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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Reacting to headlines is perilous!

You can avoid plenty of grief by reading headlines and as George Costanza (from the popular sitcom Seinfeld) says: “Do the opposite.”

You might notice that the average ‘Joe’ was far more concerned about his job (justifiably) until we began seeing headlines such as ‘Dow Hits Highest Close Ever.’ All of a sudden the stock market is once again a worthy topic for discussion and it’s okay to actually speak to one’s investment advisor. Judging by money flows it’s a good bet that clients are instructing their advisors to buy stocks, EFT’s, equity mutual funds or whatever it takes to get them invested and fast. There’s nothing but good news. As I type this, ‘Stocks resume winning ways’ appears on the TV screen (CNBC).

Before succumbing to the urge to herd let me take you back to June of 2010.

In the first chapter of A Maverick Investor’s Guidebook (Insomniac Press, 2011) I wrote the following:

In one newspaper, under the title “Economic crisis,” I found the headline: “World recovery under threat as growth slows, stimulus wanes.” On the same day in another newspaper, under the title “Recovery angst” was the similarly ominous caption: “Economic trouble is all investors see.”

If you are spooked by such nonsense and inclined to adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach before investing any of your money at all in financial markets, then give your head a shake. These headlines are gold!

I went on to pose the question: “If the press is even partially representative of what economists and strategists are recommending, and if investors all share the same sentiments, then what happens when there’s some good news?”

There was plenty of good news even in 2010, but it was generally delegated to those pages in the back of the newspapers which people seldom read. One example, and a very important one for stocks, was rapidly improving corporate profitability.

While the general mood was (and continued to be) let’s say ‘despondent,’ institutional and retail investors kept taking money out of stocks and channeling it into money market funds and bonds – to take advantage of what tiny returns were available in those securities (yes, I am being sarcastic).

Meanwhile in answer to my rhetorical – because it should have been obvious what the answer would be – question in 2010 we certainly know now what happened when there was good news. Stocks skyrocketed and recently surpassed their previous highs.

My concern today is that investors will make the same mistake they always seem to make. Rather than ‘interpreting’ headlines, they will simply take them at face value and chase the stock market at an inopportune time.

I am paraphrasing, but I’ve heard and read nothing but good news of late such as:

  • “It’s definitely a ‘risk on’ market.”
  • “Don’t fight the FED!”
  • “Looks like we might avoid the usual summer slowdown this year.”

Most worrisome: Kramer (wait long enough and you’ll eventually be right) is more wound up than a four-year old high on chocolate. I do believe that stocks are a better investment than bonds over the next several years, but the trend in corporate profitability (and consumer sentiment, GDP and job growth) will be interrupted – count on it – affording convenient opportunities to get invested. With nothing but good news and euphoria, what happens if we get some bad news? A chance to invest at lower price levels. Right now, ‘risk-on’ is exactly what you should expect if you respond to headlines.

Click on this link for a chuckle: George Costanza Does the Opposite

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

 

 

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

Is it the 1950’s again? The financial war is over!

There is a plethora of articles and blogs out there desperately trying to find a period comparable to now, in order to get some understanding of what markets might have in store for us over the next several years.  After three decades in the investment business, the only thing I can say with certainty is that such comparisons just don’t work.

George Santayana (December 16, 1863 – September 26, 1952) the philosopher and man of letters, is often quoted: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

It’s true people will make the same mistakes over and again, but history never actually repeats itself.  Trying to forecast the future is absurd, and so it must be even more ridiculous to expect that the future will be similar to some time period long ago.  Nevertheless, it’s winter and all my friends are on vacation so I’ve nothing else to do.

Post-War Reconstruction: In my simple mind, we’ve just fought a global war against financial corruption.  The weapon of mass destruction?  The ‘derivative!’ These things managed to infiltrate the entire global banking system and almost brought it crumbling down.  Like most wars, it’s difficult to put a pin into when things flipped from a crisis to all out war, but let’s say the seeds were planted when the U.S. Senate tried to introduce a bill in 2005 to forbid Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) from holding mortgage-backed securities (pretend capital) in their portfolios. That first cannonball missed the mark when the bill failed to pass.  By 2007 the two government sponsored entities were responsible for 90% of all U.S. mortgages, and the fly in the ointment was the use of ‘derviatives’ instead of real capital to hedge their interest-rate risk.   Banks did the same thing but much more aggressively. What followed is a long story we’ve been living for years.

Paul Volcker once said, “I wish someone would give me one shred of neutral evidence that financial innovation has led to economic growth — one shred of evidence.”  Well, we’ve plenty of evidence now that financial innovation led only to the mass destruction of wealth.

When the foundation fell out from under us (value of the derviatives dropped) we went to war in earnest.  The list of casualties like Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (announced September 15, 2008 it was bankrupt) just kept getting longer.

I believe the war ended six years after that failed 2005 Senate bill – in the summer of 2011. You can disagree, but your opinion is as meaningless as this whole exercize. (Laughing out loud.)

Way back when World War II (1939 – 1945) ended, governments around the globe began to print money and spend to rebuild the wealth that had been destroyed.  Isn’t this precisely what we’ve been doing since our financial crisis decimated wealth on a global scale?

So maybe some of what happened in the 1950’s post-war period will happen again?

In 1949 there was a brief struggle with the threat of deflation (and again in 1954) but for most of the decade inflation remained steady between 0% to 3%. We too saw the threat of deflation briefly in 2009.  However since then inflation has been fairly steady:  1.5% (December to December) in 2010 and 3.2% in 2011 in the U.S.  Although T-bills are currently paying a negative real rate of return (yields are below the inflation rate) there will come a time soon when investors insist on earning something or they just won’t hold them.  Short term rates will climb as they did throughout the 1950’s.

Prediction #1:  T-Bills will begin to rise until their returns cover the rate of inflation (see chart).

What happened in the stock market back then?  Government spending to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs had a significant impact, because arguably the 1950’s was one of the best if not the best decade for making money in the stock market.  Unfortunately, we only have reliable data for the Dow Jones Industrial Average dating back that far (okay, there might be more data out there but I’m surely not going to go looking for it). 

At the end of 1949 the Dow was at 200.13 and by the end of 1959 it had climbed to 679.36.  Excluding dividends that equates to a (IRR) return of about 13% per year for a decade.  As always lots of volatility had to be endured in stocks, but in the long run the reward was not shabby!  On the other hand, in Treasury bonds you might have averaged a 2% return, but suffered an actual loss in 5 out of the 10 years.

Prediction #2: Global growth fueled by government initiatives will translate into healthy returns on average in stock markets for several years to come.

Are we doomed to repeat history?  Although the 1950’s turned out okay, a wild ride was to come during the following couple of decades.  Easy money and inflation would eventually get the better of us and although there were some very good years for investors in the stock market (and those invested in shorter term T-bills for sure), inflation mayhem was on its way.

All we can hope for is that today’s policy makers have studied their history.  If we allow inflation to get out of control, interest rates will skyrocket like they did through the 60’s and 70’s. Younger folks today will have to suffer rising interest rates (mortgages, car loans) of the sort that created havoc for decision-makers and choked economic growth to a standstill for us older generations back in the day.

It’s true that if we don’t learn from history, we can and will make the same mistakes over again.  But I also said history does not repeat itself.  Although we somehow managed to eventually wrestle the inflation bogieman under control before, this does not mean we will be so lucky next time around.  And it’s a wealthier more technologically advanced world we live in now….which means we’ve so much more to lose if we really screw things up.

Prediction #3:  If governments don’t slow down their spending, bond investors will really get burned.

My instincts tell me that 2013 will be a happy New Year.  And bear in mind that if none, any or all of these predictions come true it will be an unadulterated fluke.

 

 

 

 

Malvin Spooner.