Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Payoff Mortgage v. Invest Stocks: Housing Myths Part 12

Previous: Home Decorating Costs: Housing Myths Part 11

Hock Your House?
Beware Over-Hyped Benefits of Leveraged Stock-Market Investments

Free Money Finance (FMF) responded to a pro-debt, pro-leverage Ben Stein article. Stein and some FMF commenters unfortunately repeated a number of false assumptions about stock market returns and dubious expectations about arbitrage net returns.

Sustained real returns near double-digit rates prove elusive.

People trick themselves into believing that low inflation (officially) under 3% is normal, that mortgage interest rates under 6% are normal, and that long-term, indexed stock market annual returns on investment (ROI) of 9-12% are normal. None of that is true.

Real (inflation/price-adjusted) stock/mutual fund ROI can be flat or negative over most of a decade. (Update 6/25/08: Remember that you are bleeding your mortgage interest even if your stock is "flat" and remember what a flat or negative first decade means for the long run in the world of compound interest.)

Hyped nominal stock returns near double digits often include periods of high inflation such as when consumer prices rose over 13% in 1979 (little real stock growth). (Update 6/25/08:...and the real growth can become real LOSSES when you remember your borrowing costs (see next paragraph).)

The periods of high nominal stock returns often coincide with high nominal debt costs (little arbitrage room): One measure records average mortgage rates of over 9% in most of 1991 and over 15% for about a year 1981-1982 (US Federal Housing Finance Board’s Monthly Interest Rate Survey (MIRS) National Average Contract Rate for purchase of previously occupied non-farm single-family homes, by combined lenders). The common apples-oranges mistake is comparing a recent short-term snapshot of low mortgage rates to past long-term inflation-contaminated stock returns, which is just as misleading as comparing a short-term stock-market crash returns to high long-term mortgage rates. The pro-leverage cheerleaders parrot the past 30-year S&P500 historical average but rarely mention the concurrently high 30-year fixed-rate mortgage average that leveraged people paid--because the 2nd half of the reality undermines their "easy money" sales pitch. (Update 6/25/08: Note the hypocrisy of people who drone on about decades-old "historical performance" until you remind them that they are leaving out the historical performance of COSTS, at which point they insist that old data is irrelevant because "that was then, this is now": Fine, then never mention past performance again, start with a clean slate on BOTH gains and costs, and we are left with a future, guaranteed mortgage loss compensated by nothing guaranteed on the plus side, and even a 5% mortgage could result in a double loss, as described later.)

Those hyped stock returns are sometimes intentionally inflated using a misleading method (arithmetic average annual return) in another improper apples-oranges comparison to mortgage rates: Use the proper annualized return (geometric mean) to compare directly to compounded mortgage-interest negative returns.

The popular major-market indicator Vanguard 500 S&P500 index fund (VFINX) cost about $30 in 1987 (20 years ago) and $140 today (late 2007), which is an annualized return of not 9-12% but only 8.01%--before taxes (Update 11/12/07: A VFINX $30 purchase and current $133 price puts the 20-year annualized return at 7.73%) (Update 7/13/08: A VFINX $30 purchase in 1987 and the current $114 price puts the 20-year annualized return at 6.90%. There are many other pluses and minuses such as dividends which might add 1.6% to the 6.90% for 8.50% BEFORE COSTS but a 0.15% expense ratio reduces that to 8.35% and a possible 0.5% mortgage PMI (often overlooked on the leveraged cost side) reduces that to 7.85%, plus possible mortgage points, dividend taxes, etc., before we even get to subtracting the main "mortgage rate").

The S&P500 20-year average performed about the same as an 8.xx% bond (before tax differences), and the US 30-year Treasury bond's yield was about 8% for most of the first decade after 1987 and peaked over 10% in 1987.

Borrow at 11% to earn 8%?

Anyone who in 1987 had cash to buy a house in full but decided instead to take an average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) to invest the cash in an S&P500 index fund might have crucified him/herself on a (July) 10.5% mortgage interest rate to earn 8% in stocks/mutual funds, for a clear loss.

The poor sap could pay more in additional fees to refinance when mortgage rates decreased but average rates fluctuated near 8% for most of the 2 decades (finally breaking below 6.5% about 2002). Even a small negative arbitrage percentage can cost you tens of thousands of dollars. (Update 6/27/08: You could get a 5.xx% mortgage in 2005 but VFINX price since 2005 performed about 3.2% (5% with dividends) so your 2005-2008 leveraged investment gave about a 0% net return. VFINX price since 1998 performed about 1.8% (3.xx% with dividends) but 1998 mortgages cost about 7% so your 1998-2008 leveraged investment bled a LOSS of NEGATIVE 3.xx% per year for a decade. Pro-leverage cheerleaders say things such as "up 20% since 1998" to conceal the dismal 1.8% annualized returns but remember that negative 7% compounded for a decade results in a 50% loss (DOWN 50% since 1998).)

(Update 6/28/08: The borrow-to-invest plan to lock in a low mortgage rate for 30 years often fails in the real world for a number of reasons: (1) the average American mortgage lasts for an average of only 7 years (according to ING) due to moving or other reason, so the average person does not keep a low rate for 30 years; (2) banks advertise ideal rates that apply to few people but the more realistic rate is the report of average rates actually obtained by borrowers (6.62% for 30yr fixed-rate $165k mortgage according to's 6/25/08 weekly national survey of large lenders, or 6.45% plus 0.6 points for 30yr fixed-rate mortgage according to Freddie Mac's 6/26/08 Primary Mortgage Market Survey (PMMS)); (3) people like to quote their rate but forget total costs such as points yet 0.6 @ $200k is an instant $12,000 loss before you earn a penny in the stock market; (4) people like to quote their mortgage RATE but their actual, annual debt cost is the APY (Annual Percentage Yield, which is higher than the rate because APY accounts for compounding during the year); (5) internet forum users claim to have a 5.xx% or even 4.xx% mortgage but best credit in ideal market conditions is rare so telling the average person, "Leverage your house in the stock market. First, get a 4.xx% fixed-rate 30yr loan," is like saying, "Make a million dollars. First, get $900k.")

The Iron Rule of Debt

Borrowing usually costs more than investing earns, given equivalent risk (with borrowing, you pay inflation + risk + someone’s salary/bank’s overhead; with investing, you (hopefully) earn inflation + risk – fees - taxes; therefore, with borrowing-to-invest, inflation and risk cancel out and you are left with transaction costs at both ends). Even the abnormally low mortgage rates of recent past coincided with the stock market crash of negative annual returns, so someone could have borrowed at 5% to lose 20% in the stock crash (-5-20), for a net 25% loss.

Investing in income-generating enterprises rather than attempting pure price speculation might help your odds but leveraged investments remain risky even with income-generating investments.

Hope Springs Eternal: Everyone Wants To Be above Average

Even people who know that the average active stock/mutual fund picker will underperform the market by a percent or 2 (e.g. 6-7% instead of 8%) think that they will be the ones who will outperform the iron rule of debt, by both picking and timing both debt and investment correctly, and therefore earning more than their debt costs. Every leveraged investor believes that he/she brilliantly will borrow at 8% to earn 11% when we know that quite a few people will be like the poor sap in 1987 who borrowed at 11% to earn 8%.

Those who beat the odds will be the "poster children" to recruit an army of saps. Even many of the saps will recruit more saps by falsely thinking they earned 11% when they actually earned 8% and by falsely thinking they had a positive net return when they actually had a negative net return. Take the cheerleading leverage/arbitrage hype with a grain of salt and learn the true risk and math before you act.

Good luck to all.


FMF said...

THanks for highlighting my post!

J at IHB and HFF said...

De nada.

Living Almost Large said...

How do you measure the tax break of the 401k or using a Roth IRA for investing over paying off a mortgage?

Why would you not max out retirement savings before paying off the mortgage?

And you can't go back in time and put money so what happens if you have more than the maximum in 10 years?

J at IHB and HFF said...



"Tax free" requires no adjustment (an 8% ROI is an 8% ROI). Taxable ROI must be reduced by the tax rate (e.g. 8% ROI x (1 - 0.15 tax) = 6.8% effective ROI). Other taxable activities such as Roth IRA investment make the tax rate like a front-load fee on the pre-tax amount ($4,706 income x (1 - 0.15 tax) = $4,000 net principal).

Whether or not you max retirement contributions depends upon your expected ROI from each competing activity (including any taxes or employer benefits). It is a matter of doing the math for your circumstances and guessing about the future.

What do you mean by "more than the maximum in 10 years"?

Brandon said...

Well, neither a borrower nor lender be (with fees on both ends)...But what will the developed world do with all of its excess capital and a hunger for more?

J at IHB and HFF said...


Hello and thank you for the good question.

This article addressed investing DEBT (paying 5% to try to earn 8% and net 3%) but investing real SAVINGS/CAPITAL is an entirely different matter (paying 0% debt-interest cost to try to earn 8% and net 8%, or aim for a conservative 3% to net 3% without the leveraged risk).

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