“The Reverse Review” | Written by Jessica Linn Guerin
The Home Equity Conversion Mortgage has been around since 1989, but its original application was intended to be somewhat one-dimensional: a singular financial product designed to help seniors age in place. But now, as the product has evolved to include options like the Saver, new ideas are surfacing about how a retiree can tap into home equity as part of a strategic financial plan.
Just this year, prominent economic researchers published two independent studies, both examining in impressive detail various ways in which home equity could be used. Data was collected, simulations were run and the analyzed results all pointed to one simple fact: The HECM product could be leveraged to help certain retirees attain a livable flow of income.
For most financial planners, many of whom have long been wary about the product, this concept is a novel one. Traditionally, the planning community has viewed the HECM as a last-resort option for desperate retirees. It was considered an expensive option and not a feasible one for more affluent clientele. Now, these studies, published by the respected Journal of Financial Planning, are touting new and strategic ways to use home equity. They both suggest that planners reconsider a HECM for their clients, as retirees could benefit from employing the product to access tax-free income in a down market when cash flow is weak. The research piqued the interested of the press as The Wall Street Journal, CBS News and others picked up on the buzz.
The reverse mortgage industry was notably enthused (Finally! Financial planners are taking note!), but now many are left wondering what, exactly, they can do with this information. What are these studies really suggesting, and how can professionals in the reverse space use this information to enhance their business?
The single most important factor in this new acceptance from the financial planning community is the HECM Saver. Introduced by the FHA in October 2010, the Saver was designed to address concerns about the HECM’s high upfront closing costs.
Homeowners utilizing the Saver option can’t borrow as much money as they could with the Standard (10 to 18 percent less, in fact), but in turn, they encounter significantly lower upfront closing costs. With the Saver, homeowners only need to pay an upfront premium of 0.01 percent of their property’s value, compared with the Standard’s required 2 percent.
By lowering the cost associated with a reverse mortgage, the introduction of the Saver eliminated the point of contention that prevented many financial planners from considering the product in the past. It also made the strategic uses discussed in recent research a viable option.
The Sacks Brothers
In February 2012, the Journal of Financial Planning published a groundbreaking article by brothers Barry and Stephen Sacks that examined how a reverse mortgage could be utilized to free up liquidity when the market is down.
The Sackses were inspired by the fact that, although more than 50 percent of retirees get a portion of their income from Social Security, a sizable number rely on securities portfolios to generate most of their income, usually in the form of a 401(k) or IRA.
“I was interested in the quantitative aspects of how to use these 401(k)s to achieve optimal results,” said Barry, a San Francisco-based real estate tax attorney with a Ph.D. in physics. “The object of the game was to make a securities portfolio last longer.”
Barry said he originally played around with different annuity models before “a light bulb went off in my head—there’s this home equity option!” The results of his initial numerical simulations were “so striking” that Barry enlisted his brother Stephen, a Ph.D. and professor emeritus in economics at the University of Connecticut, and together they conducted a lengthy study to examine how a reverse mortgage credit line could be leveraged to maintain what they call “cash flow survival.” The goal was to utilize the liquidity afforded by a reverse mortgage to avoid withdrawing from a stock portfolio when the market is down, keeping the portfolio intact and thereby increasing its potential to grow.
The Sacks study examined three strategies: a conventional, passive strategy that taps into the equity only when all other resources were exhausted; an active strategy in which the credit line is drawn upon after other investments have underperformed; and another active strategy in which the credit line is drawn upon first before other investments are tapped.
The results indicated that a portfolio’s survivability substantially increased when the active strategies were employed. The models revealed that in a 30-year period, a retiree’s residual net worth was about twice as likely to be greater when the active strategies were used. The results led the Sackses to conclude that in certain situations, a senior homeowner is best served by taking out a reverse mortgage early on in retirement and keeping the line of credit to draw upon when a portfolio lags.
Evensky & Salter
Not long after the Sacks article was released, retirement expert Harold Evensky and Dr. John Salter of Texas Tech went public with their own, yearlong study on the topic. First published in Financial Advisor magazine and recently picked up by the Journal of Financial Planning, the study also examined how seniors can tap into home equity to increase the survivability of their portfolios.
According to Evensky, a nationally recognized expert on the topic, the goal was to tackle the issue of wealth distribution in retirement. “It’s a major issue in planning today,” Evensky said. “How do you manage with constant withdrawals in a volatile universe?”
According to Evensky, he and Salter solved the puzzle. The answer? The HECM Saver.
Although Evensky admitted that he was originally reluctant to consider the HECM (“Like most practitioners, I considered them only appropriate as a last-ditch effort”), his opinions of the product changed when he learned about the low costs associated with the Saver. “The cost of setting it up is really quite modest,” Evensky said.
He and Salter used the Saver in simulations to analyze how a reverse mortgage line of credit could be leveraged to prevent an investor from liquidating a portfolio at the wrong time, when the markets are down and the investment would be a loss. “When you distribute money when a portfolio is down,” added Salter, “you’re stealing from the future.”
And so the duo determined that with the line-of-credit option, one could employ an “insurance-type strategy” in which the equity is tapped to provide supplementary income only when needed. When the markets bounce back and the portfolio recovers, the reverse mortgage is paid off. But in some cases, it won’t even be needed. “Our research suggests that a large percentage of investors would never even tap into it,” Evensky said, adding that if they do, the simulations indicate that most investors will have the ability to repay the loan fairly quickly.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Does this make our clients more likely to meet their retirement goals?’ And the answer turned out to be yes,” Salter said. “Through all the combinations, the strategy was successful. We simulated thousands and thousands of different possible scenarios.”
The researchers determined that using a HECM was an extremely viable financial strategy, and they recommend practitioners establish the Saver for qualified clients as a standby reserve. “It’s a very powerful risk management tool,” said Evensky. “It is key to managing market volatility.”
Boston College’s Retirement Research
An April study released by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research further solidified the idea that financial advisors need to embrace the HECM. The study analyzed the percentage of income an individual needs to replace once he retires. The results, which included data on savings and investment strategies, suggested that 74 percent of retirees would fall short of their income needs at 62—an alarming statistic, to say the least.
The study set out to analyze ways in which this bleak situation could be improved. First, it examined the possibilities of asset allocation, looking at what would happen if an individual invested 100 percent of his portfolio in “riskless” stocks, earning 65 percent a year after inflation. There is, of course, no such thing as riskless stocks, but the idea was to present a best-case scenario. Even with this perfect investment, the study concluded that 44 percent of retirees would still fall short of income. The point is that asset allocation by itself—even at its most perfect—isn’t enough to turn things around.
The study determined that the traditional focus on asset allocation is misplaced. “Financial planners often tout asset allocation to boost retirement preparedness,” the brief states. “Even for households with substantial financial assets, asset allocation is less important than one would expect.”
Instead, the study concluded, people are left with few options if they want to maintain a livable income in retirement: work longer, cut spending and consider a reverse mortgage. That’s right—the study concluded that tapping into home equity was a powerful tool in assisting a retiree in achieving his income goal. It found that a reverse mortgage delays the age in which a retiree would run out of funds more than any other mechanism. “Given the relative unimportance of asset allocations,” its conclusion read, “financial advisors will be of greater help to their clients if they focus on a broad array of tools—including working longer, cutting spending and taking out a reverse mortgage.”
The Financial Planning Community Reacts
The recent buzz surrounding the use of HECMs has captured the attention of CFPs, leading many to reassess their opinions about the product.
Michael Kitces, a highly accredited financial planner and renowned industry expert, said he has seen a recent change in attitude among his colleagues.
“A few dynamics have been shifting lately,” Kitces said. “Part of that is the low-interest-rate environment and part of it is a general growing awareness of reverse mortgage programs and how they work, and the creation of the Saver. The lower cost has done a lot to improve the product in the minds of planners.”
He said the recent studies have helped break down the planning community’s notion that utilizing a reverse mortgage will detract from an individual’s net worth. He acknowledged that for more affluent individuals—who constitute the majority of a planner’s clientele—a reverse mortgage can work in all the ways outlined in the research. “If you want to make it work, you have to start early,” he said. “You borrow to slow the degradation of a portfolio and glide into the leverage of the reverse mortgage.”
Kitces said that despite the research, the number of planners out there implementing HECMs is still miniscule. “I’m trying to push the conversation out there,” said Kitces, who writes a blog for financial planners called Nerd’s Eye View and regularly travels the country speaking to various financial associations and CFP groups. In his highly circulated Kitces Report, he has discussed the complexities of reverse mortgages in depth.
Although Kitces said he’s noticed an uptick in conversation recently regarding the HECM, he doesn’t predict an immediate change in thinking. “It’s a trend that will catch on, but it will be very slow,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see a tidal-wave shift anytime soon.”
Like Kitces, Rob Hoxton, a CFP and president of HFI Wealth Management in West Virginia, said newly proposed uses for the HECM have intriguing possibilities, but investors might be slow to come around to the idea.
He admits that part of the battle is altering a client’s mindset. “So many folks have worked their whole lives to pay their house off, and we’re talking to them about re-mortgaging it,” he said. “That requires a shift in the way they think. You have to help them understand that unless the home is a legacy asset, one that has a strong emotional tie they want to pass on to the next generation, they should leverage that asset. It’s a paradigm shift, really.”
Hoxton said less than 10 percent of his clients have actually utilized a HECM, but acknowledges that a large percentage would likely benefit from it.
“My guess is that demand for this type of product will increase, and then it may create a more competitive environment with greater transparency and lower fees,” he said. “The concept is a fantastic one.”
Melissa Sotudeh, a CFP with Warner Financial, said she has also noticed an increase in conversation surrounding the HECM.
“It’s coming up more often,” Sotudeh said. “People are taking a second look at the product, and part of that is because we are becoming more aware of the different uses. Like the HECM for Purchase—I had no idea that was possible, but when it came on my radar, I thought, ‘Wow, that could really work well.’”
Sotudeh thinks most planners would be eager to learn more about the product. “I tend to read anything that comes on my radar about reverse mortgages to make sure that I understand them completely,” she said. “From our perspective, as fiduciaries, the more we know about what’s available, the better we can do. If we understand the products out there, it adds value to the advice we give.”
Barry Sacks also said that more and more CFPs are taking a second look at HECMs, and like Kitces and Hoxton, he predicts that acceptance will come slowly. “Financial planners have begun to show interest, but they’re a harder bunch to get through to,” Barry said. “They still have a residual negative view about reverse mortgages, which in my opinion is unwarranted.”
But Barry said he does believe that eventually they will get on board. “I think it will be slow and fitful,” he said, “but in five or 10 years, they will likely come around.”
Harold Evensky agreed. “They absolutely will,” he said. “For one, the research is very credible. It’s an immensely high-quality academic research paper. I would tell them to look at the research. I don’t think they’ll be able to disagree with the research.”
But Evensky did predict that some advisors will have an initial knee-jerk reaction, automatically dismissing the product before really listening to its possibilities. “Practitioners are reluctant to tell people to take on debt,” he said. “They just need to understand. It’s not a last resort—it’s a strategy! The expectation is that the investor would not maintain the debt.”
Although he said the product is bound to pick up steam, he admitted that the going might be tough. “It will be an uphill education process,” he said. “No question about it.”
John Salter, who admitted that his own view of the product has changed “180 degrees” since last year, also said that educating the advisors would be challenging, but also essential.
“We need to continue the march to educate financial planners, get them to open up their ears and listen,” Salter said. “Help us educate them on the product and keep the conversation going, that’s the biggest thing.”