Don’t get whipsawed by Risk Management!

Back in February of 2012, I recall a prominent CFO departing a global insurance company.  This particular individual was labelled “the highly regarded architect of a hedging strategy that proved key in rebuilding investor confidence in the wake of the financial crisis.”  The company had suffered financially during the prior market meltdown because of a huge exposure to equity-linked products;  pre-crisis the company had introduced investment products that guaranteed to return a substantial (if not all) amount of the investor’s initial investment.  The money was invested in the company’s funds which in turn invested in stock markets.  During the financial crisis, the value of these assets (stocks) held in the funds declined below the amount that was guaranteed spelling serious trouble for the company.  In response a stricter approach to risk management was adopted after-the-fact.

Sounds sensible doesn’t it?  But it just isn’t!  I’ve watched this pattern time and again over decades.  The fundamental flaw is a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes risk.

Risk is almost always equated to volatility.  For example, stocks move up and down rapidly with much magnitude so they are deemed more risky than bonds.  But are we really as averse to upside risk as downside risk?  Strangely people become more averse to volatility when they’ve suffered downside risk (and come to adore volatility when upside risk has rewarded them).  Because our internal model of risk is so much more complex than mathematics can reckon with, our efforts to ‘manage’ volatility can actually subject us to less volatility but more risk.  When we reduce risk (hedging strategies usually reduce volatility – both up and down) at the wrong times, we miss the chance to be rewarded by the kind of volatility we adore.  We are our own worst enemies.

The President and CEO of a completely different insurance company was quoted as saying this, also in February of 2012:

“We are maintaining our equity hedges as we remain very concerned about the economic outlook over the next few years. We continue to be soundly financed with year-end cash and marketable securities at the holding company of about $1 billion.”

 

This statement followed the company’s earnings release, having reported substantially increased losses from its investments – management had hedged the company’s equity position in 2010 (again, after-the-fact) and suffered investment losses in that year’s fourth-quarter because stock markets rose (instead of declining).  The actions designed to protect the company against volatility lost money.  Risk aversion after-the-fact caused the company to lose money and avoid potential returns from upside volatility.

Because the pain caused by the downside volatility suffered previously was still fairly recent, aversion remained at a high level causing the company to stick to its hedging strategy (in denial?) despite these huge losses, and it continued to lose money as the market continued to go higher and higher still.

The financial crisis is behind us and now that markets are hitting all-time highs, record amounts of dollars are scrambling to get some upside volatility action. Too late?  It’s hard to put a pin in it, but intuitively might one conclude that if managing risk (or ‘risk off’ as they say on business television) was a bad idea during and immediately after the financial crisis, then perhaps chasing volatility (‘risk on’) might not be such a good idea at present?

It might seem as if I was picking on insurance companies earlier, but many pension funds, other financial services companies, portfolio managers and everyday investors follow the same destructive pattern.  Adoring upside risk but loathing downside risk – always at the wrong times – has ruined careers and put a serious dent in the life-savings of families.  More experienced money managers (there are fewer of us nowadays) increase risk when others are most averse to the idea, and begin to manage risk (hedging, raising cash balances) during periods of ‘irrational exuberance.’  They’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to keep all the hair on your head if you avoid circumstances that make you want to pull it all out.

Mal Spooner

So Where Are We?

Okay, so far on our journey to financial health, wealth, and happiness we have made the decision to take control of our financial lives, we have picked our annual financial day, chosen to make financial education a part of our habits, and brought the whole family into the game. Now we need to figure out where exactly we stand in terms of our financial snap shot.

The first step is to figure out what our debt situation is. This includes everything we owe, every debt instrument we use, and what are the terms on our debts. If we have a mortgage and / or a secured line of credit on our home how much is owing? What are the details in regards to interest rate, maturity, amortization, property taxes, and creditor insurance? How much of our payment is going to principle and how much to interest? What is the realistic value of our home?

The next step is to look at our credit cards. How many cards do we have? How many do we actually use? Whose name are the cards in? What are the limits on the cards and how much do we owe? What is the interest rate on each card? Do we get any perks like cash back, travel points, AirMiles, or Aeroplan? Do our cards have annual fees? Are we paying for any creditor insurance?

What other debt do we have? Personal loans, student loans, vehicle loans or leases, private debt? How much do we owe? What are the terms on each debt? What are the payments? What interest is being paid? Is there any creditor insurance on the debts? What is the amortization for each debt?

Now that we have an accurate picture of our liabilities, now we need to look at the positive stuff, our assets. Do we have a pension plan, group RRSP, or personally held RRSP? What are they currently worth and how much are we putting into them on what frequency? Do we hold any other investments in a TFSA or non-registered account? What are they worth and how are we contributing to them?

Do we own any insurance with a cash value? If we do what is the value and are there surrender charges? Are we covered for life, disability, critical illness, or long term care issues? Who are we insured with, how much coverage do we have, what are the terms, and what are the payments?

Do we have any properties including our own home, vacation property, and any rental properties? What is the realistic value of them? If we have rental properties are they positive cashflowing?

Have we been putting money aside for our children’s education? If we have where is it, how much is it currently worth, what and when are we contributing, and are we collecting all available grant money?

Do we have any collectibles or other valuables? What are they, where are they, and what are they worth? Are they properly stored and properly insured?

Once we have gathered and compiled our information we can take an honest look at the facts and start to map out the best route to get us to where we want to be financially.

“To create a plan to get to where you want to be you first have to figure out where you are starting from.”
Tammy Johnston

Finding an investment adviser is no easy task!

 

When RRSP season rolls around, it’s not unusual for dissatisfied clients to consider firing their investment adviser and finding a new one.  Even though most of the time it’s the client who’s the problem and not the adviser (more about this later), once the decision is made the question is how to select a new adviser?

Out of the several thousand investment advisers and financial planners I’ve met over the years, at least a few ‘hundred’ have what I consider to be the savvy to do an excellent job for their clients.  If only 10% of potential advisers are exceptional, finding one will require some work.  Ideally some of what follows will make the job a bit easier for some.

The most important thing to remember is that a capable stockbroker or financial planner doesn’t have to meet the stereotype.  For example, I was looking to hire a new sales rep for my fund company and received a resume from a fellow who was actually an investment adviser looking for a change.   I arranged to meet with him, and just happened to be standing on the street in front of our building when this black BMW pulls up, and a jittery youngster (young compared to me anyway) gets out.  He has his hair gelled straight back like Gordon Gekko, the fictional bigwig from the movie Wall Street, wearing the well-tailored pinstripe suit complete with suspenders that weren’t really necessary.  I didn’t hire him.

Beware of those advisers that are into role-playing.   It is okay I suppose to have a nice car, but a ‘look-at-me’ aura is a warning sign.  When someone deliberately adorns the trappings of success, I believe there’s insecurity in their personality.  Certainly your adviser should exude confidence but shouldn’t need or want to stand out from the crowd by adorning themselves with accoutrements.

You must be realistic.  Your adviser does work for a financial services firm, so expect to be using products and services offered by his company.  However any evidence that he/she is willing to deviate from the company’s party line for your benefit is a very good sign.

Ask him/her what he/she thinks about the market or a mutual fund, or even an individual stock or two.  If he/she simply regurgitates the newspaper headlines or is in love with a top performing mutual fund (you can’t ‘eat’ past performance is one of my favorite expressions), or his/her favourite stocks are everyone else’s favourite stocks too, you might want to avoid this adviser.  On the other hand, if you sense a real independent thinker willing to disagree with conventional wisdom, the adviser is a keeper.

Larger firms are especially good at marketing their wares, and I would recommend that it is infinitely better that you look for the right adviser rather than to just agree to hire the one that lands on your doorstep.  Keep in mind that good investment managers are not always good with people.  A good first impression is not necessarily an indication that the adviser does good work. Ask questions.  For example, ask exactly how they handled themselves in the financial crisis?

Even though it is extremely difficult (likely impossible) to predict market declines, anyone can certainly “do something” about their circumstances once the proverbial poop hits the fan.  Investment professionals often respond differently depending upon depth of experience or temperament:

  • Some are no more experienced (or no smarter) than their clients – they panic and sell at the bottom of markets.
  • Some proclaim a new respect for caution, and hold more cash and bonds….after it’s too late.
  • Some boldly acknowledge they didn’t see the Bear Market coming, apologize and admit that they are buying cheap assets aggressively ‘near’ the bottom (a good sign indeed).

Asking tough questions will enable you to determine whether you’re talking to a pro.  Don’t be afraid to sound stupid – it’s your money we’re talking about here and not your ego.

You may want to stay with the big firm you’re banking with for convenience, or choose to find a smaller firm that is more specialized in managing money for individuals.  It is much easier to learn about what motivates the professionals in a smaller wealth management boutique, learn about their investment philosophy and get personal attention.

Heads up!  When a firm’s performance presented to you seems too good to be true; it probably is.  A prime example was the case of Bernie Madoff.

In March 2009, Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 federal crimes and admitted to turning his wealth management business into a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of investors out of billions of dollars. Madoff said he began the Ponzi scheme in the early 1990s. However, federal investigators believe the fraud began as early as the 1980s, and the investment operation may never have been legitimate.

Even small wealth management companies ordinarily have their performance numbers calculated and audited by third party services.  Make sure any performance data you see has been vetted by an independent third party.  Although instances of fraud get volumes of press coverage, they are one in millions.

Most boutique investment firms aren’t gifted marketers, and they rely heavily upon word-of-mouth to get new clients.  Ask friends, your accountant or lawyer for referrals.  There’s no harm calling and arranging to visit a few firms.

Tips:

  1. Never hire a Wealth Management firm based only on past performance.
  2. Don’t complain about investment results.  Ask for an explanation.
  3. Never second guess your adviser.
  4. Pay the fees – sure hey hurt when performance is poor, but you won’t care at all when performance is good.
  5. Be patient. Good things don’t happen overnight or every day.

Don’t pretend to be smarter than your adviser, you’re not!  Tips number 2 and 3 are very important.  I mentioned earlier that oftentimes the client is the problem, not the adviser.  In times of stress, we have a tendency to let our emotions get the better of us.  It’s kind of like swimming – if you panic then you’re more likely to drown.  Your investment adviser cannot walk on water, but is trained to swim.  There is an infinite number of things that can and do damage investment portfolios. The most damaging crises cannot generally be controlled, but wealth can be salvaged and even restored if level heads prevail.  Click on the picture to watch a funny video I made – are you at all like this client?

 

Mal Spooner

Sex and the January Effect!

A perplexing phenomenon for money managers and academics alike is the so-called “January effect.”  Also known as the small-cap effect it generally refers to the fact that January tends to be a pretty good month for the stocks of smaller companies.  Despite efforts to come up with an explanation – window dressing by institutional investors, tax-loss selling and so forth – there seems to be no rational reason for the superior performance of these smaller company stocks early in every new year.  Before devling into my own radical theory, is this a real or mythical phenomenon?

Personally, I’ve bet on this phenomenon over many years – loading up the mutual funds I’ve managed with smaller companies during December that I considered inexpensive (their share prices were beaten up for any number of reasons).  The strong January investment performance would often put my portfolio in the top rankings for several months into the new year.  Always good for business.  I’d also encourage clients to buy our specialty fund that concentrated on smaller growth companies in early January, and hold it for a few months to capture the excess return.  It simply worked.

Experiencing or just believing in the effect is one thing, but does the data support the myth?  There are many studies confirming the anomaly.  I found the adjacent chart illustrating that in in January the smallest publicly traded companies indeed do better than the bigger companies.

“From 1926 through 2002, the smallest 10% of all stocks (or “10th decile”) beat the 1st decile stocks by an average of 9.35 percentage points in the month of January.”

Despite repeated efforts to explain why there is a January Effect, everyone agrees that it still remains pretty much a mystery.  Academics refer to such patterns as ‘anomalies.’  My own belief is that there are many instances when statistical observations are better explained by human behavior rather than analytics.

Ever notice that most babies are born in August and September?  Biologically speaking, this would suggest that our species do tend to act somewhat differently nine months prior to these births every year.  During the festive season there’s a whole lot of warm and fuzzy feelings that seem to influence our behavior.  In some cultures there’s a surge in indulgences – food and wine for instance – and for a brief couple of months stress and fear are reduced signficantly.  How do we respond?

Clearly we are inclined to be more intimate.  Couples (if you’ve been married for awhile you’ll understand this) successfully avoid romantic activity for most of the year; bored with their partners or simply turned off by their annoying habits and personality flaws.  Suddenly during the holidays we set aside our grievances and become more tolerant. Those quirks might even seem endearing for a brief period.  Perhaps in the northern hemisphere humans are genetically engineered to seek warmth and comfort during the colder winter months?

 Consider these cold hard facts:

  • We are more than willing to be intimate (hence the birthrate 9 months later) despite the risks – being asked to do more chores and the inevitable burden of an increased level of conversation.
  • During these months we spend recklessly on family and friends who don’t need the consumer items and in some cases don’t deserve them.
  • People drink more alcohol than they should and eat food that is bad for them.

Why wouldn’t the perennial change in our emotional makeup also have an impact on our investment decisions?  My theory is that once a year risk aversion takes a brief backseat in our psyche – and while our hearts and wallets are open why not take some free-spirited risk in the stock market?  Collectively hoping for a big score in those smaller company stocks that occasionally pay big, we all dive in together and cause their prices to rise.

The evidence of humanity’s willingness to take on more risk in the bedroom during the holidays becomes evident nine months later.  And it should come as no surprise that the financial consequences of investment decisions made in a fit of euphoria during the holiday season also show up by September of most every year also.  September is pretty much always the worst month for those stocks bought earlier in the year – small and large companies alike.

I certainly hope you had a good laugh reading my theory explaining the mysterious January effect.  In my opinion it is certainly as good as the explanations you’ll read in the media.  Truth is there is much we’ll never understand about so-called ‘anomalies’ whether they occur in financial markets or in human behavior.  Simply knowing they do occur however can be a powerful tool when making one’s own investment decisions.  Come to think about it, just knowing about some behavioral anomalies might also help when it comes to family planning.

Best wishes to you for a Happy Holiday!

Malvin Spooner.