Here’s is Bill Ackman’s idea:
“There are a number of potential solutions to this [wealth inequality] problem. Among them, the government could establish and fund investment accounts for every child born in America. The funds could be invested in zero-cost equity index funds, be prohibited from withdrawal until retirement, and could compound tax free for 65 years. At historical rates of equity returns of 8% per annum, a $6,750 at birth retirement account – which would cost $26 billion annually based on the average number of children born in the U.S. each year – would provide retirement assets of more than $1 million at age 65.”
To bring you up to speed, but the wealth inequity problem that Ackman writes about it is the fact that many, many Americans do not own stock on equities of US companies. The ones who do own stock, presumably all the readers here, have seen their wealth grow greatly. Those that have not owned stock have not enjoyed compounding wealth. They gotten left behind with stagnant wages, rising health care costs, and other systemic problems.
Mr. Ackman’s idea is simply to have Uncle Sam ensure that every new, tiny American human will be included in America’s corporate financial success.
A one-time investment of $6,750 to (somewhat likely) solve America’s financial retirement crisis?
Count me in. That’s why I wrote about this article five years ago. My projection was that we’d need only $6,622, but I like that Bill decided to round up to a more even number. (I’m leaving the projected growth rates in place, even though they may be aggressive in 2020.)
It’s very hard to get the government to act on an idea that is so big. Millions would complain that it would raise the national debt which is already sky-high. Millions more would say that it lacks fairness as they didn’t get a million dollars at retirement. These criticisms are fair and worth discussing. I think there are solutions to these complaints, but that’s an article for another day. For now let’s agree that the government isn’t going to just approve Ackman’s idea overnight and save every baby’s retirement.
In other words, we are going to have to try to do this ourselves…
… And because I like to go to extremes, rather than trying to solve retirement, why not solve all of a baby’s biggest life milestones.
The Financially Independent Baby
I had a crazy idea
yesterday in 2015. Let’s imagine that a blessed baby was born today. For lack of a better name, we’ll call him Baby Gronk.
The parents of Gronk aren’t what you’d call traditionally rich. They live a frugal lifestyle and have saved up some money over time. What they lack in excess money, they make up in wisdom… wisdom of personal finance and compound interest.
These parents decide that they are going to use that personal finance wisdom to spoil Gronk by covering some of his major life expenses on the day he is born. (While I believe that little Gronk should learn to “financially fly on his own”, we’ll leave those personal decisions to the reader.)
The question is, “How much should they put aside to cover all the expenses with life’s major milestones?”
Gronk’s parents proceeded to make a bunch of assumptions, many of which will turn out to be wrong. That’s the nature of predicting the future. Their plan is to use the information they have at their disposal to make the best possible estimates and adjust as time marches forward.
They also realize that if their calculation is a little off, Gronk will pitch in the difference. They aren’t going to let a quest for perfection stop them from a great attempt.
First Car (Age 16)
Gronk’s parents have set up a budget of $6,000 for his first car at age 16. Using the rule of 72, they realize that their money may reasonably double when Gronk turns 8 (a growth of ~8.5%). They also realize that it may double again when he’s 16.
Working backwards from their budget, they decide to put aside $1,500 hoping that it turns to $3,000 (age 8) and $6,000 (age 16).
College (Age 18)
Gronk’s parents decide to make this calculation easy and limit this expense to tuition. Yes, there are going
The big question is whether Gronk’s parents want to fund in-state public college or private college. The price difference between the two is huge. Public in-state tuition is ~$9K while private is ~$31K. Multiply that out by four years and it is either ~$36K or ~$124K.
Since the calculations are so different, Gronk’s parents decide to do the math separately.
Age 18 is very close to the age 16 exercise with the first car above. However, it’s just different enough that Gronk’s parents decide to break out a calculator instead of using the rule of 72. They use the “y to the x” key to calculate compound interest. They specifically type in “1.085”, “y to the x”, then “18” to arrive at 4.34… a key number we’ll use. The 1.085 comes from projecting a 8.5% growth on the current investment (the “1”).
Why pick 8.5%? Your guess on the growth of the market is as good as mine. In 2020, I would adjust this lower. I originally went with 8.5% because it was reasonable enough (near Ackman’s 8% assumption) and it was a convenient number coming from the car example above. Now that you know how to do the calculation, feel free to substitute your own growth assumption.
This tells us that every dollar we invest will yield 4.34 dollars… giving our assumptions and uncertainties in the market. We can mentally check this using the above example of doubling, and doubling again. Double a dollar once and you get two. Double it again and you get four. In this case we have a little more time (two years) so it’s a little more than four, 4.34.
Now that we think we can grow one dollar to $4.34 in 18 years, we just need to divide our total expenses…
… for public in-state college, we’d need to roughly put aside $8,300 ($36,000/$4.34).
… for private college, we’d need to roughly put aside $28,571 ($124,000/$4.34).
What’s interesting to me is that this almost comes out to exactly one year of tuition. In fact, if we used an expected return of 8% it comes out to exactly one year of tuition.
It’s impossible to say whether Baby Gronk’s parents should plan for public or private school. Perhaps they could plan public school, because they are already going far above and beyond what most parents would ever do. It’s not too much to ask Baby Gronk to bridge the gap to private college with financial aid if that’s a decision they make down the line.
Wedding (Age 25)
The average cost of a wedding varies greatly. Since Gronk is just a baby, the parents use this to estimate $30,000, a nice round number.
They use the same math as in the previous example and realize that at 8.5% growth a dollar is worth $7.69 in 25 years. This means that they need to put aside $3,900 at birth to pay for the wedding.
(We’ll ignore outdated traditions of the bride’s side of the family paying for it. Additionally, we’ll presume Gronk’s parents want to pay for the whole wedding instead of half. Or we can keep the traditions and calculate the wedding expenses for Gronkette.)
Down Payment for First Home (Age 25)
Who buys a home the same year they are married? I’m not sure and neither are Gronk’s parents. Sometimes people buy homes before they get married and sometimes they get married before they buy homes.
Since we have the same age and the same interest rate, we have the same growth of a dollar – $7.69.
Gronk’s parents decide to put in the 20% down-payment and not buy the house outright. (They’ve already spoiled him more than enough as it is.)
They think a starter home should cost around $200,000. This depends greatly on where they live and what they agree is a starter home. The parents may have to adjust this to their area of the country. The parents budget $40,000 which is 20% down on that $200,000 home.
Anticipating a dollar grows to $7.69, they realize that need to only invest $5,200 to cover the $40,000 down payment.
Retirement (Age 70)
Up to this point, many would say that Gronk’s parents are ridiculous. They don’t care. Instead, they say, “In for a penny, in for a pound!”
They estimate that Gronk will want to retire at age 70. That’s where the trend is nowadays with improved health care. They start with the rule of 4%. This rule of thumb suggests that one can withdraw 4% of his/her investments to live for 30 years. (This is an over-simplified version for the sake of this exercise.)
They realize that they need to get him 2 million dollars at age 70 so that he can withdraw $80,000 a year (4% of $2M) to live off of.
Getting Baby Gronk 2 million dollars sounds absurd, but Gronk’s parents realize that time is on their side. At 8.5% growth, a single dollar grows to $302 in 70 years.
Let’s pause for a minute. In a previous version of this article, I didn’t calculate the inflation and just added it at the end as an apology. That’s simply not good enough with projecting things 70 years in the future. Inflation is huge over that time.
How big is inflation? Typically it is around 3% a year. That means a dollar growing at 8.5% a year really only has only 5.5% more buying power. So if you do 5.5% over 70 years, $1 can have the buying power as $42.43, not $302.
They divide $2,000,000 by
$302 $42.43 and realize that they need to put aside $6,622 $47,136 at his birth to cover his entire retirement. That’s far more than most people have around. However, Gronk’s parents could choose to fund a retirement of only $40,000 instead of $80,000. They could also spread it over a few years.
Smart readers should be screaming “Shenanigans!!!” I didn’t factor inflation in any of the examples above. You got me. I also didn’t factor in taxes. These are very significant. Gronk’s parents might end up having to put twice as much in. Or they may have settle with the idea that they are only covering 2/3rd of all Baby Gronk’s major life expenses. My guess is that they’ll sleep well enough at night if it is the latter.
The idea of this exercise was never about complete accuracy. It’s impossible to accurately plan out a person’s expenses at birth. Instead, it was about illustrating how the idea of applying compound interest at birth could work.
Let’s add up all the expenses:
Car – $1,500
Public College – $8,300
Wedding – $3,900
First Home – $5,200
Retirement – $47,136
Total – $66,036
If Gronk’s parents were able to put aside around $66,000 at Gronk’s birth, he’d have most of life’s major milestones covered. To be clear $66,000 is a lot of money. However, for a lifetime of near financial freedom it isn’t as much as you might think.
This article was originally published Nov 23, 2015 at 12:15 PM