A HELOC Strategy: How to use a home equity line of credit to create investment income

Jonathan Chevreau of the National Post is one of the best financial columnists in Canada and I admire him because of the practical information that he provides to Canadians wanting to know how to invest their retirements savings.  He now has a column about HELOCs — home equity lines of credit:  Be wary of home-equity lines of credit.  Chevreau writes:

Veteran mortgage broker Michael Maguire has seen too many clients with balances at or close to the limit. Lenders portray HELOCs as assets, but they are debt products, making them potentially dangerous for those not disciplined in handling money. “Most seem to find it too easy to borrow and end up living at their limit,” says Mr. Maguire, of London, Ont.-based Mortgage Wise Financial.

I agree.  One should never use a HELOC to create consumer debt or bad debt (see my post, “Is debt sin?“).  But it is an excellent product for the small business owner.  I know a local businessman  in my neighborhood who bought the commercial unit in which he has his store with a HELOC.  He has a low interest rate (it was prime) and he can pay it off or draw from it depending on the cash flow of his business.  It is has been an extremely useful debt product for his business.

When the credit crisis hit in earnest in the Fall of 2008, we opened up a line of credit, and it has been a major boost to our investments.  I was able to pick up some serious value on the TSX in stocks whose distributions were many percentage points above the interest rate.  This helped me to formulate a strategy for investing.  As a conservative investor, I try to keep my line of credit low, at no more than about one-fifth of the credit limit so that  if the market goes down, there is still sufficient credit to “average down” by picking up larger positions of the same stocks as the prices plummet during a bear market.  Thanks to the HELOC, I’ve now been able to establish a steady income based on these distribution paying stocks (mostly in the Canadian oil and gas sector).

There are some serious risks:  (1) Most of these distribution paying stocks began to lower their payouts almost the moment I started using the HELOC because of the drop in commodity prices.  But then their share prices plummeted too as direct result.  Consequently, I was able to pick up even more shares at unbelievably low prices and to keep the income well above the interest payments.   (2) The interest rates could climb.  But from the time I started this strategy until today, interest rates have gone down and stayed at historical lows.  In anticipation of interest rate hikes, I regularly pay down the line of credit as fast as possible.  When it’s at zero for a while, then my risk appetite increases again.  (3) The share prices of my stocks could plummet.  But by using only a fraction of the HELOC, I pick up more positions as the market goes down.  So when the prices went down it actually helped me even though it created initial unrealized losses.   Eventually, from March 2009 until today, we’ve been in a relentless bull market–so that with a couple of exceptions, everything has gone up, up, up.  (4) Since your home is the collateral for this debt product, one has to be restrained in using it for fear of becoming homeless as result of bankruptcy.  This is another reason for using only a fraction of the credit limit.  (5) My stock portfolio is not diversified.  It is therefore highly susceptible to the volatility in the commodities market.  This choice is made because some Canadian equities in the oil and gas sector pay well, especially in the income trust sector.  Many of these will convert to dividend paying stocks in January 2011 because of rule changes and this may result in a lower yield.

Since this strategy aims at establishing an income, I’ve only done a very minimal amount of trading (i.e., “buy low, sell high”).  It is therefore a strategy of investing which is much closer to what is called “value investing” than “day trading”.  Here is a list of companies that I’ve established long positions:  erf.un, cpg, nae.un, pmt.un, day.un, bnp.un.  Those which are weighted heavily in natural gas have done less well than those which concentrate on oil.  But fortunately, the gas-weighted companies like pmt.un and erf.un have hedges that have made it possible for them to maintain their distributions at a high rate in proportion to their share price.

If there is a lesson in this for those who aspire to be righteous investors, it is to first establish equity:  the bank will not lend at the lowest interests rate without the security of some form of collateral, which usually means home equity.  This means for many years making the sacrifice of not spending money on every whim in order to pay down the house mortgage as soon as possible.

Here are some numbers to give an example of how the above strategy can work:

Using a HELOC, $31,200 spent on CPG (TSX) would buy 800 shares $39.00 per share.  The interest in the first month at 3.25% (current TD Canada Trust HELOC rate) would be $84.50; the dividend from 800 shares of CPG at .23 per share is $184:  Thus, the net in the first month is $99.50 or .32 % of the total capital put at risk.

The Obama Dollar

I wrote back in January that Obama budget deficit would lead to inflation.  Now finally financial writers are calling it the Obama dollar.

In personal finances, debt is not a good thing unless properly managed.  Advisers distinguish between good and bad debt.  Bad debt is spent on consumer goods and services (Christmas gifts, food, vacations, etc.).  Good debt is used to buy appreciating assets like a house or investments which will produce positive cash flow (e.g., Crescent Point Energy Corporation, which pays 23 cents per share Canadian per month).

I lamented that Obama called his profligate budget an “investment”.  But there is no question that government debt is bad debt.  It is used neither to purchase appreciating assets nor cash-producing investments; rather government debt is spent on programs and make-work projects that will never have a profitable rate of return.  1.4 trillion dollars was borrowed in the 2009 budget year and it has led to inflation of the US currency as I predicted in January.  Let’s consider the difference in Canadian dollar:  On Jan 23, the Canadian dollar traded at 1.234 to the US Dollar; now today it is at 1.03 per US.  This is a drop of nearly 17%.  But it is not as though Canadian currency is not also being inflated by low interest rates.  In Canada, most investments, including stocks and real estate, have nearly completely recovered from the downturn.  Housing is now completely recovered in much of Canada, and this has financial writers worried about a bubble in housing prices.

I am still shorting the US dollar (it means that I gave borrowed US to purchase Canadian-based Barrick Gold (ABX: NY), Enerplus (ERF: NY), and Daylight Resources Trust (DAY.UN: Toronto).

Writers and analysts often refer to the Federal Reserve Bank “printing” money.  Actually they don’t have to literally print money, because the central bank has the ability to create money without printing it.  This is done especially well when the Federal Reserve buys US treasury notes.  The dollar is called a “fiat” currency, because money can be made from nothing and out of paper and ink.  Eventually, however, printed money flow will have to increase in order to keep up with prices.  But until then, inflation remains an invisible monster which devours people’s savings and cuts into how much they can earn.

The Carter years (1979-1981) were formative for me, as I graduated from high school in 1981.  I remember them like yesterday, and I remember its high inflation and how Reagan implemented so-called Reagonomics, reining in profligate Federal Spending.  Reagan halted an out of control Congress and put America back on track.  Being a beneficiary after my mother’s death in 1977, I remember my own Social Security check being cut.  Unfortunately, Obama was apparently too busy taking drugs during those years (marijuana and cocaine when he could afford it) and so has returned us to the pre-Reagan economic policies and ideas; but he has, in collusion with the Democrat Congress, implemented economic policies which are even worse than what we had during the Carter malaise.

I met a man from Singapore whose father lived in want much of his childhood and therefore as an old man hoarded enough rice for many years.  In like manner, I am afraid of inflation, because that’s what I saw as a child, and I have been preparing for this moment since I first heard about the Obama budget.  I fear inflation as much as any other investment risk, perhaps more.  The so-called safe haven of the dollar is a complete myth, all the more so when it is the Obama dollar.