Sep 122016
 

A Philosophy on Debt

Many people have this oversimplified, binary view on debt which suggests you either have debt, or you don’t. But the world of debt isn’t black and white. Much like women’s erotic fantasies, debt tends to operate in many Shades of Grey. 😀 However instead of only 50 shades, the debt spectrum covers an infinite span of possibilities! But don’t get too excited yet, ladies. Let me first explain how debt really works. 😉

What is the Debt Spectrum?

A blog reader recently asked if I will always carry a certain level of debt. It’s hard for me to answer this question without first explaining what debt means to me. So today’s post will cover a slightly more advanced topic of personal finance; the Debt Spectrum.

I will discuss this important concept and how I use it to make decisions about whether to borrow money or pay down debt. 🙂 Let’s get started.

Whenever I think about debt I imagine a spectrum.

The debt spectrum can be thought of as a horizontal line that stretches forever in both directions. Along this line are numbers representing how much debt we owe. For example if we have a $100,000 mortgage and $20,000 student loan debt, then we would be situated at the +$120,000 mark on the spectrum.

16-09-debt-spectrum-graph-liquid

It’s important to remember that this continuum measures net debt owed. So for example in my case, I owe about $470,000 of debt. But I also own about $40,000 of other people’s debts. So my net debt owed is the difference between the two, which is +$430,000. I’ve marked this on the image above.

Why is this Important to Know?

The way to make money is to improve our investment returns. The way we do that is by maximizing profit while minimizing risk. The debt spectrum is an essential tool to gauge our investment risk. It can give us an overall indication of our debt profile so we know if we’re under-leveraged, over leveraged, or positioned just right. 🙂

How to Make Use of the Debt Spectrum

There is no specific formula for calculating where we should be along the debt spectrum. But here are 6 important variables that should factor into our decision.

The 6 Debt Spectrum Variables

  1. The cost to borrow (AKA: interest rates)
  2. Personal health condition
  3. Risk tolerance
  4. Investment objectives
  5. The state of the economy
  6. Future goals 

We’ll use myself as a case study to work through each of these variables.

  1. The average borrowing cost across all my debt outstanding is about 2.9%.
  2. No health problems.
  3. I have a good income, and no spouse or kids yet to take care of so my risk tolerance is quite high.
  4. Main objective is growth. Secondary objective is hedging.
  5. Slow economic growth with loose fiscal and monetary policies.
  6. Become financially free

So based on these factors which are true about my particular situation, I am sitting at $430,000 of net debt owed. This feels about right to me as I don’t find it hard to keep up with my debt repayment. But I’m also in a good position to capture any future market gains.

If none of the 6 variables change then my position on the debt spectrum shouldn’t change either.

If I come back a year from now, I can use my position on the debt spectrum today as a reference point to compare my financial progress. This will help me make better decisions over time as I keep track of my benchmarks. Let’s play around with the first variable (borrowing cost) to demonstrate how this works.

The Effects of Changing Interest Rates

Let’s say next year my average borrowing cost increases from 2.9% to 3.5%. Assuming all other factors remain the same, this means I have to lower my overall debt and move left on the debt spectrum.

16-09-debt-spectrum-left

This is because I can’t afford to service 3.5% on my debt as it stands today. So I may lower my net debt by $30,000 in order to keep my minimum debt payments the same amount every month. This way, I’m preventing any additional risk or financial burden to my cash flow.

On the other hand if my interest rate falls from 2.9% to 2.3% then I would go out and borrow more money which means moving right on the debt spectrum by accumulating more debt.

16-09-debt-spectrum-right

In this scenario, I can afford to borrow more money because the cost to service debt has gone down while nothing else in my life has changed. So I may increase my debt by $30,000 in this situation, and invest the money in an asset which has an annual expected return higher than 2.3%. For example, Enbridge Inc (ENB), a relatively stable blue-chip stock, currently pays a 3.6% annual dividend and has been gradually increasing its dividends for the past 60+ years! 😀

Enbridge recently agreed to acquire Houston-based Spectra to create an energy infrastructure empire. 95% of all cash flow in the combined company will come from long term contracts that are unaffected by oil and gas prices. The newly formed energy giant is basically guaranteeing continued annual dividend growth in the 10% to 12% range all the way through 2024.

I would simply ask myself which of the 2 scenarios below would MOST LIKELY lead to a better financial outcome for me 10+ years from now?

Option 1: Borrow money at 2.3% today to invest in Enbridge that pays 3.6%.
Option 2: Don’t take any action.

After doing the proper due diligence, I’ll probably conclude that option 1 would have a greater probability of making me more money in the long run. So that is most likely what I would do if my average cost to borrow went down to 2.3%.

At the end of the day if borrowing becomes cheaper, I increase my debt. And if borrowing becomes more costly, I reduce my debt.

The principle behind this strategy of moving back and forth on the debt spectrum is to maximize returns for the future without compromising security in the present.

The debt spectrum helps me track and evaluate how my overall debt should move when circumstances such as interest rates change. It’s also important to use the debt spectrum in conjunction with my stress tests to help me understand where my limitations are so I don’t lose my shirt in the next market correction.

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