Jim Lorenzen, CFP®, AIF®
I think many, if not most, professional advisors would agree that even 99% of “the affluent” make the same mistakes made by virtually every other American.
Fact is, even “rich” people worry about running out of money because they live at a higher standard and have a larger ‘cash burn’.
But, many wealthy people know something others don’t.
Programmed bias: Since childhood, we’ve been taught the same things, which is why most of us tend to do the same things. Some people, however, were maybe lucky enough to be mentored or did a lot of non-traditional financial reading – reading outside the financial entertainment universe. Some learned from experience.
Whatever the reason, it seems that those who’ve achieved true wealth often were doing the kinds of things the rest of us either didn’t know about or were unwilling to do – it’s hard to go against everything we’ve been taught, which may be why, according to one figure I saw, less than 7% of all Americans have amassed even $500,000 in investment assets... and far fewer have achieved financial wealth in the millions.
Myth: Debt is bad. We’re all told to get out of debt and remain debt-free. The idea is that we’ll be safer and be able to sleep better at night. But, is that true?
Reality: Destructive debt is bad. Constructive debt can be good!
Lessons from the banks
All through American history, most people have come to see banks as corporate giants who’ve become rich off of the rest of us. Banks borrow money from consumers constantly. They do this by paying interest on savings accounts, CDs, and lines of credit.
Think about it. They make a concerted effort to borrow every single day – they even buy advertising to get people to lend them money! And, of course, you know why they do it. They lend the money out at higher rates and make their money on the margin.
No mystery there. It’s called arbitrage. Banks want a rate of return on the money they loan out.
Banks do it; why don’t the rest of us?
Mistakes most Americans make
Back in the late 1970’s, I read an interview with Jack Nicklaus, and I’ve never forgotten it. In addition to his golf winnings and endorsement money, he had a successful golf course design business [he still has it and today he has more than 50 projects under development all over the world; in fact, over 80% of his business is now outside the United States].
In that interview, he mentioned that he’d made some mistakes early in building his business – mistakes he was correcting. He said that in the early years he had all of his net worth tied-up in his business. He said it was only later he realized that this type of equity position didn’t have a rate of return. Business growth should arrive organically, not through loss of return.
From that point on, he used his business as a vehicle to generate cash flow (excess revenue after all taxes and expenses had been paid) and began to build his net worth away from his business where he could actually generate a rate of return.
Common programmed bias: We’ve been told: Pay-off your home! Own it free-and-clear. Some are taking a second look at this idea.
Now, I’m not suggesting you take out a second trust deed and put the money into the stock market, even for long-term growth. That’s probably not a good idea. Besides, your situation may involve another set of circumstances, needs, and objectives that this piece isn’t even addressing.
But, that doesn’t eliminate this as a valid financial strategic question:
- Is holding home equity really a good idea? Or,
- should we be doing what banks do?
After all, banks have a ton of liabilities on their balance sheet; yet, most banks are completely solvent and consider their operations debt-free!
Lesson: Debt and solvency aren’t mutually exclusive financial concepts. You can have debt – even a lot of debt – and still be solvent.
Consider this example:
Let’s say you own a $500,000 home that has $250,000 worth of equity.
Your balance sheet would look something like this:
Assets: $500,000 home
Liabilities: $250,000 mortgage
Net Worth: $250,000
Point: Your equity will rise or fall with the housing market, but, there’s no real rate of return.
Even if your home appreciates 10% to $550,000, you would have $300,000 in equity – on paper; but, it’s not a return.
Now, ask yourself this: How accessible is it in an emergency? If you lose your job or become disabled, will you qualify for a loan – hard to do when you’re out of work – to access that equity then?
Maybe not. You’d have net worth, but no money. You could take a reverse mortgage; but, that takes time and expense. It’s also something very difficult, if at all possible, to undo.
How about this? What if you were to refinance or add a mortgage for your $250,000 in equity and loaned that money out?
Your balance sheet would look something like this
Assets: $500,000 house + $250,000 returning a fixed return
Liabilities: $500,000 house
Net Worth: $250,000
No difference in net worth, except you now have a fixed return, too! The return is taxable, and it must exceed the cost of the loan on an after-tax basis to be profitable; but, it’s doable if you can find one or more quality, i.e. “safe” or “secured”, borrowers that can pay a dependable and competitive return..
Now, what if the house appreciates 10% just as before and your fixed return was just half that, at 5%, your balance sheet would look like this:
Assets: $550,000 house; $262,500 returning a fixed return (compounded)
Net Worth: $312,500 – Now, that’s a $62,500 difference.
You still have your equity. Except now it’s not IN your home; it’s BESIDE it. And, if done correctly, that equity will be accessible without loan applications or even delay, as you will see.
Oh, yes; you may have noticed I didn’t mention taxes on the 5% return… that’s because you should be loaning your money in a tax-advantaged way… and at compound interest!
If equity has no return “inside” the house; the key is to reposition it “beside” the house where it can earn a return and provide liquidity.
The proper arrangement of assets can be very powerful.
Interest: Yes, you’d be paying interest on your mortgage – let’s assume it’s around 5%. That interest is tax deductible! At a combined state and federal income tax rate of 33%, you’d really be paying 3.34%. Now, if you can loan it out at a compound after-tax rate that’s higher, you’re a winner…. And if it’s tax-advantaged, you can really grow your future!
Where do you get the money to service the additional mortgage interest until you can deduct it?
Why not simply change your withholding exemptions on your paycheck?[ii]
Do you stay in debt forever?
It’s worth repeating: You’re not eliminating your equity. You’re just re-positioning it from your house and putting it into a kind of side account – one sitting “next to” your house; except this side account earns a rate of return.
Suppose some years from now your home is valued at $800,000 and it’s fully mortgaged; but, your side account has $900,000 in it – very possible with both the power of compounding and using a tax-advantaged strategy – would you consider that mortgage ‘as good as paid-off’? I certainly would, and then some.
That’s why banks consider themselves solvent even with liabilities on the books. If you have more money than needed in your equity side-bucket, you’re solvent, particularly if it’s accessible on a tax-advantaged basis.
Who’s really in a safer position? Let’s compare.
If you were doing this, how would your financial picture compare to your neighbor who’s doing what everyone else is doing?
Just two points tell an interesting story:
- If both of you lose your income, which one is able to access equity more easily for living costs or emergency expenses? Which one of you has true safety and liquidity? You have liquidity; your neighbor may not qualify for a loan.
- Which one is better protected against foreclosure? A bank will foreclose on a home with 100% equity faster than one with 100% debt… and it’s proportional at every degree in between. And, it doesn’t matter if your neighbor paid $50,000 toward the balance the week before! The monthly payment is still due and if not paid… well, you know.
Your position? Just like the banks: You may have liabilities on the books; but, you’re not in debt.
Quick review: Your money is (should be) in a position that’s secured, liquid, and offering a consistent, conservative, fixed rate of return. You can tap it for emergencies. Your bank has no incentive to foreclose. You want to pay off your house? You can (should be able to) do it in a heartbeat.
Who’s in the better position?
- Your neighbor: He believed everything he was taught by people – probably parents – who also followed the same formula. He may not be able to access a loan, savings could be diminishing, and his equity is tied-up, inaccessible without adding more debt or taking a reverse mortgage, which may not be advisable.
- You have all your equity… it’s just BESIDE your house, not IN it. The banks can’t touch it there, until you decide. You have instant access.
You need a quality borrower: Who do you loan your money to?
Your uncle Fred? Your neighbors? Do you run out and buy real estate notes? I don’t think so. They don’t satisfy the 4-point test:
Why not loan your equity to an investment-grade financial institution and receive a return?
There are ways to design sound retirement strategies using well-known “investment grade” financial institutions that can provide the right platforms and designs required – provided – you’re not trying to ‘get rich’ overnight.
Note: You could loan money to large corporations and institutions by simply buying their bonds – a bond is simply an IOU that pays interest until the principal is returned at maturity – but, bonds wouldn’t satisfy the 4-point test. They’re liquid, but have to be sold on the open market, and likely at a loss in a rising interest rate environment. While they can provide safety and predictability, they’re not tax-favored since interest is generally taxed at regular income tax rates.[iii]
There are conservative strategic approaches to arranging financial assets that can not only address the issues cited above, but can also provide for a tax-advantaged retirement, as well.
What are 85% of Fortune 500 CEOs doing, as well as many members of Congress?[iv]
Many investment-grade financial institutions have offerings that meet the 4-point test; and the strategies used by so many CEOs and members of Congress are actually available to anyone.
Worth noting: If your objective is to build a side-fund that will accomplish the goals outlined above and also provide for a tax-free retirement, you can’t wait until you’re ready to retire. That simply won’t work. The retirement objective must be addressed much earlier – the earlier the better, but age 60 is about the limit. The reason is simple: It takes time to make the proper arrangement of assets and to build the tax-advantaged value you’ll need. As I said, it’s not a ‘get rich quick’ scheme; it’s a conservative strategy – conservative strategies always take longer – involving quality investment-grade institutions.
I’ve created a report that reveals what these people know about arranging assets so that they can not only plan for a tax-free retirement, but they also can arrange for a sizable side-fund that can be accessed tax-free. You’ll need to go through an opt-in page to access it. You can access that report here.
I think you’ll find it interesting and likely very helpful.
[i] The Power of Zero, David McKnight. Acanthus Publishing, 2013.
[ii] Be sure to discuss this with your tax advisor
[iv] See Footnote #1