- Why borrowing to invest is a bad idea
- Borrowing to invest is expensive
- Tax and costs will eat up returns
- You can’t bank on an expected return
- The risks of buying mark to market investments on margin
- Why it’s almost always a bad time to borrow to invest
Very few people wanted to borrow to invest in March 2009, after the FTSE 100 had halved in two years and the US markets had been in meltdown.
The sad fact is gearing up1 only becomes popular in optimistic times.
Unfortunately, when the economy is doing well, shares and other investments have usually been rising in price for years. They are then typically very expensive, and so less likely to deliver good returns in the future.
This makes borrowing to invest in happier times much riskier than if you did so in a bear market.
When you should borrow, you won’t want to
In a bear market when prices are cheap, fewer people are willing or able to borrow to invest.
The thought of your borrowed money getting eaten up double quick by falling share prices is a terrifying one — and quite rightly, too, given the risks of borrowing to invest in mark to market assets like stocks.
I was fully invested by the end of March 2009, but I would never have been able to stomach gearing up to take on even more risk in those emotionally draining times. Just staying in a bear market takes willpower — borrowing could easily push you mentally as well as financially over the edge.
Money’s too tight to lend on
Ironically, it’s harder too to get anyone to lend you money when times are tough, cash is king, and assets are truly cheap.
Just ask a first-time house buyer after several years of falling prices. To get a mortgage they’ll need a perfect credit record and a deposit of 20% or more, to buy a house that’s maybe 25% cheaper than at the peak.
Buying the house after a crash is actually less risky for both them and the lender because it’s not so over-priced. Yet many won’t get financing.
Of course, such caution doesn’t last. In a decade or so the easy money will be back, and lenders will be doling out mortgages to all-comers. A few years ago you could get a 100% mortgage without even proving your income. It’ll happen again.
Similarly, in bullish times for shares, lending money to investors seems like a win-win for everyone.
Gearing up for the worst market ever
An example of lending to investors gone bad was the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
The speculators you see in those famous old black-and-white photos selling their cars or leaping out of windows weren’t just upset because they’d lost their money. They’d also lost lots of borrowed money, faced huge margin2 calls, and knew there was no way they would make the money back to repay their debts.
How did it happen? Well, the years leading up to 1929 were the definition of a go-go era for stocks. As a result, lots of brokers allowed their clients to invest on margin. This meant they could get, say, twice the exposure to a stock for the same money, which was great while prices were rising.
And prices did keep rising for longer than expected, helped in no small part by all the borrowed money entering the market. But then prices started falling, everyone tried to take their borrowed money out at once — which drove down prices even faster — and to cut a long story short, the world had the Great Depression on its hands.
Tip 2: Again, if people are only too happy to lend you money to borrow to invest in stocks, it’s almost certainly a bad time to do so!
Another way to gear up (if you must)
If you really want to borrow to invest — for example if you’re reading this article in bear market, and you think now is the time to be contrarian — then you might want to research covered warrants (aka options) or subscription shares.
Some of these offer a way to increase your gearing as with borrowing, but they limit the downside to you losing the maximum amount you invested in them.
Obviously losing all your money isn’t ideal, but it’s better than losing more money than you’ve got.
What’s the catch? Well, derivatives like these expire after a given time. This means if your investment doesn’t come good before a certain pre-determined date, you’ll lose your money when they expire.
Please remember, I am not responsible for your actions. Borrowing to invest and using derivatives is a game for specialist investors. You are very likely to lose money, as I hope I’ve made clear in this article.