How Debt Can be Good

If you simply stand where you are and do nothing, will everything collapse? If so, you need to fix this. If not, you are a free man.

For a long time I have been uncomfortable with debt (see Why You Don’t Need Debt and The Borrower is Slave to the Lender). However, over time, I have borrowed more and more, and I think it is because I have become comfortable with debt. I used a CommSec margin loan to borrow to buy equities, which I now do not recommend to readers because interest rates on a margin loan are approximately 6 percent. I have recently started to use NAB Equity Builder, which allows borrowing to invest in ETFs or LICs for 4.3 percent which is quite low.

One of the problems with debt is that the return on investment needs to outweigh the cost of borrowing. The interest rate on the margin loan is approximately 6 per cent, which means you need to find an investment that beats 6 percent otherwise you will make a loss. However, central banks around the world are lowering interest rates and new products are emerging that allow you to gear into shares with low interest rates (e.g. NAB Equity Builder). Another argument in favour of leverage is that the interest expense is tax deductible. Currently in Australia if you are on a six figure salary, each additional dollar you earn is taxed at 37 percent, so if you are borrowing at 4.3 percent from NAB Equity Builder then after tax you are effectively borrowing at 2.7 percent. In my opinion, 2.7 percent should be easy to beat. As of right now, an ASX200 ETF such as STW is providing 5.66 percent in dividend yield, which after tax is 3.5 percent. Once you add in franking credits and capital gains, you are well ahead.

What about freedom?

One of the arguments used against debt is that debt reduces freedom because you are obligated to pay it. If you have an obligation, this reduces your freedom. However, just as in personal finance we look at both expenses and income so too when considering personal freedom we should look at both obligations to us and obligations from us. While personal finance is about cashflow and net worth, personal freedom is about obligation and specifically whether all your obligations are offset by obligations others have to you. Being free means having as little net obligation as possible.

In a previous post I discussed how freedom ultimately depends not only on cash flow but on “obligation flow.” We all have obligations e.g. the obligation to eat to survive as well as the obligation to put a roof over our head to shelter ourselves. However, if we have enough passive income e.g. from dividend ETFs to cover these costs, we are free, and we are free because our obligations to us (from the companies paying dividends to us) is greater than the obligations from us (to eat and sleep). Basically if your passive income is greater than your living expenses, you are free. It is net obligations that matter.

The same concept applies to debt. Suppose you have an obligation to pay interest. That may not be a problem if you own enough dividend ETFs to cover the cost of the interest. In the example above, the STW ETF’s dividend yield (or a similar ETF e.g. A200, VAS, or IOZ) is enough to cover the interest cost, even after (or especially after) tax.

It is important to keep in mind that dividends are strictly speaking not obligations that companies have. Technically companies do not need to pay any dividends. However, in reality, companies that have historically paid high dividends continue to pay high dividends because of shareholder expectation, and if shareholder expectation does not meet reality, share prices will go down, and the executives deciding how much of company profits to distribute as divdends are usually remunerated with shares, so it is in their interest to ensure the company is both profitable and continues to pay high dividends. Something else to consider is that dividends are not the only form of obligation. A company may use debt to raise capital from bond investors. In this case, there is a real obligation that the borrower has to pay bond investors. Furthermore, going back to shares, companies don’t need to pay dividends to provide value to shareholders. Simply retaining and reinvesting profits back into the business helps the business grow, which increases stock prices. Once the shareholder sells the stocks, there is an obligation to the shareholder to receive the proceeds of the sale. Outside Australia where there is often no franking credits, building wealth through capital gains is much more popular due to tax efficiency.

In summary, holding debt can be consistent with the idea that it is important to minimise obligation because you can have obligation from debt but have it offset with other people’s obligation to you. However, what I should emphasise is that offsetting obligations in this way increases risk. You may have debt to the bank and rely on dividends to pay back the debt, but there is no guarantee dividends will not be cut in the future, and so by playing the middleman game effectively you are taking on risk. The reason why middlemen exist in the world is because of risk transfer. Those on either side of the middleman have transferred risk to the middleman. The same concept applies at work. Middlemen are middle managers who also have obligations from them (to deliver for their manager) but need to match this with obligations to them (from their subordinates). In many areas of life, there is greater risk in aligning these two sides (obligations from you and obligations to you). The key is in if you are able to stomach and manage these risks.

Why financial capital is better than human capital

Obligation needs to be seen not just in terms of money (e.g. debt) but also non-monetary obligation needs to be considered as well e.g. something that takes away your time such as work. Most people go into debt but don’t think about what they need to do to service that debt and so they end up working for the rest of their lives. When I speak about balancing obligations from you and obligations to you, I speak mostly about your financial capital providing income (e.g. dividends) that cover your expenses. However, this ignores human capital. When banks lend you money, they not only look at your financial capital e.g. how much shares or property you have, but they also look at your human capital e.g. your income, job stability, etc.

However, relying on human capital to offset obligation is much more risky than relying on financial capital because income from human capital (i.e. a salary) is active rather than passive. If you borrow to invest and the cashflow is greater than the repayments, there is no obligation from you to do anything. However, if you borrow to invest and you have an obligation to make repayments and if your investments pay low income (e.g. it is a high growth asset) then you top up the difference with your salary which comes from human capital (e.g. your work skills). The problem with relying on human capital is that you are obligated to work in order to derive income from human capital, which reduces your freedom.

In order to take into account non-monetary obligation and to also keep a check on whether you are relying too much on human capital rather than financial capital, I recommend what I call the “do nothing” test. Basically if you do nothing e.g. don’t go to work, don’t take care of the children, etc. If you simply stand where you are and do nothing, will everything collapse? If so, you need to fix this. If not, you are a free man. Even if you have debt, if that debt is being paid for by passive income, it is as if you have no debt. Looking at non-monetary obligations e.g. childrearing, suppose you have children but they are taken care of by a childcare or nanny whose expenses are covered by passive income. You are also free. I have described the “do nothing” test in more detail in a separate post called My Changing Views:

Another key principle I feel I have not let go of is the idea that freedom depends ultimately on the absence of obligation. An obligation is something that compels you to do something in the future e.g. debt compels you to work to pay the debt. Obligation can be non-financial e.g. if you feel you must follow a particular social custom. Obligation is everywhere, and many obligations give people meaning and satisfaction in their lives e.g. obligation to their family or children. However, obligation is indeed the enemy of freedom, so if you want more freedom, you need to minimise obligation. I am a big believer in what I call the “do nothing” test, which is the idea that you are truly financially free when you can do nothing and everything is fine. If you must work to pay the bills, you are not free. There must be automated income coming into your bank account to cover all your obligations.

Can you retire with debt?

Yes, you can retire with debt, but it is harder. For one, you are no longer deriving income from human capital, so you are relying purely on financial capital to pay for debt, which is higher risk not because financial capital is riskier than human capital but because you are drawing down on one type of capital rather than two. It is much harder to get into a job than to get out of a job, so if you need a job suddenly because your financial capital is failing you, there is more effort you need to put in.

A key benefit of borrowing to invest is deducting interest expenses, which is likely to not be necessary or less necessary when you retire because your income will drop.

It all depends on how much risk you are willing to take. The good news is that it is often simple to sell down assets in order to pay off debt. Personally, when I retire, I would not want to keep debt and will simply sell assets in order to pay off debt completely.

Shares vs property

I’d like to end by discussing shares vs property. Most people think borrowing to invest is someting only property investors do. In fact, most people think stock market investors are cocaine-snorting men in suits who perform thousands of trades every day in order to capitalise on small price movements in stocks. In my opinion, shares and property are much more similar than the stereotype suggests. Shares or at least ETFs are safer investments than property because they can hold many different types of assets in them and can provide instant diversification. You can negatively gear into property and you can negatively gear into shares as well. It used to be the case that property allowed you to leverage more because you can borrow to buy property at lower interest rates than with shares (e.g. interest rates for property is around 3% or 4% but a margin loan has interest rates of 6%). However, banks are now starting to understand how similar shares and property are and new products like NAB Equity Builder allow you to borrow at 4.3% which is higher than the interest rate for most property investors (approximately 3.8% as of now) but only slightly higher. Furthermore, banks allow a property to be geared at 80% to 90% LVR whereas NAB Equity Builder allows gearing at up to 75% LVR. Even though LVR is slightly lower and interest rates are slightly higher, stock market investors are not exposed to many of the costs that property investors are exposed to e.g. stamp duty, land tax, and council rates. You also need to factor in franking credits as well as the peace of mind that comes from having a truly passive investment. For a property to be passive, you need a property manager, which eats into your rental income. Furthermore, property is not cheap. The cheapest property you can find in an Australian capital city will likely be about $400k. With ETFs, you can put in $4000 deposit to buy $15k worth of ETFs or you can scale it up. You can dollar cost average with shares but you cannot with property. You are in more control with shares, and when you sell, it can be done within days rather than months and for a much lower cost. Weighing all this up, I think shares are better than property. I would even go so far as to say that you don’t need to buy property at all, even property to live in. Rent is not dead money. If you rent and invest at the same time by leveraging into ETFs (also known as “rentvesting”) you can be better off than if you had purchased a place to live in, and you have much more flexibility to live where you want to live. But that is a post for another day.

Photo by Jamison McAndie on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “How Debt Can be Good”

  1. Nice post, Calvin. I’m at the other end of the generational spectrum but have also been “debt phobic” for most of my life. I did manage to retire debt-free five years ago but NOT by paying my mortgage down rapidly. Instead, I used the super system via salary-sacrifice to accumulate a separate fund to pay off my mortgage on the day I left work. That was very satisfying and a much more effective way of doing it rather than using after-tax income (I was on a high marginal rate). Perversely perhaps, I now have another (small) mortgage on my primary residence as a result of “downsizing” from a suburban home to an inner city apartment. That’s somewhat balanced out by keeping free cash in a 100% mortgage offset account.

    On the issue of using borrowed money to invest in shares, I am “once bitten, twice shy”. When I did this in 90’s, a downturn in the market left me with significant margin calls on the loans and it took me five years to recover my initial capital. At least with real estate (for your principal residence) you can be sitting on a loss without having to cough-up. Interest rate rises can also kill you in either situation but I don’t think we are risk of that for some time. Best to plan on a worst case scenario in either case or have a “stop loss” strategy that you are prepared to implement if the market turns against you.

    Best wishes. Keep posting.

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    1. Thanks Paul. Paying off debt using super is a great idea. Furthermore, regarding leveraging into shares, NAB Equity Builder is a relatively new product that allows you to borrow to invest in ETFs with “no margin calls.” It is important to note that margin call, even though they do ask you to cough up money, are there to force you to lower your LVR in order to manage risk. With a product like a mortgage or Nab Equity Builder, there may be no margin call but there are monthly repayments that effectively ask you to cough up money every month in order to maintain a safe LVR. Effectively you are being hit with a margin call every month.

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  2. Hi mate, glad I found your blog! I really like your ideology, lots to think about! I’m at the start of my FIRE journey and fortunately have never been in bad debt, so I don’t mind the idea of taking on debt. I’ve been looking at the NAB Equity Builder to help jump start my portfolio, I am very much in an “obligation” phase of my journey ( accumulation ), but I also work well to having a structured regular payment, as that “obligation” helps me stay on track! 🙂 Will keep at eye out for future posts, cheers! Lauren

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lauren. Welcome to the world of FIRE. I couldn’t help check out your blog and will keep it on my bookmarks. Nab Equity Builder is a great idea, in my opinion. My advice is to start small. Just put in say $5k deposit. I also note from you’re blog you like to invest ethically, which is fortunate because NAB equity builder allows you to borrow at 70% LVR to invest in ETHI. Today I was listening to a podcast in which Michael Bloomberg said that many companies nowadays are forced to be green because their shareholders demand it. You might find it interesting.

      https://www.economist.com/podcasts/2019/09/26/are-ceos-the-new-politicians

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  3. Great post Calvin. I am already rentvesting and thinking about borrowing some more on my investment property rather than go with NAB equity builder as my rate is 3.44% and buying ETFs. Not asking for financial advice so feel free to respond generically

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