Living Through Inflation and Rising Rates: Leveraged Real Estate vs Living Off Dividends

Now that interest rates are rising, there are many people who are wondering if they should fix or not. However, they are faced with a very difficult decision as fixed interest rates are higher than the variable rates. What we are seeing now is that rising interest rates are making many people realise that buying a house is not without risk. House prices now are indeed going down. Furthermore, many people are under significant stress due to rising interest rates.

Meanwhile, those who live off dividends seem to be doing fine. Assuming that you own enough dividend stocks or ETFs and do not have any debt, living off dividends is a stress-free alternative to leveraging into real estate. It is true that dividends can be cut (e.g. during COVID), but you should structure your lifestyle such that you are able to reduce your spending when dividend payments decrease.

The way human psychology works is that risk is not perceived until a disaster happens. For example, if you drive a car without wearing a seat belt and have never crashed, you are unlikely to truly appreciate how risky it is to drive without a seat belt on. However, if you crash your car and slam your head into the windshield and almost die, you are likely to always wear a seat belt from then on. In psychology this is called recency bias: “Recency bias is a cognitive bias that [favours] recent events over historic ones; a memory bias. Recency bias gives ‘greater importance to the most recent event.'”

As I mentioned earlier, the current economic conditions highlight just how risky real estate can be. All that is necessary to create a perfect storm that results in rising interest rates and declining house prices is inflation, and although inflation may have been rare in the last few decades, it is certainly a phenomenon that I think will be more pronounced as the world deals with emerging challenges such as overpopulation and dwindling natural resources.

The benefit of owning an ETF is that you have a more diversified portfolio. For example, if we look at the dividend payments from owning one unit of the high-dividend IHD ETF, you’ll notice that dividend payments are still high and have been slightly trending upward over time (in the chart below, the more recent dividend payments are at the left of the chart, not the right). Even though companies are struggling with inflation and rising interest rates, the benefit of a diversified ETF is that you have exposure to multiple sectors, so while during the recent downturn you would have sustain losses from sectors such as tech, you gain from other sectors such as energy. When you buy real estate, you are leveraged into one asset, which significantly increases risk.

Dividend payments from the IHD ETF have been trending upwards over time.

Of course, just as it is unfair to compare leveraged property to unleveraged ETFs during good times, it is also unfair to compare leveraged property to unleveraged ETFs during bad times. If you are able to buy a home to live in without any debt (i.e. paying cash) then this can give you safety during the recent economic crisis by shielding you not only from rising interest rates but also rising rents. Furthermore, having an investment property (as opposed to a home you live in) insulates you more from rising interest rates because the rising interest costs are offset by rental income. Another consideration is that Australian equities are naturally low in tech stocks and high in energy stocks relative to other countries e.g. in the US there is a much higher percentage of tech stocks.