Interest rate risk
As is usual in Hong Kong, the interest rates on my mortgages are floating rates. All my mortgages are set at a margin over either one month or three month HIBOR. If HIBOR rises then the interest rates I pay on my mortgages also rises. If interest rates rise far enough and stay elevated for long enough, the investment properties will eventually end up with negative cash flow.
Rental income risk
The inward cash flow from the properties depends on three things: (i) the properties being occupied (ii) the amount of rent which each property earns and (iii) the tenants actually paying the rent. In adverse economic conditions the amount of rent each property can earn could decline and the vacancy factor could increase. This was certainly the experience in 2001-2003 when many landlords were forced to cut rents or accept lengthy vacancies.
Cash flow risk
The risk of a combination of rising interest rates, increased vacancies and lower rents pushing the properties into a negative cash flow situation is a very real risk. It's also worth remembering that if/when such circumstances occur, property prices will probably fall, so I have to assume that selling a property to alleviate the problem is likely to be a very unattractive option.
Inflation has been higher than interest rates for several years now. As long as that situation is continues, keeping the mortgages on the properties actually reduces the risk of inflation adversely affecting my retirement plans.....right up to the point where higher inflation results in interest rates high enough to cause negative cash flow from the properties.
How big is the risk?
It has been some years since I last did a sensitivity analysis on the portfolio and I will do one at some stage before I retire. However, off the back of the envelope, I can say that the properties will still be cash flow positive:
- if any one property is permanently vacant (or the two smallest ones); or
- if vacancy rates remain the same as they have for the last few years but rents are cut by around 12%; or
- if interest rates increase to a bit over 5%.
It's also worth remembering that because the mortgages are P+I, the sensitivity to rising interest rates gets reduced each month, eventually being eliminated altogether once the last mortgage is fully paid off. One mortgage will be completely paid off in mid 2013 and the last one in 2029. The biggest mortgage is the one on our home and that will be paid of in 2020. As each mortgage is paid off the debt related risk declines.
I also intend to carry a meaningful amount of cash or near cash in retirement. If necessary, this can be used to either cover a negative cash flow or make some early repayments - the amounts involved are enough to be meaningful.
There is considerable room to cut our expenses if the need arises.
I could always get a job if the need arises (as could Mrs Traineeinvestor for that matter).
In short, while the risk is quite real, it is not one that I worry about too much. It is also one that will disappear over time.
Short term risk v long term risk
The alternative to carrying mortgage debt into retirement is to pay down the debt in lieu of making other investments and/or selling assets to reduce debt. While such actions would reduce the short term financial risks, over the medium to longer term the end result would be a smaller pool of assets and a retirement that is more vulnerable to adverse events (in particular inflation).
By not making earlier repayments, I am electing to increase the near term risks in order to reduce the longer term risks to the financial sustainability of my retirement. Given that it is easier to find well paying employment in my late forties and fifties than in my sixties or seventies, that is a trade off that I am more than willing to embrace.
I will do the sensitivity analysis but for now at least I am quite comfortable with my decision.