Is a Mortgage a Better Inflation Hedge Than Gold and Silver?

Sell Your Gold. Buy a House. Put Nickels in It.

Normally we would not look upon buying a single family house for personal use as an investment. But these are strange times we live in.

Why don’t we consider a single-family house for personal use an investment?

In a completely free market (and a free market means no central bank with a monopoly on currency issue and the ability to manipulate interest rates) housing prices would probably act like the price of all other goods and services. That is to say, that they would tend to move downward over time due to increasing production efficiency and competition among producers against the backdrop of precious metals money and competing currencies that would tend toward stability.

The notion that housing prices should rise at all is born of generations experiencing constant expansion of the money supply by the central bank. Rising house prices are just a byproduct of inflation. A house’s price has no more natural inclination to rise than the price of a gold coin, a good suit or a laptop sans inflationary policy and artificially low interest rates.

A house is at base merely a very durable good for consumption. It provides its user with an essential function: shelter. In terms of assets a house for personal use is more like a car or a kitchen appliance than it is like a stock in a company.

That is unless the house is used like an apartment building. When bought and rented out at a profit, then a house becomes sort of like a dividend-paying stock.

Even in a fiat currency environment with its strong inclination toward inflation, we see small pockets of the free market driving prices downward over time. Technology springs first to mind. But even items whose prices rise due to inflation tend to do so more slowly than wages so that the items themselves require shrinking percentages of median income.

This is not the case with markets in which the state tinkers most: things like medical care, education and housing.

In the case of both education and home ownership, government has tried to increase availability by encouraging increasing levels of debt thus driving up the costs. This is the opposite of the market’s mechanism of fostering lower prices through innovation and competition.

We want to make clear that housing for personal use would likely become increasingly cheaper in a free market. A home would never have been misconstrued as an “investment” in such a free market. It would have been seen for what it really is: a durable good meant for consumption and enjoyment.

The population would have rightly cheered the tendency for homes in this environment to get more and more affordable, just like they do when their electronic geegaws get more sophisticated while coming down in price. (The laptop on which your editor is typing this has a 17” screen, an absolute luxury that would have costs thousands of dollars just a few years ago which now costs us a little over $400). There wouldn’t have been this happy expectation of rising home prices (and simultaneous perverse fretting creating “affordable housing” for the poor who find home ownership increasingly impossible because of those rising prices).

As it is we don’t live in the fantasy land where free markets reign. We live in a world of government tinkering and central bank manipulation of currency supply and interest rates. We live in conditions that foster speculative asset bubbles. We have no choice but to act accordingly.

So while we lament the absence of freedom and free markets, we remain on the lookout for the financial pitfalls of a bubble-prone world. And we look out for the resulting opportunities.

And the opportunity right now? Use borrowed money to get a house for personal use. (Then fill the basement with nickels and silver, guns and non-perishable food).

Ten years ago our advice was different. We said to anyone who would listen, “Sell your house, rent a place instead of buying another house and use the proceeds from your sale to buy silver.”

That was the trade to make back when silver had been languishing in the single digits for two decades, having tumbled from an all-time high of nearly $50 in 1980. Housing in the meanwhile was starting to feel the effects of artificially low interest rates and becoming the bubble du jour. Real estate prices were rising fast as people took on more and more debt to buy houses.

The prices rises were beginning to fuel a bona fide mania. The public came to believe that real estate was a “can’t miss” investment whose prices would never go down again. Just about everyone wanted to get in before they were left behind forever.

Little did they suspect that there would be plenty of opportunity to get into real estate cheap in just a few years.

Silver was clearly undervalued for many reasons. Meanwhile real estate was in full speculative bubble mode. Anyone not caught up in the mania (and who recognized silver’s potential because of monetary and industrial demand reasons) would have sold the increasingly overvalued asset and bought the undervalued one. How well would that have worked out?

Pretty well. After 2006 real estate prices started sliding while silver started really taking off. Real estate is down around 30% from its 2006 while silver is up over 500%.

Now this may seem so clear in hindsight, but it’s the exact kind of clarity that the masses and the mainstream media never seem to have while honest money advocates often have it in spades. That’s because hard money advocates can see speculative bubbles for the central bank-induced temporary distortions they really are. Even when those bubbles are growing in precious metals.

For example, we have no problem admitting that at some point gold and silver will be in absolute bubble territory. There will be a time to get out of precious metals and into something else. We don’t know what shape the dollar or other currencies will be in at that time. But gold or silver may have reached their highs against other things. Like houses. Surprisingly, that time may be right now for gold.

Take a look at this chart:

It shows the median home price in the U.S. priced in gold going back over a century to 1890. Notice that in 2010 gold could buy as much house as it could during its previous all time high back in 1980.

The only other time gold has been able to buy as much house was back in 1980.

What is more likely at this point? Will houses get cheaper or more expensive in terms of gold? We would argue that the trend is ready to revert to the mean. The dollar may continue to fall so that both gold and houses get more expensive in dollar terms, but houses would get expensive more quickly. If the gold price in dollars stays relatively flat, then house price in dollars is likely to go up.

Bottom line: houses are set to get more expensive in terms of gold. Just as it was a good idea to trade your house for gold and silver before 2006, it is now a good time to trade your gold (at least) for a house.

Or more specifically, you should trade your gold for a down payment and then mortgage the rest. Get dollars for your appreciated gold in order to place a down payment. Then borrow the other dollars necessary.

You see, we wouldn’t actually recommend staying in dollars more than you have to. The dollar’s long-term fate remains the same. So locking in a fixed amount of dollar debt at today’s low borrowing cost means you are almost guaranteed to be paying back in much cheaper dollars in the future.

You can take advantage of gold appreciation to secure another inflation hedge at the bargain rates created by the Federal Reserve with the housing bubble and bust and today’s low interest rates.

The Fed is handing you a gift. Sure it is wrecking the economy, but like we said before, you can’t stop that. All you can do is act accordingly to protect yourself.

We may have our problems with Warren Buffett as a shill for the state in general and taxes in particular. We often wonder if the government actually pays the man to act as its charming spokesperson to lull the masses with his homespun advice.

But we have to acknowledge his business acumen even as we scratch our heads at his economic and political philosophy. The man has made ungodly amounts of wealth from knowing where to place his bets. And now he’s calling real estate the smartest place to put your money.

In a February 2012 interview with CNBC Buffett said that if he had a way to buy “a couple hundred thousand single-family homes” and easily manage them, he would “load up on them” and “take mortgages out at very, very low rates.”

Buffett said that right now a single-family home with a 30-year mortgage is a better choice than even stocks for investment purposes.

According to Buffett, “It’s a terrific deal. It’s a leveraged way of owning a very cheap asset now and I think that’s probably as an attractive an investment as you can make now.”

Why would we take Buffett word’s so seriously now? Because we can’t help but notice that he seems to be on the money no matter how you slice it.

Also it lines up with the opinion of another uncanny investor with a very sound understanding of economics…

Agora Financial managing editor Chris Mayer spotted this trend a while back. A little over a year ago he wrote:

During the past few years, rare was the investment thinker who said you should buy a house. Housing was in a bubble that was deflating.

But the investment seasons turn. Today some smart investors are once again saying you should a buy house. John Paulson is one of them.

You may know him as the man who turned the greatest trade of all time. Betting against the housing market, he netted a cool billion dollars for himself in 2007. One fund he managed rose 590% that year. Today, he is one of the richest men in America.

His advice today is very different. “If you don’t own a home, buy one,” Paulson said. “If you own one home, buy another one, and if you own two homes, buy a third and lend your relatives the money to buy a home.”

That’s a strong endorsement. It sounds similar to the advice another investor gave his audience in 1971, at the dawn of one of America’s biggest housing bull markets. The investor was Adam Smith (George Goodman) on The Dick Cavett Show. Here is a snippet from that conversation:

Smith: The best investment you can make is a house. That one is easy.

Cavett: A house? We were talking about the stock market. Investments…

Smith: You asked me the best investment. There are always individual stocks that will go up more, but you don’t want to give tips on a television show. For most people, the best investment is a house.

Cavett: I already own a house. Now what?

Smith: Buy another one.

It was good advice. In the 1970s, US stocks returned about 5% annually, which failed to keep pace with inflation. Still, it was an up-and-down ride. In 1974, the stock market fell 49%. But here are the average selling prices for existing homes in the 1970s as inflation heated up:

1972 – $30,000

1973 – $32,900

1974 – $35,800

1975 – $39,000

1976 – $42,200

1977 – $47,900

1978 – $55,500

1979 – $64,200

You can see that housing held up pretty well. And think about the effect of a mortgage on 80% of that house in 1972. That would mean $6,000 in equity, a sum that went up fivefold in eight years. It’s hard to find a better inflation fighter than that. Granted, today’s market is different, but still.

Apart from this, you might also reflect on the fact that it is quite absurd today to think that anyone can buy an average house for any of these prices – and that, too, is the point. The average price today is $257,500 – even after the great collapse in the last few years.

“If you have a 7% mortgage and your house is worth half a million dollars,” Adam Smith writes, “you may gripe about shoes and lamb chops and tuitions like everybody else, but your heart isn’t in it.” Your heart won’t be in it because you’ll be in fine fettle with your house.

Of course, you can do a lot better than 7% today. For the first time, the rate on 30-year mortgages slipped below that on the 30-year Treasury bond. You can get a 30-year mortgage at little more than 4% today.

Factoring in mortgage rates, housing affordability is back to where it was in September 1996. Then mortgage rates were 8% and the average price of a home was $171,600. As Murray Stahl writes: “One can actually buy a home for a monthly payment that is not very many dollars different from the monthly payment one would have needed in September 1996, when rates were significantly higher.”

Adjusted for inflation, Stahl points out that the payment for an average-priced home today is about 30% lower than it was 14 years ago.

The advice of Paulson and Smith starts to make sense now, doesn’t it?

Essentially, real estate is a way to buy now and pay later. And the case for housing extends to other property types, too. Owners of quality real estate are getting deals on mortgages that we are unlikely to see for a generation.

Real estate, after a long absence from the menu, is back on.

–Chris Mayer

Now, if you don’t plan on sticking around for around three years or more, then buying a house for personal use could be much more expensive than merely renting.

Sure, your monthly carrying costs will ultimately be lower than paying rent (at least in a non-bubble market when people would rather have a pricey mortgage than a cheap rent for a comparable property).

And of course you can deduct the interest payments (structured to be a higher portion of the monthly payment in the earlier years of the mortgage) from your income taxes. Add it all up and your monthly mortgage and interest payments could be as little as half renting a comparable property. And you are also moving toward ownership of the property (in a mere thirty years…after which time if you don’t pay the local government “rent” in the form of taxes, they will show you to whom the property truly belongs).

But that lower monthly carrying cost doesn’t come for free. There are those property taxes you’ll have to pay as long as you “own” the property, along with the transaction costs which could be 2-3% of the selling price. You would have had to save up as much as 20% of the total cost of the home in order to qualify for those lower monthly costs.

When you rent, that down payment money is available to do other things. When you buy that money is locked up in the house. In this environment, however, that may not be such a bad thing. The Fed has abolished the reasons to save the money while precious metals prices have already moved much higher making them less attractive to purchase now. The bargain now lies with housing. The advantage is more in favor of taking on a mortgage than it has been in years.

Lower housing prices, artificially low interest rates and almost guaranteed rising inflation make taking on a mortgage a smart move right now. It’s almost like getting a low interest loan in order to make a huge purchase of gold or silver back when they were cheaper.

Again, this wasn’t the case years ago when houses were expensive and precious metals were incredibly cheap. Try securing a fixed low interest rate loan from anywhere in order to buy precious metals. You won’t get that sort of a deal. But you will for a single family house, which right now can provide the same sort of hedge against a falling dollar that gold and silver do.

Right now perhaps the greatest opportunity to hedge yourself against inflation is getting a mortgage. Buy your inflation hedge now and pay for it with devalued dollars later.

Essentially real estate is the new inflation insurance that you can get on the cheap, much like silver and gold were back around the turn of the century.

Further a mortgage taken out now lets you leverage a whole lot of this cheap insurance, giving you command of much more money than you likely have available. If inflation takes off in the coming years, you could sell your house for far more inflated dollars than you would owe at that point.

Imagine if someone had lent you $250,000 at 5% interest fixed for thirty years in order to buy 50,000 ounces of silver in 2003. You would be sitting on over $1.5 million in silver right now.

That’s sort of the situation that getting a mortgage now could put you in. Of course a house has maintenance costs that precious metals do not. But these are costs you’d be covering with renting in any case.

And with this particular inflation hedge, you have a place to store your silver…along with your ultimate deflation and inflation hedge, the humble nickel (but more on that another time).


Gary Gibson

The Daily Reckoning