It’s hard to borrow yourself rich—especially when you can’t deduct the interest.
A friend from Connecticut tells me she and her husband were recently inspired to sell some securities and pay off their mortgage. She figures the market is due for a correction.
A clever move, I say, and not just because stocks are richly priced. Mortgages, even though rates are at near-record lows, are expensive. And there’s a tax problem.
The tax angle relates to what went into effect last year—something Trump called a tax cut, although it raised federal taxes for a lot of people in high-tax states like Connecticut. For our purposes what matters is that the law made mortgages undesirable.
Used to be that people would say, “I took out a mortgage because I need the deduction.” That doesn’t work so well now. The new law has a standard deduction of $24,400 for a couple, and you have to clear this hurdle before the first dollar of benefit comes from a deduction for mortgage interest.
Most middle-class homeowners aren’t itemizing at all. For them, the aftertax cost of a 4% mortgage is 4%.
If you are still itemizing, your interest deduction may not be worth much. You are probably claiming the maximum $10,000 in state and local taxes. (If you aren’t, you are living in an igloo in a state without an income tax.) That means the first $14,400 of other deductions don’t do anything for you.
A couple with $2,400 of charitable donations and $15,000 of interest is in effect able to deduct only a fifth of the interest. The aftertax cost of the mortgage depends on these borrowers’ tax bracket, but will probably be in the neighborhood of 3.7%.
Before 2018, your finances were very different. You no doubt topped the standard deduction (which was lower then) with just the write-off for state and local taxes (which didn’t have that $10,000 cap). So all of your mortgage interest went to work in reducing federal taxes. You could do a little arbitrage.
If your aftertax cost of a 4% mortgage was 2.7%, an investment yielding 3% aftertax yielded a positive spread. You’d hold onto that investment instead of paying off the mortgage. It was quite rational to sit on a pile of 3% tax-exempt bonds while taking out a 4% mortgage to buy a house.
Now that sort of scheme doesn’t make sense. The aftertax yield on muni bonds is way less than than the aftertax cost of a mortgage. This is true of corporate bonds, too: Their aftertax return, net of defaults, is less than the cost of a mortgage today.
So, if you have excess loot outside your retirement accounts, and it’s invested in bonds, you’d come out ahead paying off a mortgage.
What about stocks? Should you, like my friend, sell stocks held in a taxable account in order to pay off your mortgage? This is a trickier question. If your stocks are highly appreciated, perhaps not. You could hang onto them and avoid the capital gains.
If they are not appreciated, or if you have a windfall and you’re deciding whether the stock market or your mortgage is the place to use it, the trade-off changes.
Stock prices are, by historical measures, quite high in relation to their earnings. The market’s long-term future return is correspondingly less.
In the short term, stocks are entirely unpredictable. Neither my friend, nor I, nor Warren Buffett can tell you whether there will be a crash next year to vindicate her decision or another upward lurch that will make her regretful.
For the long term, though, you can use earnings yields to arrive at an expected return. I explain the arithmetic here. A realistic expectation for real annual returns is between 3% and 4%. Add in inflation and you’ve got a nominal return not much more than 5%.
From that, subtract taxes. You’ve got a base federal tax of 15% or 20% on dividends and long-term gains. There’s also the Obamacare 3.8% if your income is above $250,000. You have state income taxes, no longer mitigated by a federal deduction for them (because you’ll probably be well above the $10,000 limit no matter what).
Add it all up, and you can look forward to an aftertax return from stocks of maybe 4%. That is, your expected return could be only a smidgen above the aftertax cost of your mortgage. Worth the risk? Not for my friend. Not for me.
What if I’m wrong about the market, and it’s destined to deliver 10%? Or what if you are a risk lover, willing to dive in with only a meager expected gain? Mortgages are still a bad way to finance your gamble.
You don’t have to borrow money at a non-tax-deductible 4%. I can tell you where to get a loan at slightly more than 2%, with the interest fully deductible.
The place to go is the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Instead of buying stocks, buy stock index futures.
When you go long an E-mini S&P 500 future you are, in effect, buying $150,000 of stock with borrowed money. You don’t see the debt; it’s built into the price of the future. The reason the loan is cheap is that futures prices are determined by arbitrageurs (like giant banks) that can borrow cheaply. The reason the interest is in effect deductible is that it comes out of the taxable gains you report on the futures.
Futures contracts are taxed somewhat more heavily than stocks. Their rate is a blend of ordinary rates and the favorable rates on dividends and long-term gains. Also, futures players don’t have the option of deferring capital gains. Even so, owning futures is way cheaper than owing money to a bank while putting money into stocks.
One caveat for people planning to burn a mortgage: Stay liquid. Don’t use up cash you may need during a stretch of unemployment.
But if you have a lot of assets in a taxable account, it’s time to rethink your mortgage. Debt is no longer a bargain.