiny bit of risk.
My plan is to take income and when I leave this world my inheritance will leave my son 7 figures.
Back in the day I used to give dog and pony speeches to clients of some of the biggest CPA’s in my State Capital. Using a static ROI without taking into consideration the vulgarities of bear markets would and does get registered advisers and brokers in trouble. Does Dave have a license to loose or does he have to adhere to the rules of regulators? Talking heads can say all kind of things that are out in space and get away with it because their freedom of speech. A licensed professional doesn’t have that same freedom. Does Dave receive a stipend from his Endorsed Local Providers?
I really enjoy Dave. I agree that his investment return calculations are overly optimistic. (My CPA brother is the one I take advise from,when it comes to retirement planning). But I think he has the right idea, and a lot of people actually HAVE retirement accounts, thanks to Dave Ramsey, We should all do our own research and not count on one guru for all the answers. In the end, we are responsible for our own decisions.
Thanks for reading.
You article only address the returns of the S&P 500. Dave does not advocate investing all your money in an S&P 500 index fund. Instead, he advocates people to do their research and find mutual funds with long term track records that BEAT the market. I have been doing this and invest in 4 mutual funds and over the last 15 years have consistently beat the market in my 401k plan. So, yes I believe a smart and prudent investor can beat the market in the long term investing in only excellent growth mutual funds. I also think investor need to change their game plan as the market indicates. I am generally a holder of a small portion of bonds. Right now, holding bonds makes no sense as the future interests rates will surely rise.
I hope you have gotten that level of success, Scott. But it’s very rare. Every year, DALBAR studies investor behavior and over the past 20 years (through the end of 2012), individual investor returns have lagged the S&P 500 by 3.96 percent. Over that 20-year period, the S&P has returned 8.187 percent annualized. Thus, on average, investors have been doing roughly half as well as the S&P and less than one-third as well as the 12 percent Ramsey says they should expect. Moreover, despite your anecdotal claim (consistent with what Ramsey says), there is not a lot of evidence that good mutual fund performance persists. See here for example: http://www.cxoadvisory.com/21090/investing-expertise/mutual-fund-performance-persistence/
I also hope you’ll forgive me for being skeptical about your claim of success. Research has conclusively established that what people think and claim their investment returns are and what those returns actually are have — quite literally — *nothing to do with each other*. Nearly everyone says they have done much better than they actually have. See, for example, this study: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1002092
Perhaps most importantly for these purposes, you claim to have beaten the market but you don’t say you have earned 12 percent annualized or anything close to it. No surprise there.
Bob, I enjoyed the article.
I’m a Dave Ramsey fan. I worked 2 jobs for 2 years to get out of debt. I credit Dave for helping to change my financial behavior. However… I COMPLETELY AGREE with your observations of his inaccurate investment expectations. 12% annual return is a DREAM… every time I hear him say it on his show, I cringe and turn it off. It hurts his credibility. And I like the guy.
My IRA & 401K both have annualized returns in the 4-ish% range. And they are “growth stock mutual funds” like Dave suggests.
Anyway, just wanted to say Thanks for the reality check.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
It isn’t a dream. It is just unlikely that anyone actually picks the correct fund and stays with it. Most of the funds aren’t available in most 401Ks and most people don’t have the time or education to pick it on their own.
95% wont’ even do a budget and stick to it. The best thing to do is just save money and figure out how much you need to retire on. Fine, use 10%. People still have to stay in the market and not overspend.
I agree that getting out of debt, saving and frugal living are imperative. It all starts there. I simply want Dave to stop providing bad investment and retirement planning advice.
Even if DR changed his numbers, it’s not like all Americans would suddenly stop overspending and saving money. 8% probably is too much to take out, but not if you have $5,000,000 in the bank. Save early, save often…..
Actually, an 8 percent retirement withdrawal rate is crazy no matter how much money you have. That’s the way the math works. But if you have saved enough such that you only need to use a very small percentage of your assets annually — say 2-3 percent — then your likelihood of failure is pretty small.
Also, DR doesn’t give out specific recommendations, but I am sure even if you did an index fund of the S&P 500 it wouldn’t come close to 12%, but we use 7% and are doing just fine.
It doesn’t. Annualized returns (without fees) for the S&P 500 (through 2012) for the past ten years were 7.06 percent; 20-year returns were 8.22 percent; 30-year returns were 10.87 percent; 40-year returns were 9.78 percent; and 50-year returns were 9.82 percent.
To use “20 year returns” gives x% success seems misleading. It depends on when you start. If you had started investing in August 2000 or Oct 2007 your returns would barely be breaking even. Moreover, you might have bailed out when the market started tanking. If you had started investing in Oct 1994, Oct 2002 or March 2009 you’d be dancing in the isles. Stock Market results depend on the overall market trend; if you stay long when the 60 day moving average of SPY is up and stay out or go short when the 60 moving average is down, an investor would do rather well.
Of course timing matters. But pick whatever lengthy periods you like and 12 percent annualized remains a pipedream. If you are also committed to risk management, it’s positively nuts.
Your 60-day moving average suggestion (more people use the 200-day, the 50-day or a 50-day/200-day crossover) is like any approach other than the few that have persisted to this point (value, size, momentum and low vol/beta) — they work right up until they don’t. Also, a moving average strategy takes a great deal of time and attention. Most people have neither the time nor the discipline to execute it, especially if they’re careful enough to do the work necessary to make sure “the worm hasn’t turned.” It’s a full time job.
Thanks for reading.
I really enjoy Mr. Ramsey’s advice and I also think 12% is a little optimistic. I just use a different rate of return when I calculate my investments. It really doesn’t bother me and he doesn’t need to apologize. One of the things Dave always says is basically, “don’t take my word for it, go out and learn so you can make decisions.” His work speaks for itself and he is inspiring. When it comes to behavioral change, you have to focus on more than math. Even in your “dangerous” 15 year example, they have half a million in investments. We both know there can be way more dangerous choices made with money.
Also I have heard him recommend both load and no load funds, and he has made a solid argument for both. He recommends his ELP’s but only if people like what they are saying. He doesn’t want people to work with them just because he says so. I wouldn’t stress the fact that he is making a profit from his advice as a reason to discredit it in anyway (although I’m not saying that is exactly what you are doing).
Ultimately, I believe you are both working towards the same goal (although I don’t know much about your work). Allow the man to do his work and you do yours, as long as people are getting out of debt and saving money, it doesn’t matter what inspired them.
Thanks for commenting.
The fact that Ramsey refuses to acknowledge what is a clear and obvious error makes it impossible for me to go as lightly on him as you do despite the quality of his advice in other areas. Moreover, over the next 5-10 years or so, a 12 percent return assumption a far more than “a little optimistic.”
Finally, in the current environment, $500,000 provides far less in retirement security than most people assume. Even using the consensus “4 percent rule” (which I suspect is pretty optimistic), it provides only $20,000 annually in retirement. That’s far from a healthy nest egg in today’s world, even if it’s far more than our hypothetical Ramsey disciples would have had otherwise.
Thank you for your reply.
I clicked the link, but it wasn’t a specifics article. Was it the quarterly letter that you were referring to?
Regardless of the financial predictions, saving and investing still always beats the alternative (which I know you agree) and Ramsey’s principles push people towards responsible behavior.
I wasn’t trying to say half a million is enough for retirement but $625K wouldn’t be that much of a difference. The point is it all helps.
I am curious, Dave’s principles for saving and investing are very well known and he doesn’t waver on them (one of the reasons I like his advice). I am a 30 year old, with no debt and only about 10K left in order to pay my house off. What would be your recommendations going forward.
My apologies. You can only get the GMO material by registering. But it’s free and they won’t spam you. With respect to advice for younger people, I wrote about it here back in 2011:
Thanks again for reading and commenting.
Go read the lastest Kiplinger. They have the mutual funds for the last 1,5,10 years. Many have made 10% or above. The trick is to pick the right funds. Index funds follow the market so there is less guessing involved. The market is up 100% since 2009, so technically that is 20% a year for 5 years.
“The trick is to pick the right funds.”
Indeed. And the likelihood of individual investors picking the right funds and continuing to pick the right funds is vanishingly small. Look at this research finding: “[T]he good funds are indistinguishable from the lucky bad funds that land in the top percentiles.”
Unfortunately, we’re all prone to thinking that we’re smarter or better than everyine else, even the best experts. Experience says otherwise.
Thanks for commenting.
So wouldn’t that suggest that the average person should invest in a passive index fund with low expenses? That way they wont’ have to choose the right fund. They get what the market gets.
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Nice piece and well stated. I tend to lean toward the 9% return. As a historical fact, the American Funds ICA, which Ramsey is really referring, has averaged 12%, and often does if one looks at rolling returns. However, that particular fund has not performed as well over the last 20 years. I wrote a piece on this 3 weeks ago. Check my site out at http://www.tdpresearch.wordpress.com
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I think Dave is a remarkable guy in many respects. He does a lot more good than harm despite his blow hard tendencies. I think the best track record is real returns coming from real world live/dead investing all stars like Walter Schloss, Ben Graham, Buffett, Carl Ichan etc… Two online PDF’s worth reading is “What Works in Investing” by Tweedy Brown. The other is a white paper highlighting the returns on Buffett titled “The Buffett Paradox”. It cannot be achieved but through mutual funds. I have consistently beat the VTI by following the themes of these two dated sources. A hard concept to grasp, but concentration doesn’t mean high risk or lack of diversification. Ten companied is plenty diversified.
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A dollar picked up in the road is more satisfaction to us than the 99 which we had to work for, and the money won at Faro or in the stock market snuggles into our hearts in the same way. ~Mark Twain
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