July has been travel month. Not for me, in fact. But London has been full of visitors – and Mrs FvL and I have been inundated. So much so, that it has been handy to have the Coastal Folly for overspill. But London has a lot to offer and it has been fun doing some touristy stuff.
Summer in London
Visitors in mid July saw the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the UK. London saw 40C for its first time. I confess I was down at the Coastal Folly at the hottest point, where sea breezes kept temperatures to a lovely 30C. So I missed the bring-your-cat-to-the-office mayhem going on up in town.
(UPDATED: it was hot in Downing Street too, with Johnson finally resigning early in July. That is too well covered for me to add any value here)
The markets had positive momentum throughout July. VWRL, Vanguard’s world equity ETF, was up throughout the month and ended up 6.2%. Bonds took a bit longer to rise but from mid month they too rose significantly. With the 25% leverage I’m targeting, my markets rose on average just over 6% – the fifth best result in at least 7 years.
This post drills in to the niche that I have found myself in – of having an uncomfortably high level of leverage margin during a bear market. None of this is worth trying at home so for you to continue reading I assume you are anticipating some schadenfreude, car crash blogging, or perhaps some material to share with your crazy crypto mates.
I have become quite a fan of margin lending. Just reviewing first of all the journey I’ve taken…
Normal mode: 10% leverage
I first dabbled with margin lending, literally on the margins, about 10 years ago. More recently, about five years ago, I decided to use the lending strategically, and for several years I set my target asset allocation to include approximately a 10% level of margin – i.e. I own assets amounting to 111% of my portfolio value, having borrowed 11% to fund the purchase; the 11% loan is 10% of the total asset value. I consider this level of leverage to be minimal risk, because the dividend yield off such a portfolio will, under auto pilot, pay off about a third of the loan every year, even if the markets suffer significant falls.
For completeness, I should mention the rest of the debt I hold. I have a modest level of mortgage debt on investment properties, on a mixture of interest-only and repayment arrangements. These investments generate significant free cash flow, which is mostly used to (over)pay down mortgage principal. I have no other significant debts. Unless otherwise stated, I ignore the mortgages when talking about my leverage level.
In terms of affordability ratios, in normal mode my total loans (including mortgages) amount to about 4x my income (including investment income), and about 10% of my net worth (including properties). Nothing here that would give my bankers too much trouble.
Unorthodox procedure 1: buying House 1
A key moment for me was when I took a large risk in 2016 by buying my Dream Home with a margin loan. I pushed my Loan To Value temporarily up to almost 40%. To be fair the Value here wasn’t my entire household net worth, it was only my own liquid portfolio, but it was still a level of leverage that could have caused me trouble. Fortunately, for a reason of anticipated reasons (windfalls I was expecting) and unanticipated reasons (Brexit hitting the pound, which reduced the value of my loan against my global portfolio) and the extended stock market boom, I never looked back from that initial high level of leverage, and four years’ later I had my leverage back down to 10% again.
It is worth highlighting the simple arithmetic behind my leverage fall from 38% to 10% over four years. Falling from 38% to 10% is a drop of almost 75%. And indeed during that time, my loan shrank significantly, but ‘only’ by 55%. At the same time my gross assets increased in value by 51%. The combination reduced my loan as a % of total value by ~75%, to 10%. Rising markets hide naked swimmers, and they rapidly reduce leverage (which is why we should expect western governments secretly to support inflation for a few years yet).
Not in London, which is lively, crowded even – and a delight to see. Pavements are busy, restaurants are proving tricky to get bookings in, the river is heaving. I even managed to get to ‘the beach’:
I managed to spend a bit of time down around the Coastal Folly too. I’m still finding my rhythm having two homes but so far it is going pretty well. A London kitchen project is running late / badly which gives us plenty of excuses to be down by the coast.
The UK saw a week disrupted by rail strikes but with Working From Home now an option and so many cycle/etc options it didn’t feel too disruptive for me. It was interesting though how positively the union leader Mick Lynch came across in the media and I think if we do find ourselves in a year of employee-driven strikes he will deserve the credit/blame for it. The RMT appears to be asking for about 9% pay increases for train workers. Drivers are coming up next, apparently, along with GPs (asking for 30%!). We are rapidly getting away from ‘inflation is just spiking up temporarily’ to ‘well, if they’re getting it, then I want it’ and that could take years – and a much more competent government – to shake out.
And it is this inflation gloom which is suddenly pervasive. Not just in the UK, though the UK does appear to be taking a particular bruising. Markets got hammered in June and, lest anybody forgets, they hadn’t had a good run of things earlier in the year either.