Investment Industry needs independent players!

The most recent print issue of Money noted that the big Canadian banks managed to earn $31.7 billion in 2012, just a few years after there was grave concern that they’d even remain solvent.

“There is no question that Canadian banks play a vital role; locally, provincially, nationally and inter-nationally. Without the banks, our economy could simply not function efficiently or effectively. But are the banks getting too big and going too far to gain market share and profits at the expense of their own customers?” (Quote from Spring 2013 issue of Money Magazine.)

In November of last year I published a piece entitled Banks own the investment industry! A good thing? In many respects allowing the banks to provide everything from our mortgage to investment services is incredibly convenient. But at what price? It has become near impossible for many smaller investment dealers to stay in business. Fraser Mackenzie is a recent victim of an industry that requires scale in order to compete:

At their shareholder meeting on April 29th, 2013 it was decided: “Our assessment of the current business climate has led the owners to conclude that deploying our capital in the continuance of our regulated investment dealer businesses can no longer generate an acceptable rate of return. Institutional interest in early stage mining and oil & gas companies, sectors to which we have been heavily committed, has dried up: as has the associated trading in the equities of early stage resource companies. Furthermore, the regulatory cost burden is increasing at a time that industry-wide revenues are declining. On balance, it makes sense for our shareholders to re-deploy their capital.”

Indeed, well over half of the total value of trading done on the TSX in a typical month is conducted by the banks.

My guess is their actual market share of all trading is far above half if we were to also include trading platforms not part of the Toronto Stock Exchange. The banks keep growing, and the regulatory burden also grows more onerous. In my estimation, the larger financial companies relish regulation as an additional barrier to entry. Regulatory oversight is a minor inconvenience to the big banks, whereas for less diversified specialty businesses (mutual fund companies, standalone investment dealers, investment managers) the added expense can be devastating.

Obviously there are huge benefits to scale – but do consumers really benefit or are these economies of scale all kept as bank profits? MER’s for their proprietary mutual funds might appear very reasonable, but it’s impossible to determine whether or not the plethora of fees I pay for other services are subsidizing these seemingly lower expense ratios. Transparency is near impossible. Although many banks did collapse as a result of the the financial crisis, the massive rebound in the profitability of those surviving banks (even though they lost ridiculous amounts of capital doing stupid things with asset backed securities, derivatives trading etc.) suggests that those everyday fees paid by consumers and businesses must exceed the marginal cost of providing these services by quantum leaps and bounds.

Another concern I have – besides the demise of competition in the financial services industry – has to do with motivation. It’s true that every business is designed to make money, but in days of yore a mutual fund company, investment manager or stock broker had to have happy customers in order to succeed. If they didn’t help the client make money, the client would go somewhere else. I believe that as each independent firm disappears, so does choice. Making a great deal of money from you no longer requires you to be served well. What are you going do? Go to another bank?

The prime directive (to borrow an expression from Star Trek) of the financial services behemoths is profits. The financial advisor’s role is to enhance corporate profitability. Financial advisors today are increasingly handcuffed not just by regulatory compliance, but also ‘corporate’ compliance. Wouldn’t an investment specialist whose only mandate is to do well for his client be more properly motivated (and less conflicted professionally)? Would your investment objectives be better served by an independent advisor who is rewarded only because you the client are earning profits (and not because you are earning his employer more revenues)?

It isn’t necessarily true that an independent advisor is any better than one employed at a bank. I personally know of hundreds of outstanding advisors working at banks and insurance companies. But it must also be true that a satisfied, properly motivated, objective and focussed financial professional will do a better job whether he/she is at an independent or a bank.

We can’t begrudge the banks their success but left to their own devices, they’d all have merged into one by now. In December of 1998 then Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin rejected the proposed mergers of the Royal Bank with the Bank of Montreal and CIBC with the Toronto-Dominion Bank. We know from our U.S. history that government and regulatory authorities are frequently frustrated by the political muscle (lobbyists, lawyers) of the large financial firms. Ultimately having one gigantic Canadian bank – providing all our financial services, investment needs, insurance requirements – might (or might not) be a worthy corporate ambition, but it’s hard to imagine such a monopoly being good for the likes of us. After all, just consider the progress that has been made in telecommunications since Bell Canada (or AT&T) was forced to reckon with serious competition.

The banks need independent players. Not only should banks discourage the obliteration (by bullying or by absorption) of non-bank competition, they should use their political muscle to keep the regulators from picking on Independent players. Government agencies cannot help themselves – if they are impotent against the strong they naturally attack the weak – even though when all the weak are dead the regulators would have no jobs. You don’t need a police force when there’s nobody you can effectively police.

Independent players create minimum standards of service and ethics, and fuel industry innovation. In every instance, the independent is a bank customer too. Mutual fund and investment managers pay fees to banks, buy investment banking offerings, custodial services and commercial paper and also trade through bank facilities. Independent dealers provide services and financing to corporations deemed too small to matter by larger financial companies; that is, until these businesses grow into large profitable banking customers. Put another way, why not adopt the Costco model where smaller independents can shop for stuff to sell to their own customers, and higher end specialty shops and department stores can all remain standing, rather than the take-no-prisoners approach of Walmart?

Let’s hope that the few surviving independent firms can be allowed to thrive, and if we’re lucky perhaps new players will arise to provide unique services to Canadian clients and homes for advisors who are inclined to specialize in managing and not just gathering assets.

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

 

 

Canada’s most flexible and legitimate tax shelter!

In 2004 I wrote a book (with my friend Pamela Clarke and published by Insomniac Press) called Resources Rock: How to Invest and Profit from the Next Global Boom in Natural Resources. Since taxes are fresh in everyone’s mind at this time of year, I thought I’d reproduce a chapter in the book that explains one of Canada’s most flexible and robust tax planning tools. It’s not widely understood but has the advantage of being 100% legitimate – it is written right in our tax code. Here’s the chapter:

“Certainty? In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes,” said American scientist Benjamin Franklin over two hundred years ago. The only difference these days is that while death is still final, taxes can be deferred or reduced. Canadians didn’t always have to worry about taxes. Income tax was introduced as a temporary measure (sounds like the GST saga) to help cover the country’s military expenses during World War I. By 1948, the wars were over, but the government decided to not surrender. Instead, the Income War Tax Act became the Income Tax Act. Since then, Canadians have had to declare income from all sources, including capital gains on the sale of investments or property. We’re allowed to deduct some expenses and there are a few tax credits, but by and large, there aren’t too many opportunities for us to reduce our taxable income. Taxes are steep and vary greatly depending on where you live.

But that’s not all. You pay tax on everything you earn as well as on everything you buy. Take the price of gas, for example. It was pumped up to over $1.40 a liter in some provinces and more than one-third of the price was taxes: provincial sales tax, GST, and something called the Federal Excise Tax. It hurts even more if you consider that you’re paying for the gas taxes with after-tax dollars. Ouch.

One of the best means of minimizing the pain is to take advantage of all the tax deductions that you can. Standard ones include childcare expenses, family support payments, moving and medical costs, and of course, RRSP contributions. Unfortunately, not too many taxpayers are familiar with the deductions that are available from investing in the “flow-through” shares of junior Canadian resource companies, or ventures that qualify for the Canadian Exploration Expense (CEE). You should consult your tax advisor for precise information on the benefits of these deductions for your portfolio, but in the meantime, here’s a brief introduction to these tax-deductible investments.

Buried deep in the Income Tax Act (Section 66 (1) to be exact) there’s a clause that says:

“A principal-business corporation may deduct, in computing its income for a taxation year, the lesser of (a) the total of such of its Canadian exploration and development expenses as were incurred by it before the end of the taxation year…”

The Section goes on ad nauseam, but only tax accountants need to get into that level of detail. What you do need to know from the clause is that most junior energy and mining companies spend all of their money on exploration programs and usually have little or no revenue. Because they have virtually zero income, they’re not able to use all the tax deductions that they’re entitled to as a resource exploration company. Mining companies are allowed to deduct prospecting, drilling, geological or geophysical expenses, but if they don’t have any revenue, then these deductions remain unclaimed or“wasted”.

In a rare moment of generosity, the government decided to allow exploration companies to give up those tax deductions and pass them on to people who can use them. Companies can bundle the tax deductions with their shares, then sell them to investors and use the proceeds from the sale of these shares to finance their exploration projects. The ventures don’t mind selling off their unused deductions. If they can’t afford to keep digging or drilling, they’ll be out of business anyway. These deductions, sold as shares, are called “flow-through shares” because they transfer the tax deductions from the company to the investor.

In other words, the government allows a tax deduction that would usually only be granted to an exploration venture to be passed on, or “flow-through,” to their investors. It’s a win-win situation as the company gets the money to finance their exploration work while investors can claim up to 100% of their investment as a tax deduction. The government created this program as a means of encouraging people to invest in resource exploration companies. That’s nice of them, but given our incredibly high tax rates, it’s a good idea to understand how investing in exploration—either in flow-through shares, or in shares of a limited partnership that owns a portfolio of flow-through shares—can help you lower your taxable income.

Investors can buy flow-through shares directly from a company, or own them indirectly by purchasing units in a limited partnership specially created to buy shares in a portfolio of several junior exploration companies. Buying units in a limited partnership can be beneficial for individual investors because it gives them the tax deduction from the flow-through shares, in addition to reducing their investment risk. A limited partnership can usually buy a much greater variety of flow-through shares than an individual investor could afford to purchase on their own. Therefore, investors in a limited partnership end up owning shares in a basket of startups, rather than just in one venture. Given that a lot of exploration companies could go bankrupt or walk away from their projects, buying shares in several of them minimizes the risk that you could lose your entire investment. The answer varies from one investor to another, but as long as the exploration company – or companies if they’re in a portfolio owned by a limited partnership – spends all the money they raised from selling flow-through shares on eligible exploration expenses, then almost the entire amount invested in the shares can be deducted.

A word of caution: Don’t let the tax appeal of flow-through shares affect your decision-making skills as an investor. Remember that even though the tax deductions alone are beneficial, you’re still investing in the riskiest side of the resource industry. It is possible for you to lose all your money if the exploration team repeatedly comes up empty-handed. On the other hand, investing in an exploration startup by means of flow-through shares does mitigate the risk of losing your investment to some extent. Depending on your marginal tax rate, the after-tax cost of buying the flow-through shares (or portfolio of flow-through shares) is virtually cut in half, compliments of the government .

In the Economic Statement and Budget Update of October 18, 2000, the Minister of Finance announced a temporary, 15% investment tax credit (applied to eligible exploration expenses) for investors in flow-through shares of mineral exploration companies. Oil and gas exploration companies were excluded. This announcement introduced a credit, known officially as the Investment Tax Credit for Exploration(ITCE), which reduces an investor’s federal income tax for the taxation year during which the investment is made. Although deemed ‘temporary’, after expiring at the end of 2005, the credit was re-introduced effective May 2,2006 and is currently subject to annual review.

The ITCE is a non-refundable tax credit that can be carried back three years or carried forward twenty years. So if you invest in flow-through shares (of mining exploration companies only) this year, you can use the deduction any time up to 20 years in the future, or back three years. It’s a real bonus being able to use this deduction when you need it the most. Keep in mind, however, that the ITCE has to be reported as income in the year after you claimed the tax deductions from the flow-through shares. The only downside is that when you sell your investment, or trigger a “deemed disposition”(which means the government thinks you’ve unloaded the investment even if you haven’t actually sold it), then you’re on the hook for capital gains tax. That’s not so bad, as capital gains tax rates are better than regular income tax rates.

Let’s look at how these tax credit programs can help you reduce your taxes. For example, if you live in Ontario and your annual taxable income is $300,000, and you’re taxed at the highest marginal tax rate of 46.41%, then you’d pay $139,230 in tax. (Of course, to make it simple,we’re unrealistically assuming there are no personal exemptions or other allowable deductions and that all income is taxed at the same rate.) If you invested $50,000 in flow-through shares, and the entire amount qualified as a CEE, then 100% of your investment could be deducted from your taxable income. Your taxable income is reduced to $250,000 and you now owe $116,025 in taxes—a savings of $23,205! That’s a nice chunk of change that stays in your pocket.

It can get even better. If a part of your investment in flow-through shares is with companies that are exploring for metals and minerals that are eligible for the Federal Investment Tax Credit, you’ll get an additional tax credit of $7,500. That extra credit would cut your total tax bill down to $108,525. In a perfect world, you could save yourself $30,705 in taxes. Serious money by any standards.

In addition to these federal government programs, there are several provincial flow-through initiatives that we won’t address here as they vary tremendously from one province to another. Flow-through shares are starting to sound like they’re the best discovery since Chuck Fipke dug up some diamonds in the Northwest Territories. As wonderful as they are, keep in mind that since money is made and taxes are paid in the real world, things aren’t always as rosy as simplified examples in a book on investing. Before buying into the example above, remember that:

  • Taxes Vary: Everyone pays taxes on a sliding scale, so not all of your income is taxed at the top marginal rate.
  • Diversify: Your entire portfolio should never be solely invested in just mineral exploration stocks—diversification is advisable even for investors with an incredibly high tolerance for risk.
  • No Guarantees: An exploration company is obligated to spend 100% of the money it receives from selling flow-through shares on expenditures that qualify for tax deductions, but if for some reason it doesn’t, then you can’t claim 100% of the deductions.

The bottom line is that there are many variables that will influence the impact of flow-through shares on your tax situation. Investment advisors can provide details on the limited partnerships or flow-through shares that are available in the market today. Ask them to help you research and screen limited partnership funds so you end up investing in a portfolio of companies that meets your investment objectives.

That’s the end of the chapter, and before you say this is more complicated than it’s worth let me excessively simplify and round in order to provide an example of how powerful this tool can be.

Imagine you’ve sold an income property for $500,000 and long ago used up your personal capital gains exemption. To keep it simple, you are not subject to minimal tax and are at the highest marginal tax bracket which I will round to 50%. Let’s ignore all the other deductions and stuff too. Your options are:

1. Report the proceeds as income and let the CRA (government) keep half of your money.

2. Invest the entire sum in one (or more) flow-through limited partnerships.

Let’s examine #2. The $500,000 can now be deducted against income, so your taxable income (money going to CRA) is reduced – you keep half at 50% tax rate or (roughly) $250,000. So far you’re no worse off right? Even if your get nothing back (I’ve never seen this happen personally and I’ve managed dozens of these funds myself) you’re no worse off.

Say after two years (the lifespan of most of these funds) you get your whole investment back (it happens). Once the fund is wound up your $500,000 is now subject to capital gains tax (roughly 25% rather than 50%) so you’ll net $375,000. Isn’t keeping the extra $125,000 for yourself worth the effort? Whether you end up with half that amount, or double you are still ahead.

By the way, when a flow-through limited partnership is ‘wound up’ your money is usually rolled into a more liquid mutual fund – you can leave some or all the the money in there and not pay the capital gains taxes until you redeem. If you can afford it, use the tax shelter every year and watch your tax savings grow over time. You will have to pay a tax accountant (since filling out the tax returns correctly is critical and often you have to re-submit them when you receive additional or more precise information from the fund company after-the-fact), and seek advice from a good investment advisor. If either of them tells you not to do it without a really good explanation….it’s because they don’t understand them or want to avoid the added work. Find someone else.

Mal Spooner

 

Mutual Fund Mania – Choose wisely during RRSP season!

Usually the first vehicle of choice for new investors is a mutual fund. In days of yore, which in the investment industry is more than five years ago, investors usually bought equity funds but in more recent times balanced funds have grown more popular and even bond funds have attracted money.

Oftentimes, the first mutual fund experience is a disappointing one. There’s a reason for this. People intuitively want to be associated with success, so their first mutual fund will have these characteristics:

  • A great track record of top quartile performance over at least three to five years.
  • Billions of dollars invested in it, so it is “safe.”
  • Offered by an investment firm with a long and “distinguished” history.

Many years ago, there was much less data readily available and few statistical tools at one’s disposal, but I was curious and decided to examine a group of funds over time to see what their performance looked like. What I discovered is represented in the chart. There were no exceptions; every fund in my sample followed this same pattern.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to interpret a picture. If you invest in the fund when it’s a dog (ranks very poorly compared to other funds), the odds are great that given time it will be a top performer soon enough.

The problem is that most investors will pick a top performer. However, the top performer will soon become a dog, and the investor will be unhappy.

A great track record might actually guarantee poor performance.

When it comes to your money, intuition sucks. You “intuitively” steer towards something that “feels good.”

There is enough publicly available data nowadays to help you find a few funds that suit your tastes and examine their performance patterns. What suits your tastes may include funds that are easy to buy in and out of, those you have read about in the press, whose portfolio manager sounds smart on TV, or you may prefer socially responsible funds. When one of the funds that does occasionally perform very well has been in a slump over the past year or two, buy it. After the performance has improved over the course of a couple of years and you’re happy with the results, consider selling (or redeeming) it when the fund is in the top of the rankings (or wins an award) and buy a different fund that is in a temporary slump.

Being a curious sort, I once had the urge to see if award-winning funds followed the same pattern. After all, if someone wants a top-performing fund, wouldn’t they head straight for the ones that have just won awards for their outstanding performance?

I looked at the award-winning funds in any given year, and then checked their performance just one year later. Rather than examine every category (there are just too many nowadays) I stuck to basic Canadian equity, U.S. equity, small cap, international equity. Included were “thematic” funds popular at the time, such as ‘precious metals’ and the ‘dividend and income’ funds. Here are a couple of examples of what I usually found:

Results:

  • 100% of the winners were either 1st or 2nd quartile funds. The next year, 88% of these had fallen to 3rd or 4th quartile.
  • All the former 3rd quartile funds (dogs) rose to 1st quartile (stars) in the following year.

Winning an award (being a top performer) is not an indication of how that fund will rank in terms of its future performance, even in the following year. In fact, the odds are awfully good that your 1st or 2nd quartile pick will be below the median or worse one year later. Interesting! If there’s a lesson, I suppose it’s simply that funds should be bought because they meet your objectives, not because they’ve been performing well recently.

It’s not important to understand why this roller coaster occurs for mutual funds, it just does. Markets change, so, for example, when a growth fund invested primarily in technology stocks suffers, it’s no doubt because the upward trend in technology stocks, or their popularity among the herd, has either stopped or deteriorated. Apple is a prime example in the news right now.

Portfolio managers are just people working for people. I’ve witnessed the following scenario occur time and again:

  • Fund performance begins to soar.
  • Fund attracts lots of new money.
  • Marketing folks want more and more time from portfolio manager for meetings.
  • Money pours into the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager’s head swells (the “I’m a genius” syndrome).
  • Performance begins to deteriorate.
  • Money leaves the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager has to sell the fund’s best stocks (there are still buyers for these).
  • Performance sucks, and it takes two to three years for things to get back to normal.

Size really doesn’t matter…unless the fund is humongous.

A thinking person should be able to figure out that it doesn’t take a big fund or a big fund company to provide good performing funds. Think about it. Do you shop at the big box stores because the level of service is better? Is the quality of the merchandise better? No. You shop there because the economy of scale for the store allows them to buy products at a lower cost. They can order in bigger volumes and squeeze their suppliers. They then pass these savings to their customers.

Larger financial institutions enjoy similar economies of scale. Of course, the transactions and administration costs of the bank or insurance company are lower, and these benefits might come your way in the form of lower fees and expenses, but we’re not talking about buying lawnmowers. Rates of return on funds managed nimbly and intelligently can make those fees and expenses pale by comparison.

Bigger is safer possibly when you’re banking, but legitimate capital management companies are structured so that they never really touch your money. The custodial (where the money is physically held) and administrative (recordkeeping) functions are usually provided to these firms by big banks or huge financial institutions anyway—for safety and regulatory reasons and it makes the potential for fraud near impossible.

The reason why large financial services companies got into the fund management business was simply economics. They were providing banking, custodial, and administrative services to mutual fund and other asset management companies anyway, so why not also earn management fees by offering their own mutual funds and private wealth management services?

Take it from someone who knows from experience. Managing a massive quantity of money in one fund is much more difficult for a portfolio manager. You can only buy big companies. A portfolio manager will try to buy the best big companies, but since everyone else with big portfolios is doing the same thing, it’s not like you can outsmart them. It’s sort of like playing poker with jacks, queens, and kings being the only cards in the deck. If the three other players see three kings on the table, everyone knows you still have one in your hand.

Applying some discipline is important when directing your savings and will spare you much grief. For several years since the financial crisis, investors have swarmed into bond (see chart – it shows the net Sales of bond mutual funds) and balanced funds because of their strong relative performance and are considered to be less risky. Even today buying into income-oriented funds ‘feels good’ – everyone else is doing it, past performance is good and the fright we all experienced during the financial crisis still stings a bit.

Equity funds have been avoided for years – constantly redeemed – despite the fact the stock market returns have been outstanding since the crisis more or less ended (or at least stabilized). Now that the past returns are looking better, investors will be shifting money out of the bond funds (and perhaps balanced funds as well) and chasing the top performing equity funds.

This is an inferior strategy. If you examine the best ‘rated’ funds you will find they hold more dividend paying and income securities and will likely drop in the rankings very soon after you buy them.

With RRSP season comes a plethora of marketing campaigns and firms will be pushing us to buy their best performing funds (we are so quick to buy what ‘feels good’). Since you won’t see many advertisements for those not doing so well today, but are likely to do very well tomorrow, it would be wise to do a bit of homework before buying in. Good luck!

Mal Spooner