The financially savvy are truly different from the rest of us. Know why? They get to use the tax code to their advantage in ways most other folks can't or don't or won't.
They are borrowing against the equity in their homes at low rates and then investing the money in tax-deferred accounts, according to the co-authors of a new study, "Financial Sophistication and Housing Leverage among Older Households," scheduled to be published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues.
In other words, these people, mostly baby boomers, are getting a tax break on both sides of the deal, according to Hyrum Smith, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech's College of Agricultural and Applied Economics; Michael Finke, an associate professor at Texas Tech University; and Sandra Huston, who is also an associate professor at Texas Tech University.
These investors get to deduct the mortgage interest on their tax returns and then they get to watch their money grow tax-free.
To find out more about the paper, go to this website.
The study authors say they found that taxpayers who itemize were more likely to have high mortgage debt and they also found that investing in a tax-sheltered retirement account was related to higher mortgage debt.
"The results seem to indicate that the more sophisticated households are responding to government tax incentives by borrowing against their house and investing in their 401(k)," he said.
To be sure, there's nothing illegal here. "The government has created this incentive," said Finke, who also noted that researchers have previously expressed wonder why even more people don't take advantage of this arbitrage.
In 2007, for instance, Gene Amromin of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and others suggested in a presentation that households were, somewhat irrationally, leaving about $1.5 billion on the table annually by prepaying their mortgage debt instead of saving in their tax-deferred accounts.
But is it a good idea to take advantage of this arbitrage?
In some ways, it's not a good idea. For instance, Finke and his co-authors said the incentive -- the mortgage interest deduction -- that encourages homeowners to borrow against the value in their home results in this potential problem: It appears to encourage greater housing leverage and vulnerability to housing price shocks. Indeed, "there is increasing concern, especially in light of the recent housing crisis, that rising mortgage debt among older households is a prelude to foreclosure or financial distress during retirement," Finke and his co-authors wrote.
Plus, you are more vulnerable to what Finke called income shocks. "If you lose your job at age 58 and you've got extensive mortgage debt and you've got all your money in sheltered accounts it might not be so easy to take your money early out of sheltered accounts to pay your mortgage every month," he said.
What's more, you could lose on both bets. The value of your house could decline along with the value o your 401(k), which is exactly what happened staring in 2006. "If you are in your late 50s, having an extensive proportion of your retirement savings invested in equities funds is the rational thing to do," said Finke. "It just didn't work out very well in 2008 and 2009."
Another potential downside is this: "If tax law changes, especially the mortgage interest tax deduction, then you've got a little bit of risk there." Finke said.
And finally, there's the risk that you won't invest the borrowed money in a sheltered account. Paying down one's mortgage is an example of thrift and sound financial decision making. "And that's essentially a behavioral argument," he said. "That is saying that people are able to accumulate wealth passively by paying down their mortgage. And, if you encourage people to start pulling money out of their house they might then spend it on things that are not in their long-run best interest. So, you also have to consider when you pull money out of your house, are you really going to invest it in a sheltered account or are you the kind of person to buy an RV and deplete your wealth right before you need it the most in retirement."
One positive, however, is this: When you look at your total portfolio, not just your financial assets, but the entire portfolio from which you plan to fund your retirement, you'll find that taking on more mortgage debt changes your overall asset allocation in ways that might be beneficial.
"As we age, we tend to accumulate home equity which is essentially increasing the bond share of our portfolios," he said. "Borrowing against this home equity allows us to maintain our optimal portfolio balance of stocks and bond-like assets."
The home equity, Finke said, is not providing you the same kind of upside potential as an equity portfolio will. "What an economist would say is that you should have a rational allocation of your household wealth in bonds and equities," said Finke. "But what happens over time, with your home is that you are essentially investing more and more in a bond-like asset. And, so, by simply paying off your mortgage you're investing more and more in a bond. And it may be rational for you, especially if you are in your 50s to be shifting some of the wealth into the stock market."
So what if you decide lever up your home and invest in retirement accounts? For his part, Finke advised that you make sure you're in a position to maintain your mortgage payments should you suffer an income shock. "You're exposing yourself to a certain amount of risk so you want to make sure you have enough in emergency funds to make your mortgage payment."
Finke is not, however, making a public policy statement. He's not suggesting that lawmakers do away with the mortgage interest deduction, which would certainly depress the prices of upper-middle- to high-priced homes, the type of homes typically purchased by taxpayers who are itemizing deductions.
But lawmakers should recognize the implications of maintaining a mortgage interest deduction, which doesn't benefit taxpayers who take the standard deduction on their tax returns.
You are encouraging upper income households to increase their leverage and that could make them more vulnerable during a recession. "If they lose their job, they may also lose their home," Finke said.