The Opportunity Cost of Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 16th, 2013

Economics 101

Housing Sales drive the Economy because almost Everything for Sale is for the Household

Once upon a time the rule of thumb was to buy the most expensive house we could possibly afford.  We saved 20% for a down payment on a conventional mortgage.  We lived on a shoestring budget and paid our mortgage no matter what.  Even if we had to live on meatloaf and macaroni and cheese for the next five years.  Or longer.  We did this because we would be paying that mortgage payment for 30 years.  And though tough at first during those 30 years we advanced in our careers.  And made more money along the way.  Making that mortgage payment easier to pay as time went by.

So that was the way it used to be.  And it was that way for a long time.  Until the Federal Reserve started playing with interest rates to stimulate economic activity.  Altering the banking system forever.  Instead of encouraging people to save their money so banks could loan money to homebuyers they printed money.  Flooded the market with it.  Ignited inflation.  And caused housing bubbles.  Then the government took it up a notch.

Housing sales drive the economy.  Almost everything for sale is for the household.  Furniture and appliances.  Beds and ceiling fans.  Tile and paint.  Cleaning supplies and groceries.  Dishes and cutlery.  Pots and pans.  Towels and linen.  Lawnmowers and weed-whackers.  Decks and patio furniture.  When people buy a house they start buying all of these things.  And more.  Creating a lot of economic activity with every house sold.  So the government did everything they could to encourage home ownership.  And few governments did more than the Clinton administration.  By applying pressure on lenders to qualify the unqualified for mortgages.  Which gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.

Lenders used Subprime Lending to Qualify the Unqualified to Comply with the Clinton Administration

People in poor neighbors tended to be poor.  And unable to qualify for a mortgage because they couldn’t afford the house payments.  When these poor people happened to be black the Clinton administration said the banks were racist.  They were redlining.  And advised these lenders that if they don’t start qualifying these people who couldn’t afford a house that the full weight of the government will make things difficult for them to remain in the lending business.  So they complied with the Clinton administration.  Using subprime lending to put people into homes they couldn’t afford.

The main reason why people can’t afford to buy a house is the size of the mortgage payment.  Which can be pretty high if they can’t afford much of a down payment.  So these lenders used special mortgages to bring that monthly payment down.  The adjustable rate mortgage (ARM).  Which had a lower interest rate than conventional mortgages.  Because they could raise it later if interest rates rose.  Zero-down mortgages.  Which eliminated the need for a down payment.  Coupled with an ARM when interest rates were low could put a poor person into a good sized house.  No-documentation loans.  Which removed the trouble of having to document your earnings to prove you will be able to make your house payment.  Making it easier to approve applicants when you don’t have to question what they write on their application.  Interest-only loans where you only had to pay the interest for, say, 5 years.  Greatly reducing the size of the monthly payment.  But after those 5 years you had to pay that loan back in full with a new mortgage for the full value of the house.  Which may be more costly in 5 years.

So these lenders were able to meet the Clinton administration directive.  They were putting people into homes they couldn’t afford.  Just barely.  These people had house payments they could just barely afford.  Thanks to the low interest rate of their ARM.  But then interest rates rose.  Making those mortgage payments unaffordable.  With zero-down they had little to lose by walking away.  And a lot of them did.

The Interest on the Debt is so large we have to Borrow Money to Pay for the Cost of Borrowing Money

Buying a house is a huge investment.  One that we finance.  That is, we borrow money.  Sometimes a lot of it.  Because we don’t want to wait and save money for a down payment.  And because we want so much right now we buy as much as we can with those borrowings.  Doing whatever we can to lower the monthly payment.  With little regard to long-term costs.  For example, assume a fixed 30-year interest rate of 4.5%.  And we finance a $150,000 house with zero down.  Because we have saved nothing.  The monthly payment will be $790.03.  But if we waited until we saved enough for a 10% down payment that monthly payment will only be $684.03.  And if we saved enough for 20% down the monthly payment will only be $608.02.  That’s $182.01 less each month.  The total interest paid over the life of this mortgage for zero down, 10% down and 20% down is $123,610.07, $111,249.06 and $98,888.05, respectively.  Adding that to the price of the house brings the total cost for that house to $273,010.07, $246,249.06 and $218,888.05, respectively.  So if we wait until we save a 20% down payment we will be able to buy a $150,000 house and $54,723.02 of other stuff during those 30 years.  This is the opportunity cost of debt.

We are better off the less we finance.  Because long-term debts are with us for a long time.  And they don’t go away if we lose our job.  Or if interest rates go up.  Like with an ARM.  A large driver of the subprime mortgage crisis.  Let’s see what was happening before the housing bubble burst.  Let’s say we could buy that $150,000 house with a zero down mortgage with an adjustable interest rate of 2%.  Giving us a monthly payment of $554.43.  Very affordable.  Which helped get a lot of people into houses they couldn’t afford.  But then the interest rate went up.  And what did that do to someone who could just barely pay their house payment when it was $554.43?  Well, if it reset to 4% that payment increased to $716.12 ($161.69 more per month).  If it reset to 6% that payment increased to $899.33 ($344.90 more per month).  Bringing the total cost of the house to $323,757.28 ($150,000 principle + 173,757.28 interest).  Which is why a lot of these people walked away from these houses.  There was just no way they could afford them at these higher interest rates.

Interest payments on long-term debt at high interest rates can overwhelm a borrower.  Making the Clinton administration’s Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending insidious.  It destroyed people’s lives.  Putting them into houses they couldn’t afford with subprime lending.  But if you think that’s bad consider the national debt.  These are long-term obligations just like mortgages.  And currently we owe $16,738,533,025,135.63 (as of 9/13/2013).  At an interest rate of 3.9% the annual interest we must pay on this debt comes to $652,802,787,980.29.  That’s $652.8 billion.  Which is more than we spend on welfare ($430.4 billion).  Almost what we spend on Social Security ($866.3 billion).  And more than half of the federal deficit ($972.9 billion).  This is the opportunity cost of debt.  It limits what we can spend elsewhere.  On welfare.  Social Security.  Etc.  The interest on the debt has grown so large that we even have to borrow money to pay for the cost of borrowing money.  And there is only one way this can end.  Just like the subprime mortgage crisis.  Only worse.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #27: “Yes, it’s the economy, but the economy is not JUST monetary policy, stupid.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 17th, 2010

DURING UNCERTAIN ECONOMIC times, people act differently.  If business is down where you work, your company may start laying off people.  Your friends and co-workers.  Even you.  If there is a round of layoffs and you survive, you should feel good but don’t.  Because it could have been you.  And very well can be you.  Next time.  Within a year.  In the next few months.  Any time.  You just don’t know.  And it isn’t a good feeling.

So, should this be you, what do you do?  Run up those credit cards?  By a new car?  Go on a vacation?  Take out a home equity loan to pay for new windows?  To remodel the kitchen?  Buy a hot tub?  Or do you cut back on your spending and start hoarding cash?  Just in case.  Because those unemployment payments may not be enough to pay for your house payment, your property taxes, your car payment, your insurances, your utilities, your groceries, your cable bill, etc.  And another loan payment won’t help.  So, no.  You don’t run up those credit cards.  Buy that car.  You don’t go on vacation.  And you don’t take that home equity loan.  Instead, you hunker down.  Sacrifice.  Ride it out.  Prepare for the worse.  Hoard your cash.  Enough to carry you through a few months of unemployment.  And shred those pre-approved credit card offers.  Even at those ridiculously low, introductory interest rates.

To help hammer home this point, you think of your friends who lost their jobs.  Who are behind on their mortgages.  Who are in foreclosure.  Whose financial hardships are stressing them out to no ends.  Suffering depression.  Harassed by collection agencies.  Feeling helpless.  Not knowing what to do because their financial problems are just so great.  About to lose everything they’ve worked for.  No.  You will not be in their position.  If you can help it.  If it’s not already too late.

AND SO IT is with businesses.  People who run businesses are, after all, people.  Just like you.  During uncertain economic times, they, too, hunker down.  When sales go down, they have less cash to pay for the cost of those sales.  As well as the overhead.  And their customers are having the same problems.  So they pay their bills slower.  Trying to hoard cash.  Receivables grow from 30 to 45 to 90 days.  So you delay paying as many of your bills as possible.  Trying to hoard cash.  But try as you might, your working capital is rapidly disappearing.  Manufacturers see their inventories swell.  And storing and protecting these inventories costs money.  Soon they must cut back on production.  Lay off people.  Idle machinery.  Most of which was financed by debt.  Which you still have to service.  Or you sell some of those now nonproductive assets.  So you can retire some of that debt.  But cost cutting can only take you so far.  And if you cut too much, what are you going to do when the economy turns around?  If it turns around?

You can borrow money.  But what good is that going to do?  Add debt, for one.  Which won’t help much.  You might be able to pay some bills, but you still have to pay back that borrowed money.  And you need sales revenue for that.  If you think this is only a momentary downturn and sales will return, you could borrow and feel somewhat confidant that you’ll be able to repay your loan.  But you don’t have the sales now.  And the future doesn’t look bright.  Your customers are all going through what you’re going through.  Not a confidence builder.  So you’re reluctant to borrow.  Unless you really, really have to.  And if you really, really have to, it’s probably because you’re in some really, really bad financial trouble.  Just what a banker wants to see in a prospective borrower.

Well, not really.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  A banker will want to avoid you as if you had the plague.  Besides, the banks are in the same economy as you are.  They have their finger on the pulse of the economy.  They know how bad things really are.  Some of their customers are paying slowly.  A bad omen of things to come.  Which is making them really, really nervous.  And really, really reluctant to make new loans.  They, too, want to hoard cash.  Because in bad economic times, people default on loans.  Enough of them default and the bank will have to scramble to sell securities, recall loans and/or borrow money themselves to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if their timing is off, if the depositors demand more of their money then they have on hand, the bank will fail.  And all the money they created via fractional reserve banking will disappear.  Making money even scarcer and harder to borrow.  You see, banking people are, after all, just people.  And like you, and the business people they serve, they, too, hunker down during bad economic times.  Hoping to ride out the bad times.  And to survive.  With a minimum of carnage. 

For these reasons, businesses and bankers hoard cash during uncertain economic times.  For if there is one thing that spooks businesses and banks more than too much debt it’s uncertainty.  Uncertainty about when a recession will end.  Uncertainty about the cost of healthcare.  Uncertainty about changes to the tax code.  Uncertainty about new government regulations.  Uncertainty about new government mandates.  Uncertainty about retroactive tax changes.  Uncertainty about previous tax cuts that they may repeal.  Uncertainty about monetary policy.  Uncertainty about fiscal policy.  All these uncertainties can result with large, unexpected cash expenditures at some time in the not so distant future.  Or severely reduce the purchasing power of their customers.  When this uncertainty is high during bad economic times, businesses typically circle the wagons.  Hoard more cash.  Go into survival mode.  Hold the line.  And one thing they do NOT do is add additional debt.

DEBT IS A funny thing.  You can lay off people.  You can cut benefits.  You can sell assets for cash.  You can sell assets and lease them back (to get rid of the debt while keeping the use of the asset).  You can factor your receivables (sell your receivables at a discount to a 3rd party to collect).  You can do a lot of things with your assets and costs.  But that debt is still there.  As are those interest payments.  Until you pay it off.  Or file bankruptcy.  And if you default on that debt, good luck.  Because you’ll need it.  You may be dependent on profitable operations for the indefinite future as few will want to loan to a debt defaulter.

Profitable operations.  Yes, that’s the key to success.  So how do you get it?  Profitable operations?  From sales revenue.  Sales are everything.  Have enough of them and there’s no problem you can’t solve.  Cash may be king, but sales are the life blood pumping through the king’s body.  Sales give business life.  Cash is important but it is finite.  You spend it and it’s gone.  If you don’t replenish it, you can’t spend anymore.  And that’s what sales do.  It gets you profitable operations.  Which replenishes your cash.  Which lets you pay your bills.  And service your debt.

And this is what government doesn’t understand.  When it comes to business and the economy, they think it’s all about the cash.  That it doesn’t have anything to do with the horrible things they’re doing with fiscal policy.  The tax and spend stuff.  When they kill an economy with their oppressive tax and regulatory policies, they think “Hmmm.  Interest rates must be too high.”  Because their tax and spending sure couldn’t have crashed the economy.  That stuff is stimulative.  Because their god said so.  And that god is, of course, John Maynard Keynes.  And his demand-side Keynesian economic policies.  If it were possible, those in government would have sex with these economic policies.  Why?   Because they empower government.  It gives government control over the economy.  And us.

And that control extends to monetary policy.  Control of the money supply and interest rates.  The theory goes that you stimulate economic activity by making money easier to borrow.  So businesses borrow more.  Create more jobs.  Which creates more tax receipts.  Which the government can spend.  It’s like a magical elixir.  Interest rates.  Cheap money.  Just keep interest rates low and money cheap and plentiful and business will do what it is that they do.  They don’t understand that part.  And they don’t care.  They just know that it brings in more tax money for them to spend.  And they really like that part.  The spending.  Sure, it can be inflationary, but what’s a little inflation in the quest for ‘full employment’?  Especially when it gives you money and power?  And a permanent underclass who is now dependent on your spending.  Whose vote you can always count on.  And when the economy tanks a little, all you need is a little more of that magical elixir.  And it will make everything all better.  So you can spend some more.

But it doesn’t work in practice.  At least, it hasn’t yet.  Because the economy is more than monetary policy.  Yes, cash is important.  But making money cheaper to borrow doesn’t mean people will borrow money.  Homeowners may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest mortgages, but they aren’t going to take on additional debt to spend more.  Not until they feel secure in their jobs.  Likewise, businesses may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest debt.  But they are not going to add additional debt to expand production.  Not until they see some stability in the market and stronger sales.  A more favorable tax and regulatory environment.  That is, a favorable business climate.  And until they do, they won’t create new jobs.  No matter how cheap money is to borrow.  They’ll dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

NOT ONLY WILL people and businesses be reluctant to borrow, so will banks be reluctant to lend.  Especially with a lot of businesses out there looking a little ‘iffy’ who may still default on their loans.  Instead, they’ll beef up their reserves.  Instead of lending, they’ll buy liquid financial assets.  Sit on cash.  Earn less.  Just in case.  Dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

Of course, the Keynesians don’t factor these things into their little formulae and models.  They just stamp their feet and pout.  They’ve done their part.  Now it’s up to the greedy bankers and businessmen to do theirs.  To engage in lending.  To create jobs.  To build things.  That no one is buying.  Because no one is confident in keeping their job.  Because the business climate is still poor.  Despite there being cheap money to borrow.

The problem with Keynesians, of course, is that they don’t understand business.  They’re macroeconomists.  They trade in theory.  Not reality.  When their theory fails, it’s not the theory.  It’s the application of the theory.  Or a greedy businessman.  Or banker.  It’s never their own stupidity.  No matter how many times they get it wrong.

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