On Anonymity, Garth Turner, Leverage, and Controversy

April 28th, 2011 by Potato

Garth Turner is a very polarizing figure. He was a controversial politician, and was one of the early voices to raise a warning about a Canadian housing bubble, getting a book and blog out of the deal. Indeed, I have to credit him for first bringing the idea to my attention; of course, I went out and did my own homework to come to the same conclusion, a step that is not to be skipped. I read his blog Greater Fool pretty much every day, but yet I don’t have it linked in the blog roll on the sidebar. That’s because it’s hard to recommend him: he’s crass, vain, evasive at times, confrontational at others. I read it, but it’s certainly not for everyone. Often, I find myself providing Garth-to-English translations as he glosses over crucial details or makes up his own slang that accumulates after years of daily posts.

Garth is not a personal financial blogger, out to rationally lay out the details of a plan and analyze the ways to optimize it. He’s not some student out to cheerfully converse and debate with the denizens of the internet all hours of the night. He provides brief glimpses of possibilities, and then tells people to go get a qualified financial advisor for details. When pressed, he’s fond of various terse two-word answers: get lost, get real, grow up, come on. I remember about two years ago he had one of those open forum sessions with the Globe where readers send in questions and he answers for an hour and the whole transcript goes up on their website, and he answered someone’s question with a two-word brush-off and I was appalled: it’s one thing to do that on your own site, quite another in a Q&A with the Globe!

But that’s just who Garth is. He talks about the housing situation in emotional terms, and provides some good anecdotes from his readers, but he’s not a details guy. So earlier this week Garth suggested to one reader that he borrow against his paid-off house to invest in a “balanced portfolio (my fav is 40% fixed, 60% growth) making 8% or so […] This is called diversification. It mitigates against having the bulk of your net worth in one asset alone. […] And it’s something nine in ten Canadians would never dream of doing. Which is why only one in a hundred of us have a net worth of a million, while seven in ten own houses.”

Others jumped on this particular advice, the most prominent being Canadian Capitalist saying “This advice is so bad that I don’t even know where to begin.” In the comments, Michael James (who by now you show all recognize as another PF blogger I link to a lot and have great respect for) said: “I’m tired of hearing recommendations to leverage a house for “diversification”. After borrowing against a home to invest in other assets, the home represents exactly the same percentage of net worth that it represented before borrowing. Changes in the home’s value affect net worth in exactly the same proportions whether you have a mortgage or not. The only difference from a risk point of view is the added risk from the new assets. This may or may not be a good strategy, but it is not diversification in the sense of reducing risk.”

And that’s well said. It’s not diversification in the usual sense of reducing risk: borrowing against the house is not the same as selling it, you still have exposure to it if the price goes down. But, as he says, you do get exposure to the new assets, which is part way towards diversification (but with increasing risk because you’re leveraging to do it). I don’t think it’s bad advice in Al’s case, but the issues of leverage — and other details like what a balanced portfolio should be and the issue of whether it makes sense to hold bonds when borrowing to invest — are lacking from Garth’s post. It’s harsh, but not entirely unwarranted criticism.

Then in today’s post, Garth comes out swinging: “Which brings me to this. It’s a column trashing me on the wimpy MoneySense site, written by a young father of three brave enough to be anonymous.”

That brings up a very good question of what it means to be anonymous these days. Is Lady Gaga anonymous? Madonna, Mark Twain, Prince, Robin Hobb? Canadian Capitalist, first off, isn’t anonymous: Ram has had several articles written about him (which are not hard to find on his website), his actual face is his forum avatar. But even if that weren’t the case, is “Canadian Capitalist” anonymous, in this sense? Is “Potato”? Sure, we don’t use our real names, but how much would our “real names” mean, anyway? There’s definitely a distinction between the fleeting anonymity of user213 leaving a comment on Garth’s blog with a dummy email address and then disappearing into the ether never to be seen again, and the pseudo-anonymity of CC or Potato, Gabe or Tycho, Yahtzee: established personas on the intertubes, with consistent messages, accountability (at least as much as if I was blogging with my real name), the ability to be contacted and engaged in dialog with. I publish under both my real name and Potato, and I daresay I’m better known and more widely read as Potato, with a longer track record (going on what, 13 years now of BbtP?). I would be more anonymous if I used my real name.

A name-brand source of information, opinion, ranting, and hilarity.

So I don’t think the “brave enough to be anonymous” ad hominen is warranted or fair. The internet seems to be growing up and moving away from pseudo-anonymity, but it’s still there (just as it is in “real” publishing) and I think it’s important to distinguish between actual anonymity and a nom de plume.

As for the debate itself, I think by now you can see I’m somewhere in the middle: I think that with what we know about Al and his interest in leverage and diversification, borrowing against his home to invest is perhaps a good plan for him (though if he wants to move up and is concerned about a real estate correction, selling and renting a larger place would be an even better plan). Expecting 8% on a diversified portfolio is maybe a little optimistic (and past returns are no guarantee of future outcome), being able to secure a HELOC at 3% will require some good negotiating skills, and it may not make sense to include the safer spectrum of bonds while also borrowing at the same time, but nothing is out of the ballpark there. However, Garth didn’t fully discuss the risks, the limits of the diversification, what he meant by balanced portfolio, etc. Greater Fool is where you go to get the kernel of an idea, an emotional appeal about not shunning risky assets entirely for the illusory safety of a house, or a fun cautionary tale about a couple with ridiculous exposure to real estate. It’s not the place for a detailed financial plan and a rational discussion of the trade-offs involved.

And a final note: I’m generally slightly opposed to leverage, and the bizarre case of holding low-yield fixed income like a savings account or government bonds while also having debt. But it can make sense in some cases. For instance, recently one poster at CMF wanted to try to find a way to maximize her mortgage over-payments to finish it off, but noted that income could be unpredictable and needed a long amortization just in case. To me, that’s an excellent case where it’s safer to maintain the leverage of the mortgage and keep some money in a savings account: if you do run into a rough patch, it’s very difficult to get that overpayment back, you still have to make your regular mortgage payments to keep from facing foreclosure, and you can’t eat your principal. An emergency fund, even if it costs you a bit in interest spread, can be a very handy thing (and in this particular case, she was looking for an open mortgage to really go nuts with the prepayments, but a closed mortgage is so much cheaper that to keep the emergency fund and just pay it at the end wouldn’t cost anything).

2 Responses to “On Anonymity, Garth Turner, Leverage, and Controversy”

  1. Michael James Says:

    I see Garth Turner as kind of a poor man’s Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Both men are deliberately controversial, and both have some useful things to say along with crap about “armageddon” in Turner’s case or insulting the bathing habits of the French in Taleb’s case. The difference for me is that Taleb has more important ideas to convey making it worth the effort to put up with the fact that he may be the most arrogant person on Earth. Turner just doesn’t have enough substance for me to put up with the nonsense. This doesn’t mean I think Turner is always wrong. For example, the Vancouver real estate market may be in for a correction, and people should make sure that their finances could handle a 50% drop in house prices. But, I wouldn’t recommend counting on a big correction soon. Another possibility is that prices remain at current levels for a couple of decades. Another possibility is that prices continue to increase for a few years and then crash down to today’s levels. Who knows? Certainly Turner doesn’t.

  2. Financial Uproar » Saturday Morning Dump: I Like Links Says:

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