Canadian Capitalist has a post about the "Smith Manouevre" - basically just paying off your undeductible home loan as quickly as possible, and simultaneously borrowing to invest in the stock market. Apparently there has been "a fair bit of discussion going on about The Smith Manoeuvre (SM) in Jonathan Chevreau’s columns in The Financial Post and on his Wealthy Boomer Blog"
I wasn't even aware that this basic idea had been given a name! ;)
Canadian Capitalist goes on to say "I doubt that there is a causal link between leveraging and wealth and what wealthy people do after they have accumulated assets is immaterial to the argument.
Personally, I want to keep things simple. Sock away the maximum possible in a RRSP" [retirement account] "and pay down the mortgage with the rest of the savings. The way I see it, I can earn a guaranteed, risk-free, after-tax return of 5.25% (our mortgage interest rate) by paying down the mortgage, which I think is pretty darn good."
I generally like what CC blogs, but I didn't realise he was so conservative an investor. Sensible levels of tax deductible debt to invest via gearing (eg. into a rental property, or diversified stock portfolio) is a well accepted method of improving your investment returns. If you use the extra amount invested to increase your diversification you can even boost your returns without increasing risk (variability of returns).
One thing I that I don't like about gearing is that the interest rates are generally 1-2% higher than those available for investment property loans (which are the same as for a home loan). These days I'm trying to reduce the average interest rate I'm paying for my investment loans, by only adding to my leveraged portfolios with the margin lender that has the lowest rate, and also doing my direct US share investments using funds from a St George Porfolio loan - which is secured against my equity in my home and investment property, so is at the same rate as a home loan.
Gearing can have significantly improve your portfolio performance over time - for example, if an ungeared, diversified portfolio of local and international shares, property, bonds etc. returns as average of 9% pa, you borrow to invest at an interest rate of 8%, and you gear 100% (LVR of 50%), you would improve your ROI from 9% to 10% - over 20 years this would mean a $100,000 portfolio had a final value of $611,000 rather than $514,000 - an improvement of 18%!
What I would like to do one day is compare the average interest rate charged for margin loans (I think it's around 3% above the cash rate, but I'll have to check the current average interest rate vs. cash rate and look at the past 10 years figures to see how consistent this is) vs. the average return on a range of typical portfolios eg. conservative, balanced (cash/bonds/stocks/property), and somewhat aggressive. I suspect gearing is only worthwhile if your risk tolerance allows you to invest aggressively, as the return on a conservative portfolio would probably average less than the interest being charged on a margin loan.
One of the unsung benefits of using gearing is that it provides a means to reduce taxable income (eg. dividends, rental income, wages) by providing a tax deduction for the margin loan interest, and effectively converts this into capital gains which are tax deferred (until the CGT event eg. sale) and ultimately gets taxed at only 50% of your marginal tax rate (if you hold the asset > 12 months). Of course, the main reason for gearing should be to boost your long term ROI, not to reduce your tax bill!
With the recent changes to superannuation taxation, gearing is probably less attractive compared to salary sacrificing into superannuation, but it doesn't have as much legislative/political risk as super.