Why You Don’t Need Debt

I do have debt, but it’s a small amount. For example, I have credit cards, but I always pay it off before there is interest. I also have a margin loan, but I have this so I can buy easily when the opportunity presents itself, and I try to pay off any debt quickly.

Many people talk about how debt is a tool for making money, and theoretically this can be true. For example, if you borrow at 4% from the bank and invest in something an asset, e.g. an investment property that makes 8% then you make a profit. However, if you borrow money from the bank to invest, you need to ask yourself why the bank didn’t invest in that investment itself. The answer is that it is risky.

Banks have a certain level of risk they are willing to take. The property could have gone up 8% but there is no guarantee that it will. If there were a guarantee that the property would go up 8% then the bank would simply invest in it rather than let you borrow money to invest in it. By letting someone else borrow money to invest in the house, the bank effectively transfers risk. If the bank vets the borrower to make sure they e.g. have high enough income, etc and if there were clauses in the contract enabling the bank to seize assets in the event of default, then that 4% the bank makes is almost risk free.

But don’t you need to take on more risk to make more return?

Risk appetite is a very personal topic because everyone has different risk appetite. Generally speaking, it is recommended that young people take on more risk because they have greater ability (and time) to recover should something go wrong. This is the main principle behind the “age in bonds” rule, which states that you own your age in risk-free investments, i.e. government bonds. For example, if you are 25 you should own 25% of your wealth in government bonds.

However, if you’re a 25-year-old who has higher risk appetite, the “age in bonds” rule can be modified to e.g. (age – 25)% in bonds. This slightly more complex rule states that the 25-year-old would have zero in government bonds, which would increases to 1% when he or she is 26 and so forth.

A 25-year-old who has no government bonds and puts all his or her wealth into, say, the stock market, has a high risk appetite, but more risk can be taken if he borrows to invest.

You don’t need to borrow to take on more risk

However, even if someone does no borrow, he can still take on more risk. This can be achieved by investing in internally leveraged ETFs (e.g. GEAR and GGUS) as well as investing in more risky investments, such as emerging markets (e.g. VGE), small caps (e.g. ISO), tech stocks (e.g. TECH and ROBO), and cryptocurrency (e.g. bitcoin, ether, or litecoin).

Right now bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general are making headlines because of spectacular growth. Had you purchased $10k worth of bitcoin in 2013, you’d be a millionaire today. However, everyone knows that bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general are risky, and when you hear stories about people borrowing money from their homes and putting it all into cryptocurrencies, most people think this is stupid. It is not that it is stupid but rather than their risk appetite is very high.

However, the example of leveraging into cryptocurrencies shows that you don’t need to borrow in order to gain access to high risk and potentially higher returns. If you simply invest in a riskier asset class, e.g. cryptocurrencies, you already increase risk and the potential for higher returns.

Debt is slavery – the psychological benefits of having no debt

I would argue that there is no need to borrow to increase risk and return because you can simply reallocate your money to risker assets (unless you believe that leveraging into bitcoin is not enough risk).

The benefits of having no debt goes far beyond the lower risk you’re exposed to. Debt is slavery. Happiness is an elusive goal. It is almost impossible for you to know what will make you happy in the future. You may think a particular job, relationship, car, holiday, or house will make you happy, but once you actually have it, you may not be happy. Trying to predict what will make you happy is hard, which is why the best way we humans can be happy to experiment and try out different things. In order to be able to try or experiment with different things that will make us happy, we must have the freedom to do so, and you don’t have that freedom if you’re forced to work in order to pay debt.

Even though freedom does not guarantee happiness, freedom is the best assurance we have of being happy.

Freedom comes from reducing your obligations. Obligations are mostly financial obligations (debt) but can be non-financial as well.

Ultimately it depends on your risk appetite

As I mentioned earlier, everyone has a different risk appetite. I have a fairly high risk appetite myself, but there are limits. For example, I’m happy to put 5% of my net worth into cryptocurrencies. I invest in certain sector ETFs because I estimate that they will outperform in the future (e.g. I am bullish on the tech sector).

Market fluctuations can result in the value of my ETFs and shares to go down by tens of thousands of dollars and I would sleep fine at night. However, there have been many times in my life when I have gotten carried away with buying too using my margin loan account and regretting it. You know you’re taken on too much risk when you worry about it.

Results don’t matter

The outcomes from investing are probabalistic, not deterministic, so results don’t matter. This is a common investing fallacy. Some guy would claim that he is worth $100 million due to borrowing money to generate wealth and that this is proof that you must use debt in order to become rich. However, this is misleading.

The outcomes from investing are probabalistic, not deterministic.

A person may borrow money to invest and be very successful, but another person may replicate the process, borrow to invest, and lose everything. What happens for one person may not necessarily happen for another person. For example, in 2013, there were many people who stripped money from their homes using home equity lines of credit and invested all that money into bitcoin. Just about everyone called these people stupid, but now they are multimillionaires. Does this mean you should borrow to invest in bitcoin right now? No. Just because bitcoin went up from 2013 to 2017 it doesn’t mean the same thing will happen e.g. from 2018 to 2020. Investing is not deterministic. Luck plays a major role.

Do you need debt?

Suppose you put 100% of your investments into risky areas such as cryptocurrencies, frontier market ETFs, mining stocks, etc. If you feel that this is not enough risk, borrowing to invest may be the answer, but I believe that most people do not want to take on this level of risk.

Where debt may be appropriate is if you having little savings and need to borrow money to invest in something that you are fairly certain is greater than the cost of borrowing, e.g. borrowing money for education and training can in most circumstances be a good idea. Even though borrowing money will cost you in interest, you boost your job prospects and your income. If you have savings (or if your parents have savings) then it is better to use those savings to educate or train yourself, but if you don’t have this, you need to go into debt as a necessary evil.

unsplash-logoAlice Pasqual

Property vs Margin Loan vs Internally Geared Funds

I have mentioned in a previous post that I don’t like to buy a house. Instead, from experience, I find that it’s best to invest in ETFs. The reason is because ETFs give you flexibility to invest in what you want. If you buy a house as an investment, you are leveraging into one house, and although the general property market may behave one way it’s very hard to know how your house will perform individually. For example, the house price indexes from the Australian Bureau of Statistics averages out results for a number of different houses. If, say, you have a house in Sydney and Sydney house prices went up 5% this does not mean your house specifically went up 5% but that houses in general in Sydney went up 5%.

Furthermore, if you buy a house to live in, you have nothing but debt (unless you buy a house outright without a mortgage, but this is rare). You have a mortgage that you must pay monthly and any benefit from the investment is in the form of capital gains, which you cannot access until you sell the house. You cannot see capital gains, and you cannot access capital gains. Capital gains are invisible and, if there is suddenly a recession, all your capital gain that may have taken you decades to accumulate may disappear in a matter of weeks or months.

Capital gains do not provide the same sort of comfort that cold hard cash income provides. If you have a house, this problem can easily be fixed if you turn your house into an investment property and rent it out, but even if you had an investment property, the performance of an investment property just doesn’t compare to ETFs, in my opinion. Unless you really know how to pick good property, residential property in general has low yields, and after you pay property management fees, taxes, house repair and maintenance, etc, you don’t end up with much, especially not when compared to ETFs that have been engineered to seek out and pay high dividends.

Property is not a good investment. From my experience with residential property, once you buy a property, suddenly everyone wants money from you and everyone sends in their bills. Once you buy property, you need to pay bank fees, mortgage interest, lawyer fees (for conveyancing), real estate agent commissions, taxes (stamp duty and land tax), and property manager fees. Once something goes wrong in your house (e.g. the shower breaks) you need to get a repairman in to fix it, and he send you a bill as well.

Investing in high-dividend paying ETFs is completely different. You use an online broker (e.g. CommSec) to buy ETFs listed on a stock exchange, and then you sit back and watch money flow into your bank account. That’s it.

What about leverage?

One of the benefits of property is leverage. Because you borrow money from the bank, you have more assets exposed to the market, which means potentially higher gains. However, leverage works both ways. If the asset price does not go up enough to compensate you for the interest expense, you will lose money, and when you are leveraged, you will lose a lot of money.

That being said, leverage is a legitimate strategy if you want to accept higher risk to get higher returns. You are effectively moving up the efficient frontier.

Leverage is easy to achieve using ETFs. There are two options: (1) invest in leveraged ETF (e.g. the Betashares Gear Australian Equity Fund (ASX: GEAR)) or (2) apply for a margin loan to borrow money from the bank to buy stocks or ETFs.

Based on the modelling I have done, all these options (property, margin loan, and leveraged ETFs) have somewhat similar returns, so it doesn’t matter which you do so long as you feel comfortable with the risk you are taking. However, that being said, I think that out of these three choices, property is the worst because once you sign up to borrow money from the bank, you have a monthly mortgage that you must pay. You basically have a noose around your neck. If you don’t pay it, the bank will sell your house, and you will incur substantial transaction costs. When you have a margin loan, many people will try to scare you about the dreaded so-called “margin call” but this I think is overblown. The bank will only step in to induce a margin call when your debt levels are high relative to the value of your assets (they look at your loan-to-value ratio or LVR). They do this because, if you have a high LVR, the risk you are taking is too high, and the bank will get worried that the size of your debt will be too high relative to the size of your assets, which means you may owe the bank money that you may not pay. As part of their risk management, banks will monitor your LVR and intervene to lower your LVR if you raise it too much. This applies not only with stocks but also with property.

Banks will intervene to lower your LVR if you have not been paying your mortgage. If you miss a mortgage payment or two, the bank may allow it because your LVR will not be too high, but if it goes on for too long and your debt levels start to rise too much, the bank will intervene to sell your property. Therefore, regardless of whether you have a property or a margin loan, the bank will still intervene if the LVR is too high. So long as you keep watch of your LVR and make sure it is not too high, you will be fine.

When managing your LVR, the problem with property is that you have zero control over your portfolio. Once you buy your house, there’s littel you can do to affect the volatility of the asset. You have zero control. However, if you own a portfolio of shares or ETFs, you can control how much volatility there is in the portfolio by buying specific listed assets. Managing volatility is important to managing your LVR because volatility affects the value of the portfolio, which of course impacts the denominator in the LVR. If you use a margin loan to leverage, say, into the Chinese stock market (e.g. the iShares China Large-Cap ETF (ASX: IZZ)) then the risk you face (and therefore the probability of a margin call) will be much higher than if, say, you invest in stable assets such as global infrastructure (e.g. via the AMP Capital Global Infrastructure Securities Fund (ASX: GLIN)).

There is a much easier way of leveraging that involves zero risk of a margin call, and this is by investing in internally geared funds. With internally geared funds, you don’t borrow. Rather, you take your money and invest it in the fund. The fund manager collects your money (as well as money from other investors) and uses this to borrow money from the bank in order to invest in stocks. Because debt is handled by the fund manager (rather than you yourself), you don’t owe anyone anything ever. Betashares currently offer two listed internally geared ETFs: GEAR, which leverages into Australian stocks; and GGUS, which leverages into US stocks.

According to the Betashares website, the fund is “‘internally geared’, meaning all gearing obligations are met by the Fund, such that there are no possibilities of margin calls for investors.”

Gearing via an internally geared ETF, in my opinion, is the optimal strategy unless you want to borrow money yourself so you can claim the interest expense as a tax deduction. However, that being said, if you borrow money yourself, because you are only one man (or woman), you will typically pay between 4 to 6 per cent at current rates, but if you invest in a leveraged ETF, the fund manager is responsible for borrowing, and the fund manager has access to low institutional interest rates (supposedly around 3%) thanks to its buying power. You are therefore able to gain even greater leverage with internally leveraged ETFs.

Conclusion 

I used to be very much against gearing because I strongly believe that debt is slavery, but now I accept that gearing can be a legitimate strategy so long as you have robust downside protection. I believe that no matter what you do (when investing and in life in general), it’s good to take risk because more risk provides greater return, but risk must be managed. It is okay to take risk so long as you have a safety net or a fallback plan if everything goes wrong.