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Buy, borrow, die: How rich Americans live off their paper wealth

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Rising stocks and rock-bottom interest rates have delivered a big perk to rich Americans: cheap loans that they can use to fund their lifestyles while minimizing their tax bills.

Banks say their wealthy clients are borrowing more than ever before, often using loans backed by their portfolios of stocks and bonds. Morgan Stanley MS, +3.17% wealth-management clients have $68.1 billion worth of securities-based and other nonmortgage loans outstanding, more than double five years earlier. Bank of America Corp. BAC, +1.69% said it has $62.4 billion in securities-based loans, dwarfing its book of home-equity lines of credit.

The loans have special benefits beyond the flexible repayment terms and low interest rates on offer. They allow borrowers who need cash to avoid selling in a hot market. Startup founders can monetize their stakes without losing control of their companies. The very rich often use these loans as part of a “buy, borrow, die” strategy to avoid capital-gains taxes.

Many wealthy people are also borrowing against their portfolios. When Tom Anderson started at Merrill Lynch & Co. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2002, many of his fellow advisers had just one or two securities-based loans in their book of business. Over the years, he encouraged more clients to borrow and noticed peers doing the same. Now it is common for advisers at big firms to have dozens of these loans outstanding, he said. Merrill Lynch is now a part of Bank of America.

An expanded version of this article appears on WSJ.com.

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