The bitterest of economic pills

The bitterest of economic pills

Stagflation is a particularly ugly word for those old enough to remember the brutal effects of high inflation and high unemployment in the 1970s. And speaking of inflation if we measure it by the same basket of goods used in the late 70s and 80s the annual inflation rate would be 15%, Apparently, inflation is neither 8.5% nor transitory. With inflation surging as the economy stagnates concerns of stagflation have returned. Stagflation, the dreaded S-word of the 1970s or what some economists call the bitterest of economic pills.

Stagflation is the bitterest of economic pills

However, all is not lost. What we are witnessing is an economic cycle, one that reminds us that every bill eventually comes due. A bill for decades of government largesse, easy money, and trillions of dollars in Covid stimulus. Ironically, the pandemic didn’t crush our economy but our response to it will harm millions of Americans. Today we are just beginning to see the outcome of central bank policies and political will. Both stand to especially harm those who are retired and living on a fixed income.

And speaking of a fixed income, often the image of a poor miserly penny-pinching pensioner often comes to mind. But, truth be told, a retiree bringing in precisely $60,000 a year is just as much on a fixed income as the one earning $90,000. Beyond their income disparity, each will feel the brunt of inflation differently; what some financial planners call their individual inflation rate. For example, a 70-year-old widower who’s renting is exposed to more inflationary pressures with rising rents than a 70-year-old who’s living in a home with a fixed mortgage payment. Yet both are experiencing consumer price inflation in non-discretionary items such as gasoline, food, prescriptions, electricity, natural gas, and heating fuel.

So where does this leave future reverse mortgage applicants? In short, they’ll need to have considerably more equity accumulated to offset the impact of higher interest rates and the subsequent lower principal limit factors that determine how much money for which they may qualify. I say considerably because an effective interest rate of 7.5-8.5% for a HECM loan is not far-fetched. And, keep in mind in the years 2005-2007 during the heydays of HECM lending, the average expected rate hovered just below seven percent. Certainly, the presence of large retail banks originating HECMs helped, but the pool of eligible homeowners with adequate equity was there and remains today.

Looking back to interest rates keep in mind that the Federal Reserve has only just begun to throw cold water on inflation by increasing interest rates to slow the economy. Rates that many economists say must be higher than the rate of inflation to be effective. If true, this leaves much headroom for future rate hikes unless inflation shows early signs of retreating or unemployment begins to spike. 

Granted, entering a period of inflation, economic contraction, and possible stagflation is somewhat unnerving. However, it is during these times of upheaval that economic solutions, such as reverse mortgages may regain their luster and appeal. After all, where else will older homeowners find the additional ten, fifteen, or twenty percent additional cash flow to offset the increased cost of living?