Financial Strategies for Low Rates

Financial Strategies for Low Rates

Opportunities for a Low Yield World, Part 3

Today’s low rates are challenging for investors and may require changes not just to your investment portfolio, but also your overall financial strategies. In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the potential of rising defaults in high yield bonds and why it’s problematic to buy high yield bonds. Then in Part 2, we looked at four concrete ways to increase your yield today without radically changing your risk profile.

For Part 3, we looking at the broader ramifications of low interest rates on financial planning. My goal is always to explain and educate, but most importantly, to offer tangible solutions. Even in a crisis, there are opportunities.

But before we get into specific financial planning strategies, let’s consider two important points. First, low interest rates penalize savers. But low rates help borrowers. So, this is a great time to be a borrower, especially if you can lock in a low rate for 15, 20, or 30 years. Hopefully the current crisis will be short-lived, but borrowing at these low rates could be beneficial for decades to come.

Second, we should consider inflation. Bonds may be earning only 1%, but if inflation is zero, you would still have a real return of 1%. Your purchasing power is growing by 1%. Now, if bonds were yielding 6% and inflation was 5%, your real return would be the same, just 1%. While real returns are indeed quite low today, inflation is also below the historic average. So, your real returns aren’t as bad as they might appear.

Now, here are nine specific financial strategies to use today’s low rates to improve your situation.

Borrow for Appreciation

1) Refinance Mortgage. This is a great time to refinance your mortgage and lock in a low rate. Try to avoid lengthening the term of your loan and instead use low rates to pay off your mortgage sooner. If you can save 1% or more and plan to be in your home for several years, it will probably make sense to refi. I would be careful, however, of using low rates to buy the most expensive home possible. A home is largely an expense, rather than a great investment. Even better: use low rates to buy new investment properties. If you can borrow money to buy a business, investment property, or other appreciating asset, money is the cheapest it has ever been. Think long-term today!

2) Pay down debt. As long as you have a good emergency fund and a stable job, how much additional cash do you need? If you have student loans, a mortgage, car loans, or especially credit card debt, maybe it makes more sense to pay down your high-interest debt. Especially, debt that is not tied to an appreciating asset. Paying down 5% loans with cash earning 0% will save you interest costs.

Portfolio Adjustments

3) Reallocate away from bonds. With the 10-Year Treasury yielding under 1%, a lot of investment grade bonds and funds are going to have piddling returns over the next decade. Unless you really need to be defensive (maybe you are 5 years from retirement), having 40-50% earning 1% will likely be a drag on your portfolio. I have no idea what the stock market will do over the next 12-24 months. But, I do believe that a 90% equity allocation will probably outperform a 50% equity allocation over the next 30 years. Not everyone should take on more risk, but young people should invest for growth. The historical returns of a 60/40 portfolio are pretty much out the window with today’s low rates.

4) Alternative assets start to look more attractive when bonds are yielding 1%. Perhaps a 50% equity/30% alternative/20% bond portfolio could provide more return with less risk than a 60% equity/40% bond portfolio.

Retirement under Low Rates

5) Delay Social Security for 8% gains. When you delay your Social Security starting date, you can increase your monthly benefit by 8% a year (from age 66 to 70). Where else can you get a guaranteed 8% return today? No where. It may be better to spend down your bonds earning 1% from 62 or 66 until age 70 for the increase in SS benefits. The lower the rate of return from your portfolio, the more valuable the 8% Social Security increase becomes.

6) Take a pension, not a lump sum. If you have a pension from your employer, should you take the monthly payments or a lump sum? The answer will depend, in part, on your rate of return if you invest the lump sum option. Pension benefits have stayed up, but interest rates have moved down, which means that the pension is on the hook for very expensive benefits now. Companies are sweating this. But for a participant, it is tougher today to assume that you can do better by taking the lump sum. If your goal is lifetime income for you and your spouse, let’s run the numbers before making this decision. (We will also want to consider the credit quality of your Pension, its funded status, and your health and longevity profile.)

7) Immediate annuity. You can try to fund your retirement with bond income, but that’s more difficult with low interest rates. Immediate annuity payouts have not declined as much. So today, they are relatively attractive compared to bonds and eliminate the risk of outliving your money. With bonds, you have only two options under low rates: decrease the payout to yourself or start eating into your principal.

Estate Planning for Wealth Transfer

8) Trust Planning and intra-family loans. The Applicable Federal Rate and the 7520 rate are the lowest they have ever been. These low rates create opportunities for advanced financial strategies in estates and trusts. Intra-family loans: if you want to loan money to children or grandchildren for a mortgage, to buy your business, or to buy life insurance on your life, the interest rate required by the IRS is presently only 1.15%, for loans over 9 years.

9) Grantor Retained Annuity Trust. This is an irrevocable trust, which will shift assets outside of your lifetime gift and estate exemption. As the grantor, you receive income from the GRAT, and the remainder goes to your heirs (outside of your estate). The GRAT assumes the current 7520 rate of 0.80%, which is a low hurdle to beat. If your GRAT can do better than 0.80%, the heirs benefit.

Why do this Estate Planning now? The 2020 Estate Tax exemption of $11.58 million is set to sunset and revert to $5.49 million in 2026. If you are above these amounts, now is a great time to plan ahead. Placing assets into a GRAT now would remove their future growth from your estate. So, if you have assets which you think are undervalued today or which you expect will have significant growth going forward, removing them from your estate today could save tremendous future estate taxes for your heirs.

Low interest rates are problematic for savers and for bond holders, but also an opportunity for different financial strategies. Would some of these nine strategies enable you to benefit from low interest rates? I’m here to help you uncover ideas you haven’t considered, examine if they might be useful for you, and implement them effectively. Let’s take a look at your liabilities, your portfolio, your retirement income, and your estate goals and create a comprehensive plan for you.

Tax Comparison of 15 and 30 Year Mortgages

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I received a tremendous response from readers about last week’s article comparing 15 and 30 year mortgages (read it here). A number of readers astutely asked how the mortgage interest tax deduction would impact the decision of choosing between the 15 and 30 year note. Here is your answer!

For our example, we are looking at buying a $250,000 home, putting 20% down and assuming a mortgage of $200,000. At today’s interest rates, we’d be choosing between a 15 year mortgage at 3.00% or a 30-year at 3.75%. Here are the monthly payments, not including insurance or property taxes.

15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
payment $1381.16 payment $926.23
difference = $454.93

Over the full term of the mortgages, you will pay the following amounts of principal and interest:

15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
principal $200,000.00 principal $200,000.00
interest $48,609.39 interest $133,443.23
total payments $248,609.39 total payments $333,443.23

You will pay a significantly higher amount of interest over the life of a 30 year mortgage. The interest payment of $133,443.23 increases your total payments by 67% over the amount you have borrowed. And that’s at today’s rock bottom mortgage rates! I should point out that above 5.325%, the interest portion on a 30 year mortgage exceeds the original principal. In other words, the interest would double your cost from $200,000 to $400,000.

You can deduct the mortgage interest expense from your taxes, but the amount of the benefit you will receive depends on your marginal federal income tax rate. Here is the value of the tax benefit for six tax brackets.

15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
interest $48,609.39 interest $133,443.23
15%: $7,291.41 15%: $20,016.48
25%: $12,152.35 25%: $33,360.81
28%: $13,610.63 28%: $37,364.10
33%: $16,041.10 33%: $44,036.27
35%: $17,013.29 35%: $46,705.13
39.6% $19.249.32 39.6%: $52,843.52

Obviously, the 30 year mortgage provides much higher tax deductions, although they are spread over twice as long as the 15 year mortgage. If we subtract the tax savings from the total payments of the mortgage, we end up with the following costs per tax bracket.

Total Cost, after the tax savings
15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
15%: $241,317.98 15%: $313,426.75
25%: $236,457.04 25%: $300,082.42
28%: $234,998.76 28%: $296,079.13
33%: $232,568.29 33%: $289,406.96
35%: $231,596.10 35%: $286,738.10
39.6%: $229,360.07 39.6%: $280,599.71

It should not be a surprise that even though the 30-year mortgage provides higher tax deductions, that it is still more expensive than a 15-year mortgage, even when we consider it on an after-tax basis.

For most Americans, the actual tax benefit they will receive is much, much less than described above. That’s because in order to deduct mortgage interest, taxpayers have to itemize their tax return and forgo the standard deduction. As a reminder, itemized deductions also include state and local taxes, casualty, theft, and gambling losses, health expenses over 10% of AGI, and charitable contributions.

For 2015, the standard deduction is $6,300 for single taxpayers and $12,600 for married couples filing jointly. So, if you are a married couple and your itemized deductions total $13,000, you’re actually only receiving $400 more in deductions than if you had no mortgage at all and claimed the standard deduction. And of course, if your itemized deductions fall below $12,600, you would take the standard deduction and you would not be getting any tax savings from the mortgage whatsoever.

While the mortgage interest deduction is very popular with the public, economists dislike the policy because it is a regressive tax benefit. It largely helps those with a big mortgage and a high income. For many middle class taxpayers, the tax benefits of mortgage interest is a red herring. With our example of 3.75% on a $200,000 mortgage, even in the first year, the interest is only $7,437. That’s well under the standard deduction of $12,600 for a married couple, and the interest expense will drop in each subsequent year.

Compare that to someone who takes out a $1 million mortgage: their first year interest deduction would be $37,186 on a 30 year note. Simply looking at the amount of the mortgage interest will not determine how much tax savings you will actually reap, without looking at your other deductions, and comparing these amounts to the standard deduction.

Even if you are one of those high earners with a substantial mortgage, you have another problem: your itemized deductions can be reduced under the so-called “Pease limitations”. These limitations were reintroduced in 2013. For 2015, itemized deductions are phased out for tax payers making over $258,250 (single) or $309,900 (married).

Bottom line: If your mortgage is modest, your interest deduction may not be more than your standard deduction. And if you are a high earner, you are likely to have your deductions reduced. All of which means that the tax benefit of real estate is being highly overvalued by most calculations. There is a substantial floor and ceiling on the mortgage interest deduction and it provides no benefit for taxpayers who are below or above those thresholds.

Ceiling: Pease limits on tax payers making over $258,250 (single) or $309,900 (married).
Middle: receive a tax benefit between these two levels.
Floor: no benefit on deductions below the standard deduction of $6,300 (single) or $12,600 (married).

The 15 Year Mortgage: Myth and Reality

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Everyone seems to be talking about Real Estate again. This month, I sat with three friends, and remarkably, all three were looking at moving and buying a new house. Real Estate is hot right now in Dallas, and almost everywhere else, too. The losses from 2009 have been erased and prices are making new highs. Even if you aren’t looking to move, chances are good that your property tax assessment has moved up significantly in the past two years.

Major corporate offices are being built in North Dallas, bringing tens of thousands of jobs to the area. And those relatively well-paid corporate employees are going to want to live in close commuting distance to work. Home owners have equity in their property, and interest rates, which have remained low, are expected to start creeping up. Many feel like right now is the perfect time to move up to their dream house. It has been a seller’s market, with many houses being sold quickly and often meeting or exceeding asking prices.

Anyone who has read this blog or my book, knows that I recommend home buyers consider a 15 year rather than a 30 year mortgage. Let’s go through those numbers in detail and consider the myths and reality of your mortgage decision.

For our example, let’s assume you are buying a $250,000 house and putting 20%, or $50,000, down. You will finance $200,000 through a mortgage.

At an average current rate of 3%, your monthly payment on a 15 year mortgage (not including taxes or insurance) is $1381.16. The 30 year mortgage will cost you approximately 3.75%, but your monthly payment will be only $926.23.

15 Year Mortgage @ 3.00% 30 Year Mortgage @ 3.75%
payment $1381.16 payment $926.23
difference = $454.93

A lot of people will look at the 30 year mortgage and will say that it “saves” them $454.93 a month. Let’s break that down. On the 15 year mortgage, your first payment consists of $500 interest and $881.16 in principal. On the 30 year note, the first payment includes $625 in interest while only $301.23 is applied towards interest. Most of your payment on the 15 year note is going towards principal, building your equity, where as most of the 30 year payment goes towards interest. So, even though the 15 year note costs $454.93 more, in the first month, it applies $579.93 more towards your principal.

15 Year Mortgage 30 Year Mortgage
payment $1381.16 payment $926.23
principal $881.16 principal $301.23
difference = $579.93

After making 10 years of payments, your remaining balance on the 15 year note would be $76,864.99 and you will have paid $42,604.59 in total interest. On the 30 year, $200,000 mortgage, your balance after 10 years is still $156,223.55, and you will have paid $67,371.29 in total interest. At this point, the person who chose the 15 year note has paid off most of their loan and has the end in sight.

15 Year Mortgage @ 10 years 30 Year Mortgage @ 10 years
Balance $76,864.99 Balance $156,223.55
Interest Paid $42,604.59 Interest Paid $67,371.29

Assuming your home value increases a modest 1% a year, here’s a look at how your home equity would compare after 10 years under both mortgages.

15 Year Mortgage @ 10 years 30 Year Mortgage @ 10 years
Home Value $276,156 Home Value $276,156
Balance $76,865 Balance $156,224
Equity $199,291 Equity $119,932
Difference = $79,359

The nearly $80,000 difference in equity after 10 years shows how the 15 year mortgage is a really another way of “forced savings”. You would have equity to buy another house if you should want or need to move. Or if you’d like to retire, a 15 year mortgage may enable you to have no house payment when you reach retirement age.

So far this is pretty simple. But you may be wondering, what if I were to choose the 30 year mortgage and invest the difference of $454.93 per month? If you did this for 10 years, and earned 7%, you would have an investment account with $78,740. That’s almost the same as the difference in equity in the chart above.

Let’s take this further and assume that you invest the $454.93 for the full 30 years. How would this compare to paying the 15 year mortgage and then investing $1381.16 for the following 15 years?

15 Year Mortgage 30 Year Mortgage
Pay mortgage for 15 years, then invest $1381.16

for the next 15 years, at 7%

Invest the difference of $454.93 for 30 years, at 7%
Investment Value $437,760 Investment Value $554,959

This shows that choosing the 30 year mortgage and investing the difference versus a 15 year mortgage could generate a better outcome over 30 years. So then why would I suggest that home buyers choose the 15 year product instead? Here are two reasons:

1) If you go to a bank, mortgage broker, or realtor and say that you can afford a $1381 per month payment, they are not likely to help you decide between a 15 or 30 year mortgage. Rather, they will assume you will choose the 30 year note and then tell you how much house you can “afford”.

Instead of looking at the $250,000 house in our example, you could afford a $370,000 house with a 30 year note. And you will not be investing the $454 per month difference as in the theoretical example. With the more expensive house comes more expensive costs, including taxes, insurance, utilities, and maintenance.

People who become wealthy look at their housing as a cost, not as an investment. While you can afford a more expensive house under a 30 year mortgage, that doesn’t mean that it is in your best interest to do so, if you have other financial goals such as retirement.

It is vitally important to remember that there is a conflict of interest throughout most the real estate industry. People who are paid commissions have an incentive to put you in the most expensive house and mortgage that the bank will allow them to sell. They do not get paid to help you retire, save in your 401(k), or send your kids to college. It’s remarkable to me that six years after the sub-prime crisis that there has been so little change to the fundamental conflicts of interest in the real estate industry.

2) I don’t know very many people who actually have the discipline to invest the $454.93 a month they would “save” with a 30 year mortgage. More likely, they will increase their other discretionary spending (cars, vacations, furnishings, etc.) that accompany “keeping up with the Joneses” in a nice neighborhood.

The only way someone would be able to make it work would be automate the process and establish a recurring monthly deposit of $454 into a mutual fund or IRA. By the way, the 30 year example above only showed a good outcome because I assumed the investment was made into stocks and earn 7% for 30 years. If you put that money in cash and only earn 3%, the 15 year mortgage produces the superior outcome. The 30 year mortgage only produces a better outcome if you can greatly exceed the cost of borrowing (3.75% in our example). Here’s what it looks like if returns are only 3% over 30 years:

15 Year Mortgage 30 Year Mortgage
Pay mortgage for 15 years, then invest $1381.16

for the next 15 years, at 3%

Invest the difference of $454.93 for 30 years, at 3%
Investment Value $313,486 Investment Value $265,105

My fear of the 30 year mortgage is that it is not used by consumers or real estate professionals to maximize saving and growth investing. If it was, it would be a good tool for increasing your net worth. Rather it is used to maximize the amount of home you can purchase today.

For professions where career income is expected to rise only at the rate of inflation (such as teachers and musicians), your income is not going to increase fast enough to enable future saving when you take on a jumbo-sized mortgage. The result is that all your disposable income will go towards the house, with very little towards retirement, saving, or investment.

If today’s real estate market has you excited, be careful. It’s great that your home value has shot up 20% or more in the past couple of years. That makes it a great time to downsize, but actually an expensive time to buy a bigger house. We are lucky in Dallas that Real Estate prices have remained affordable; in many cities on the coasts, home buyers have no choice but to use the 30 year mortgage because prices are so high. If you start with the 15 year mortgage in mind when you are considering how much house you can afford, it can help you increase your net worth faster.