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Securing Client Confidence with Monte Carlo Simulation in Financial Planning

Brett Tharp February 18, 2020

Updated on: July 21, 2021

Monte Carlo simulations have applications in a wide range of industries, but they are particularly useful in financial planning. Clients need to know how long their money will last and the impact that market conditions will have on their savings and distribution. Advisors most often use geometric means and straight-line analysis, which are both important for linear projections, but these calculations don’t tell the client’s whole story.

Monte Carlo simulations can give clients a greater sense of security with their financial plan and confidence that they’ll achieve their financial goals.

What Is Monte Carlo Analysis for Financial Planning?

Monte Carlo simulations are statistical simulations that model the probability of different outcomes in a process that can’t be easily predicted due to the intervention of random variables. In other words, it’s used to measure the overall probability of success of a financial plan.

Monte Carlo analysis subjects a client’s plan to a number of market conditions, sometimes in excess of one thousand different scenarios, to account for fluctuations and volatility in the market that other calculations don’t take into account.

This is a valuable tool for financial advisors. Nobody can predict the swings of the market with perfect accuracy, and market changes can significantly impact a client’s financial plan.

How Is Monte Carlo Calculated?

Monte Carlo analysis relates to the law of large numbers—essentially that a larger number of trials creates a more accurate average. A coin being tossed four times may not be close to a 50 percent heads and tails outcome, but a coin that’s tossed one thousand times will likely be much closer to the expected 50 percent.

There are two important calculations at the heart of a Monte Carlo analysis:

  • Correlation: the relationship between variables in which the behavior of one impacts the behavior of another
  • Standard deviation: a numerical measure of volatility or risk used to determine the spread of potential outcomes

The actual calculation of a Monte Carlo simulation depends on the tool being used. It can also get quite in-depth, especially for something as large and complex as the marketplace.

At a high level, Monte Carlo in financial planning is calculated through the creation of a correlation matrix. This matrix plots a vast number of market variables on X and Y axes, then assigns a numerical value to the relationship, or correlation, between each market variable. The data on these relationships is used to influence the returns that are seen when running Monte Carlo simulations.

The standard deviation of these results is calculated, giving the overall Monte Carlo output an upside, downside, and median outcome. These values represent the best, worst, and most likely outcomes of a financial plan, respectively, given a large number of different market conditions.

Why Use Monte Carlo Simulations for a Client’s Financial Plan?

Monte Carlo outputs better account for market volatility by using correlation and standard deviation calculations to treat each year as an independent event. Linear growth projections depend on geometric means, which take into account previous years’ performance on future returns, to show static growth rates. These calculations don’t consider a range of possible outcomes. When clients want to know how long their money will last, Monte Carlo analyses that account for market volatility will offer more accurate insight into how real-world market conditions will affect a client’s finances.

Beyond the accuracy of financial plans, however, is the fact that Monte Carlo simulations can give clients a valuable sense of financial security. When clients know their plan has been tested in over a thousand different market conditions, they can rest easy knowing their finances are secure and that they’re on track to reach their most important goals in life. They can feel that their financial situation is in good hands—that their advisor is not only capable, but also dedicated to acting in their best interest.

These simulations can provide clients with more certainty in an uncertain world. Securing confidence in the value and accuracy of a financial plan can be a major step towards establishing long-term, productive relationships with clients.

What’s New in Monte Carlo Simulations for Financial Planning?

Traditionally, Monte Carlo simulations offer a single probability of success at a single end point, or the point at which the planner believes is a conservative longevity assumption. Some firms may run multiple plans to achieve a few different probabilities of success at different end points to account for longer-than-anticipated lifespans.

Like we’ve discussed, this Monte Carlo calculation can be a powerful way to give clients confidence in their plan. But there are a few inherent limitations with this traditional approach. First, a single probability of success doesn’t offer insight into how, why, or when a plan may fail, and second, there’s no insight into longevity risk with this approach.

new Monte Carlo-enabled method is filling these gaps for financial planners by offering a plan’s probability of success at every client age. This gives planners essential visibility into trends in probability of success, as well as a plan’s sensitivity to increased longevity.

A comprehensive Monte Carlo view can be combined with actuarial data to create powerful but easy-to-understand narratives around a client’s longevity and retirement funding. Having a probability of success at every age allows the results to be presented using a Confidence Age metric, instead of a singular probability of success, to further simplify the retirement discussion. A Confidence Age metric for a financial plan identifies the latest age that clears a planner’s pre-defined threshold of success. Presenting a plan’s resilience as an age number, instead of a probability of success, is more intuitive for clients, keeping conversations focused on goals and away from how probabilities of success are calculated.

If you want to learn more about the latest Monte Carlo methods in financial planning, I recently hosted a CE webinar on this topic with my colleague John Costello, Financial Planning Development Consultant at eMoney (on-demand version not eligible for CE credits). In this webinar we take a deeper dive into the value and calculations behind this kind of comprehensive Monte Carlo analysis.



DISCLAIMER: The eMoney Advisor Blog is meant as an educational and informative resource for financial professionals and individuals alike. It is not meant to be, and should not be taken as financial, legal, tax or other professional advice. Those seeking professional advice may do so by consulting with a professional advisor. eMoney Advisor will not be liable for any actions you may take based on the content of this blog.

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About the Author

Brett Tharp, CFP®, is a Financial Planning Education Consultant at eMoney Advisor where he is a primary contributor to internal and external financial planning education programs. In this role, Brett collaborates with colleagues in the Financial Planning Group and other internal teams to maintain and enhance learning programs. A graduate from the University of Connecticut in 2006, Brett then completed the CFP® coursework through Temple University and earned his CFP® designation in 2015. He brings more than a decade of financial services industry experience to eMoney.

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