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Holding a Mortgage vs Investing in Bonds

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

As some commentators have astutely pointed out, having a mortgage or other debt is similar to being short bonds in your portfolio because they have similar structures and often you can earn more by paying off the debt than by owning bonds. A good asset allocation should take this into account, but I haven’t really looked at it this way yet. Currently our portfolio is 5% in bonds, using the DEX Universe index which yields around 2.5% with a term around 9 years and a duration around 6 years. Our mortgage is 4x the size of our portfolio, at an interest rate of 2.99% which is fixed for most of the next 5 years.

Clearly this is a a pretty good time to be short bonds. The interest rates are firmly in favor of borrowers, and punishing to lenders. And we are taking advantage of this by holding on to our debt and investing more in stocks. The two questions to ask are:

  1. Is this the right balance?
  2. Does it make sense to hold bonds while having a mortgage at a higher interest rate?

Even though I haven’t looked at the mortgage as a reverse bond, we have already considered something similar. We started off our mortgage with fairly good equity and increased the regular payments 25% in the first year to make it go faster with just over 16 years left today. While we would like to increase the payments further, with the current environment we are taking everything else we can get in our regular budget and investing it in the portfolio (which is 95% stocks). So we’ve allocated the overall balances and monthly cashflow in a way that makes sense based on those incremental decisions.

The main reason to keep a small holding of bonds (I would even say the only reason for us to look at them today), is so we can re-allocate them in case stock markets fall further. If there is  a great buying opportunity we wouldn’t have much to invest besides our regular monthly cashflow, so the bond position could be deployed to a nice cheap market. The value is about the same as 1.5 months of automatic investments so the effect wouldn’t be huge. If the stock markets do rise quite a bit more and bond interest rates improve, we can always re-allocate some of the portfolio from stocks to bonds.

So it might make sense to move those holdings to stocks now or use it as a mortgage prepayment. If we don’t do one of those we are losing about 0.5% on the interest rate spread between the bonds and the mortgage, plus the risk that the prices of the bonds will fall when interest rates rise. Do those counter-balance the value of the option to buy stocks cheaply? It’s hard to say. The market doesn’t seem to be positioned for a big fall at the moment (and in the US we know someone who really doesn’t want that to happen). But volatility and investor behavior do crazy things so it could easily happen when we least expect it. And we aren’t set up to increase our mortgage balance without having to refinance (which I believe could be done up to the original balance with minimal costs). We don’t want it to go back up, so once we make a payment there we don’t plan to take it back which removes some options.

Including your debts as a negative balance could be a useful way to look at your portfolio, in combination with other off-balance-sheet items such as your future income and expenses. The decisions we’ve made are an approximation, but may not be the best if we look at them this way.

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  1. September 25, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Thank you for linking to my article. Personally, I like to look at my debt as if it were an amortizing bonds of sorts. The returns are good, and guaranteed.

    You bring up an excellent point in that investing in bonds does give you the option to move the cash to stocks. Unfortunately the way my debt works I do not have the option to increase my student debt balance if I wanted to change my “allocation.” I’ll think about this in the future.

    In any decision, trade-offs matter. As my balance is quite low, I’m happy to invest in my students loans as if it were debt.

  2. September 26, 2012 at 4:21 am

    It’s usually good to reduce your debts permanently 🙂 Even at low interest rates we still want to do this, just not as much as we would otherwise.

  1. December 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm

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