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.
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
- The cost to borrow (AKA: interest rates)
- Personal health condition
- Risk tolerance
- Investment objectives
- The state of the economy
- Future goals
We’ll use myself as a case study to work through each of these variables.
- The average borrowing cost across all my debt outstanding is about 2.9%.
- No health problems.
- I have a good income, and no spouse or kids yet to take care of so my risk tolerance is quite high.
- Main objective is growth. Secondary objective is hedging.
- Slow economic growth with loose fiscal and monetary policies.
- 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.
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.
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.
Buying Debt vs Selling Debt
To continue with our example of changing interest rates, what if many years from now we experience much tighter lending rules and the average interest rate on a 5 year mortgage term is 10%? This is where things get interesting. 😀
We know that as interest rates move higher the amount of debt we owe needs to be reduced so the carrying cost doesn’t get out of control. Well if the cost to borrow continues to increase then eventually having no debt at all would be the best policy.
However, we don’t have to stop at just being debt free. We can continue to move further left from the $0 position on the debt spectrum. This takes us into negative debt territory. So instead of owing debt (or borrowing,) we can be owning debt (or lending.)
Doing this means debt will become our asset instead of liability so we can use debt to earn income. 🙂
Instead of selling our debt and paying the creditor interest, we can buy up other people’s debts and collect interest from these debtors. This can be done in many different ways. For example, back in the early 1990s, the government was offering bonds with a 10% interest rate to the public where anyone could have bought them through the Canada Savings Bonds Program.
Wow! Imagine making 10% investment return from the government. What a great deal! 😀
There’s not much incentive to use leverage when the cost of going into debt is prohibitively high at 10%. So instead of borrowing money, the best strategy here is to lend money. 🙂 This means buying and owning all the debt we can. In a high interest rate environment we want to be as far left of the $0 mark on the debt spectrum as possible.
In other words, if the cost of money becomes more expensive, then we should be a buyer of debt. And if interest rates fall like they have in the past couple of decades, then we should be a seller of debt. This is why my debt has grown over the years. I’ve been selling more and more of my debt because it’s become easier to finance the loans. Increasing my total debt owed has simply been the rational thing to do from my perspective. 🙂 And it appears that some other Canadians are doing the same.
Investing is about Compromise
For me to consider paying off all my debt today, my average borrowing cost would have to be 7% or higher.
Why 7%? Well because I don’t feel confident in my ability to earn more than 7% annually on my investments. So I’d rather pay down my debt which will effectively guarantee a 7% return on my money. Holding on to Enbridge stocks that pay 3.6% doesn’t make sense anymore when it costs 7.0% to maintain that position. So it’s all about making the best use of my money today to maximize future returns. 😉
Realistically my position on the debt spectrum will probably fluctuate between $250,000 to $500,000 for the next 10 years. Eventually I will divest away from stocks and purchase more bonds until I’m finally on the left side of the $0 mark on the debt spectrum. It doesn’t mean I’ll be debt free. It just means I’ll have more debt investments than debt liabilities. 🙂
When people talk about investing in bonds or fixed income, they’re essentially just referring to buying debt.
So if someone in retirement has a $800,000 bond portfolio, and still has his $200,000 mortgage with no other assets or liabilities, then he would have a net debt of (-$600,000.) His position is marked on the debt spectrum image below.
Since -$600,000 is on the left side of the $0 point, it means the retiree owns more debt than he owes, which is a good thing. I bet there are real people today who are in this kind of situation where they have 100% of their nest egg in fixed income investments.
So far we’ve only discussed the effects of interest rate changes, but there are 5 other variables to consider. The reason why this retiree’s position on the debt spectrum is so different than mine (about $1 million apart,) even though we have similar net worths and both live in a low interest rate environment, is because of the other variables.
For example, variable #4 is about investment objectives. I’ve mentioned above that mine is about growth and hedging, which is why I prioritize on expanding my asset holdings in multiple currencies. But maybe the retiree’s main objectives are stable income and preservation of capital. In that case his bond investment strategy and fixed payments on his mortgage are exactly in line with his objectives. 🙂
Everyone is already on the debt spectrum. But most people don’t realize it yet. By keeping track of where they are along the spectrum and being mindful of the 6 variables as circumstances change, I hope more people will understand how to make debt work for them at all times. 😀
Random Useless Fact: