MoneySense and the Stockdale Paradox

August 28th, 2014 by Potato

I didn’t like the recent MoneySense tale of a capitulating bear in Toronto. It had some good stuff in there, but it was sandwiched by some awful thinking that does the readers a disservice.

Sandi picked up on one good bit: “It’s a purchase—it’s what I’ve been saving my money for.” While I do harp a lot on the insane costs and the importance of making a good comparison to renting, the purpose of that comparison is to make an informed choice of how to best spend your money for you. Many people are willing to spend more to own for the “pride of ownership” (me? Well, given how awesome this house is and the services our landlords provide, as well as seeing the risks inherent to owning, I would need a discount to owning to take the plunge). But how much more is always the question. So you do your comparison and you may say “meh, an extra $2k per year plus so much extra risk, that’s worth it to us.” Of course for many in Toronto and Vancouver, after running some scenarios it may be more like “Fuckity-buckity! It costs how much more to own?” So he said that money is for spending (which it is), and that his house is not an investment (which I suppose it’s not), but then never really clarified for readers how much more he was looking at or that it was a trade-off he was willing to make because yearly beach vacations are dumb and bad and nobody likes them anyway.

He does do a number of things right: he checks to see if his budget can handle an increase in rates; that he can survive a decent 20% correction and still stay above water in case he needs to move; he acknowledges that prices may fall and is not buying with visions of future gains in his eyes; and he’s not planning to move for a long time (though as a snarky aside, the assumption that he’s not planning to sell for at least 20 years may be a bit optimistic for someone in the magazine industry…).

However, the article also uses some seriously specious reasoning which brackets that good stuff. The worst was right up front:

“The reason is simple: I want to eventually retire with a paid-off house, and I was running out of time.”

There are many paths between not having a paid-off house today, and having a paid-off one in retirement (and that is not even commenting on the goal itself). For example, you can rent your larger family home right up until the day you retire — investing the difference the whole time — and then buy your retirement pad (which may be a downsizer from your working/family life place you rented) all in cash. Boom, paid off in one day and saved one round of transaction fees too. At no point does a mortgage have to come into it. Indeed, given the basic affordability issues he talked about in the preceding paragraph, the last way to get to a paid-off house in retirement should be to buy one now. The last part of that statement also makes no sense: there is no time limit, other than actually entering retirement. You don’t get to having a paid-off retirement pad any more surely from paying off a mortgage on a too-costly house at a young age than you do from renting and saving.

Let’s replace “house” with some other thing that isn’t so loaded and traditionally linked with a mortgage and the point should be clearer: “I want to eventually retire with a paid-off boat.” Well now it’s clearer: you could buy a boat now with a boat loan and pay it down, or you could rent a boat, save up, and buy one with cash when appropriate. That makes even more sense if you think there’s a good chance boats might be 20% cheaper in the future and that renting is less expensive for now — how does buying now make sense if your goal is to have one at some point before retirement? If there was a big boat sale on then maybe it would make sense to take the plunge and get a loan if you needed to. Instead, it looks like many buyers these days are getting suckered by the no interest until 2018 promotional event.

This whole “running out of time” thing reminds me of the Stockdale Paradox*: James Stockdale was in a POW camp in the Vietnam war for almost 8 years. When asked about his coping strategy, he said:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end…”

When asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied: “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

The paradox is that you have to believe in the fundamentals, that sanity will return. Trust the math, trust the logic, and trust that you will prevail in the end, but do not be too optimistic — the unrealistic hope for short-term salvation that is dashed again and again will wear you down and end you over time. You need to live in the gritty reality we face. When the bubble first started becoming a “popular” concern around 2008, some were calling for corrections to be as fast or faster than the US, especially given that we had the opportunity of witnessing their meltdown as a kind of sneak preview. I always figured it would be a slow, grinding process — but even I have been greatly surprised by how long the insanity has gone on for, originally pegging 2012 as the timeframe to be prepared to wait (4-5 years). The differences between the US and Canada that people loved to point out (such as how subprime lending was arranged, or non-recourse states) were largely differences of accelerating factors. It would make a Canadian implosion a painful, drawn-out affair compared to the US’s relatively fast (but still multi-year) implosion, but did not immunize us from a bubble.

Christmas has come and gone, and Easter too, but that does not mean that prices will continue to grow at triple the rate of inflation forever until only the Pentaverate** can buy in Toronto.

That’s why I focus so much on the price:rent metric and rent-vs-buy comparison: you have to live somewhere, so you may as well settle in somewhere nice because it’s gonna be a while. Even after the crash, it’s likely that there will be an undershoot in prices that will last for years, so you’ll have plenty of time to dance out of a stock portfolio. Of course you invest it.

Anyway, back to the MoneySense article at hand and the other half of the bracket — the conclusion:

“So do I feel like I got a good deal on my house? Not at all. By historical measures, I overpaid by quite a bit. But it was either that or no house at all…”

Either that or no house at all? That’s a false dichotomy. A really obviously bad one at that. Where has he been living until today? Is this another instance of the implicit assumption that if you don’t own you must be homeless, that renting is somehow equivalent to cowering under a sheet of cardboard? For such a massive purchase and component of the typical household budget, there is a surprising degree of reliance on memes, mantras, tradition, false dichotomies, and surface analysis. A bubble is as much about belief and memes as it is about interest rates, new developments, and price momentum. To see it as the conclusion in MoneySense by a self-described happy renter was infuriating. This isn’t “native advertising” in the Sun saying that, this is the concluding remark from the MoneySense editor-in-chief, and it just washes away all that good stuff about considering risks that came right above it.


Update/clarification from G+: in the article I’m not trying to slam the individual choice he made (the outcome). It’s not the choice I made, it may be sub-optimal, but he’s done his risk assessment and whatever, that’s his choice. So it’s all good there in the middle “here’s my choice, I’ve got my eyes open, and I’m prepared to deal with the consequences.” What set me off was that the good part is undermined by bracketing it in with things that basically say “and I had no choice whatsoever and was forced to do this.” Which just kind of blew the top off Mt. St. Potato, because I know people who would see that as being just as good as “rent is throwing your money away” or whatever. All the careful risk stuff sounds like an unnecessary aside when it’s the only choice there is anyway.

* – Hat-tip to Brooklin Investor for reminding me of this tale at precisely the right time for this rant.
** – The Queen, the Vatican, the Gettys, the Rothschilds, and Colonel Sanders before he went tits-up.

6 Responses to “MoneySense and the Stockdale Paradox”

  1. George Says:

    Excellent critique – I had similar concerns about the article. It’s so common to frame things as “either-or” instead of “yes, and”.

    I don’t hold anything against long-term renters who focus their efforts on investing and building up a nestegg, nor do I have anything against folks who buy young and build up equity over time via paying down a mortgage. The good part is making a reasoned decision about your life using the right information, the right metrics, and the right process. As you rightly note, it’s perfectly possible to retire with a paid-for house by renting, saving, and paying cash at 65.

    The interesting challenge will be to see if house prices level off or drop over the next few years. That makes retiring with a paid-for house that much more difficult if you haven’t already retired the mortgage…

    Have you considered writing a shorter letter to Moneysense? They’re usually pretty open to publishing critical letters in the next issue.

  2. save. spend. splurge. Says:

    I am interesting in getting a condo sometime in the future but not at the cost of “I overpaid but it was no condo or renting forever”.

    That’s just ridiculous. I wouldn’t overpay for a condo. I’d pay the RIGHT price for a condo that I think is fair.

  3. William --- First Quarter Finance Says:

    How does this post not have more comments?! I constantly have to remind myself life isn’t black and white. And I definitely need to buy soon.

  4. Potato Says:

    Thanks George, but I suspect it’s best to keep the crazy safely locked up here… and short is so hard for me…

  5. Steve Says:

    Really enjoyed this post! We rent and invest the difference currently because the difference between rent and buy is ~$800 a month. That’s too much of a price difference to buy. And we personally don’t really want to own a condo, so that plays a factor too. But if the math made sense to buy vs rent, of course we would buy the condo unit we are currently in!

  6. Potato Says:

    Thanks Steve!