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

Dividends vs Capital Gains

There are many people who claim that dividend investing is a bad idea because you end up paying more tax.

Although it depends on country, generally dividends are classified as income, and income is usually heavily taxed whereas capital gains are normally not taxed until you sell the investments. Investors typically sell all their investments when they retire. When investors retire, they are typically earning zero income (because they’ve stopped working), so any tax they pay as a result of capital gains tax is usually minimal.

If you invest in dividend-paying stocks, you are being taxed on those dividends, and in countries with progressive taxation, the tax you pay is usually very high because your salary from work is counted as income as well.

There is also an argument made that companies that pay high dividends sacrifice capital gains because money that the company pays out as dividends could have been reinvested back into the company for expansion.

One in hand is better than two in the bush

While these are all fair arguments, I still believe that investing in dividends is better even if you pay more tax. The reason is due to risk. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. When companies pay dividends, you get cold hard cash in your hands. If instead you sacrifice your dividends and instead allow the company to reinvest that money, you don’t know if that reinvestment will work or not. Most people employing a buy-and-hold strategy typically wait multiple decades expecting capital gains to accumulate throughout that time, and when they retire they sell their investments. However, if you wait three or four decades and amass large capital gains, what if, just before retirement, there is a very large global recession that sends asset prices down? Decades of work has been flushed down the drain.

Money printing, negative interest rates, automated trading, and high leverage have made capital gains unreliable

Dividends are simple. A company sells something, they make money, pay their expenses, and a portion of whatever is leftover is given to investors as dividends. Dividend payments therefore depend on the quality of businesses, the quality of their management, products, services, etc.

Capital gains, however, are completely different. In today’s world of constant money printing and stimulus and high leverage products that increase volatility, it’s hard to trust asset prices because asset prices can be instantly manipulated. Asset prices are now so divorced from reality that it’s difficult to know what real or fundamental value is. If a bubble never pops and is continually inflated, is it a bubble?

In my opinion, the lost two decades in Japan following the crash in its asset price bubble in the early ’90s will play out in Western countries. Japan was an economic leader but the crash of the ’90s was its peak, and since then they have simply tried to reinflate their economy with no success, and the economy has gone sideways ever since.

nikkei225-source
The Nikkei 225 since the ’80s

What has played out in Japan will play out in Western countries where peak growth has been realized. We will see a zigzag pattern as stock markets crash and then are reinflated before crashing again, and this continuous forever. The best way to make money in such an economy is to forget about prices and focus on dividends.

Dividends and capital gains are not necessarily a trade-off

Empirically, dividend-paying stocks don’t necessarily perform worse. Below is a chart of the S&P 500 index versus the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats index.

Dividend Aristocrats vs S&P500
The S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats index vs the S&P 500

Source: https://www.indexologyblog.com/2014/12/12/inside-the-sp-500-the-dividend-aristocrats/