Save Money By Taking Care of Your Health Issues

There are a few different ways to think about saving money. Maybe you want to put more aside from your typical paycheck. Perhaps you want to cut back on the number of expensive groceries that your purchase. Maybe you’re thinking about getting rid of some of the luxuries that you spend money on that aren’t specifically necessary to living a satisfying existence. But beyond those typical perspectives, there is another way to think about saving money, and that is by taking care of your health issues as a type of preventative maintenance.

Think about all the ways that you can save money by paying attention to health issues and dealing with them before they get expensive. You can make sure that you sign up for the right health insurance to keep those costs down. You can invest money in your eyes – figuring out what surgeries you can get or paying attention to different eye health options can have a tremendous amount of cost savings over the years. And, you can have good nutrition and exercise habits, thereby preventing some of the expensive conditions that can happen later on in life from not taking care of yourself.

Signing Up for the Right Health Insurance

It can be difficult these days navigating the healthcare industry. But, if you want to keep costs somewhere manageable, it’s essential that you sign up for the best health insurance plan that suits your needs. You have to pay attention to things like premiums and deductibles, and then you can look into details like co-pays, out-of-pocket expenses, and other items like that. You want to find the right balance of paying for insurance so that costs further down the road don’t exceed what you’re capable of paying.

Investing In Your Eyes

How much money do you typically spend on your eye health? If you wear glasses or contact lenses, that number can seem like it gets excessively high. If you talk to an eye care specialist, you may find out that there are options for you to reduce some of these costs over time. There are different surgeries that doctors can perform on your eyes that can make it so that you don’t have all of the expenses associated with eyeglasses and contacts anymore. Talking to a specialist for a free consultation is a good step in the right direction. You can save thousands of dollars over the years by taking care of your eyes in this way.

Keeping Good Nutrition and Exercise Habits

Have you ever noticed that when people get older, their health appears to deteriorate? If you talk to them, they speak about how many bills they have to pay and how expensive it is to take care of the health conditions that they have. They say that hindsight is 20/20, but the fact is, you know that your health is going to get worse as you age. Because of this, if you want to reduce the expenses that are naturally going to occur, then you have to start paying attention to your nutrition and exercise habits now! No matter how old you are, if you have a goal of achieving healthy food and exercise habits, that will pay off as an incredible return on your investment later.

Dealing With Stock Market Corrections: Ten Do’s and Don’ts

A correction is a beautiful thing, simply the flip side of a rally, big or small. Theoretically, corrections adjust equity prices to their actual value or “support levels”.  In reality, it may be easier than that.

Prices go down because of speculator reactions to expectations of news, speculator reactions to actual news, and investor profit taking.

The two former “becauses” are more potent than ever before because there is more self-directed money out there than ever before. And therein lies the core of correctional beauty!

Mutual Fund holders rarely take profits but often take losses. Additionally, the new breed of Index Fund speculators is ready for a reality check. If this brief hiccup becomes a full blown correction, new investment opportunities will be abundant.

Here’s a list of ten things to think about doing, or to avoid doing, during corrections of any magnitude:

1. Your present Asset Allocation is based upon long-term goals and objectives. Resist the urge to decrease your Equity allocation because you expect lower stock prices. That would be an attempt to time the market. Asset allocation decisions should have nothing to do with stock market expectations.

2. Take a look at the past. There has never been a correction that has not proven to be a buying opportunity, so start collecting a diverse group of Investment Grade Value Stocks as they move lower in price. I start shopping at 20% below the 52-week high water mark… the shelves are full of bargains.

3. Don’t hoard the “smart cash” you accumulated during the rally, and don’t get yourself agitated if you buy some issues too soon. There are no crystal balls, and no place for hindsight in an investment strategy. Buying too soon, and selling too soon is investing brilliance.

4. Take a look at the future; you can’t tell when the rally will resume or how long it will last. If you are buying IGVSI equities now, you will to love the next rally even more than the last… with yet another round of profits.

5. As the correction continues, buy more slowly as opposed to more quickly, and establish new positions incompletely. Hope for a short and steep decline, but prepare for a long one. There’s more to “Shop at The Gap” than meets the eye, and you should run out of cash well before the new rally begins.

6. Your use of “Smart Cash” proves the wisdom of Market Cycle Investment Management; it should be gone while the market is still falling… gets less scary  every time. So long your cash flow continues unabated, the change in market value is just scary, not income (or life) threatening.

7.  Note that your Working Capital is still growing in spite of falling market values, and examine holdings for opportunities to reduce cost basis per share or to increase yield on income Closed End Funds). Examine fundamentals and price; lean hard on your experience; don’t force the issue.

8. Identify new buying opportunities using a consistent set of rules, rally or correction. That way you will always know which of the two you are dealing with in spite of media hype and propaganda. Focus on Investment Grade Value Stocks; it’s easier, less risky, and better for your peace of mind.

9. Examine portfolio performance with your asset allocation and investment objectives in focus and in terms of market/interest rate cycles as opposed to calendar quarters and years. The Working Capital Model allows for your personal asset allocation.

Remember. too, that there is really no single index number to use for comparison purposes with a properly designed MCIM portfolio.

10.  So long as everything is “down”, there is nothing to worry about. Downgraded (or simply lazy) portfolio holdings should NOT be discarded during general or group specific weakness.  BUT, you must have the courage to cull them during rallies… also general or sector specifical (sic).

Corrections (of all types) will vary in depth and duration, and both characteristics are clearly visible only in institutional rear view mirrors. The short and deep ones are most lovable (kind of like men, I’m told); the long and slow ones are more difficult to deal with.

If you overthink the environment or overcook the research, you’ll miss the party.

Stock Market realities need to be dealt with quickly, decisively, and with zero hindsight. Because amid all of the uncertainty, there is one indisputable fact that reads equally well in either market direction:

There has never been a correction or a rally that has not succumbed to the next rally or correction..

The Extremely Good News About Higher Interest Rates

What!

Yes, market values of existing income purpose securities will certainly move lower… BUT, the income you’ve contracted for will likely remain the same, AND, you will be able to invest in new paper at higher yields.

This is a good thing, and you should not be so easily convinced that it is not. Even if your “guaranteed” paper falls in price, there need never be a loss of “principal”.

If I’m borrowing money, higher rates are bad news; for investors, higher rates mean more spending money while lower market values just mean lower market values.

The purpose of income securities is income, and a reasonably safe “more” has always been better than any “less”. The problem is simply the negative perception of a lower portfolio “total market value”. OMG!

In our financial lives, what we can spend or reinvest is the important detail, and when dealing with income-purpose investments, 99% of the time, change in market value has no impact on income received.

This was most clearly demonstrated during the financial crisis:

More than 90% of borrowers remained current on their mortgages, yet all mortgage backed securities were deemed nearly valueless under absurd “mark to market” regulations.

Even with monthly payments pouring in, many financial institutions failed to meet regulatory “market value” reserve requirements and were forced to close their doors.

At the same time, even at lower market values, virtually all non-mortgage securities, particularly managed Closed End Funds, continued to pay the same levels of interest like clockwork, while a “clockwork orange-esque” nightmare played out in financial institutions.

This focus on market value is a financially inappropriate attempt to equate the nature of debt securities to that of equities… one that could never, ever, have happened without multiple levels of ill conceived and misguided regulation.

It’s like time, tide, and gravity; you just don’t mess with Mother Nature. Price varies inversely with interest rate expectations, and this is a good thing… end of discussion.

By using Closed End Income Funds, investors can benefit from lower rates on older holdings, even as market values tumble… and this should be exciting , not scary at all.

Buying additional shares of existing bond portfolios at lower prices. Eureka!

As Yogi would say, 95% of income investing is half mental.

LinkedIn financial group members debate the impact of higher interest rates… but to income investors, there should be no debate at all. Both higher and lower rates are good for investors.

Here’s an example of where this is coming from.

I’m intimately familiar with many closed end income funds, diversified in every conceivable way, over 100 issues, with varying durations, etc. The “purpose” of the funds is twofold: (1) grow the income generated by the portfolio, while at the same time (2) distributing what individuals need to pay their monthly bills.

Income CEFs (both tax free and taxable) moved down in market value during the financial crisis, back up again (at a faster pace than stocks, actually) through November 2012, down again through the end of 2013, and now up again at a pace about the same as the S & P 500, or a bit better, through May.

During this seven years of market value direction change and short term volatility, there has been: (1) an upward move in total portfolio income, due to reinvestment of excess income; (2) never an instance of dipping into principal for a properly planned payment; (3) and hundreds of opportunities for “one-year’s-interest-in-advance” profit taking.

During seven years of historically low interest rates, income Closed End Funds have produced multiples more spending money than any other comparably safe source of income…. taxable funds are in the 7% range (net of fund expenses including interest) right now.

What negative impact has the change in market value had on the monthly income produced for Closed End Fund Investors throughout the past seven years? A resounding… NONE!

What positive impacts? Growth in income produced, growth in portfolio yield, and growth in “Working Capital” (the amount invested in the total portfolio), and not only in the income “bucket” when cost-based asset allocation is used.

Meanwhile, how have investors fared in shorter duration, stable value paper? What’s better for the economy, retirees receiving 6% tax free or less than 2%, taxable?

When investing for income, go long, emphasize experience and quality, diversify properly, and focus ( I mean really focus) only on the income you receive.

Ask your advisor:  Why is 2% better than 7%?

How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

gamblingI saw a question posted on a popular social network. The question was: ‘What is the difference between gambling and investing?” I’m inspired to reproduce (edited with permission) the following excerpt from A Maverick Investor’s Guidebook (Insomniac Press, 2011) which I believe provides as good an answer as one might find.

How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

“How do you develop ‘smart thinking’ and when do you know you’ve got ‘avarice’?”

My instinctive response would be: “You always know when you’re being greedy. You just want someone else to say that your greed is okay.” Well, I’ll say it then: greed is okay. The proviso is that you fully understand when greed is motivating your decision and live with the consequences. Avarice is driven by desire, which is not a trait of an investor.

Remember, it’s best if investment decisions are rational and stripped of emotion. Greed is associated with elation on the one hand, and anger (usually directed at oneself) on the other hand.

When decisions are motivated by greed, I call it gambling. In my mind, there are different sorts of gamblers. Some gamblers place modest bets, and if they win, they move along to another game. For me this might be roulette. There are those who enjoy playing one game they’re good at, such as blackjack or craps, hoping for a big score. Finally, there are those who are addicts. I can’t help those folks, so let’s assume we’re just discussing the first two types.

It’s okay to do a bit of gambling with a modest part of your disposable income. In fact, investors can apply some of what they know and have fun too. Unlike the casinos, financial markets have no limits or games stacked in favour of the house. It’s the Wild West, and if an investor understands herd behaviour and the merits of contrarian thinking, and does some research, the results can be quite lucrative. Whether using stocks, bonds, options, hedge funds, domestic mutual funds, foreign equity or debt funds, or commodity exchange-traded funds (if you don’t know what these things are and want to know, buy a book that introduces investment theory and the various types of securities), applying investment principles will help you be more successful.

gamblerTo put it plainly: counting cards may not be allowed in a casino, but anything goes when it comes to markets. Just don’t forget that most of the financial industry is trying to make your money their money. There’s a reason why a cowboy sleeps with his boots on and his gun within reach.

The fine line between gambling and investing is hard even for old cowhands to pinpoint. Investing also involves bets, but the bets are calculated. Every decision an investor makes involves a calculated bet—whether it’s to be in the market or not at all, biasing a portfolio in favour of stocks versus bonds, skewing stock selection in favour of one or several industry groups, or picking individual stocks or other types of securities.

I met a lady once in line at a convenience store. She bought a handful of lottery tickets, and I asked her, “Aren’t the odds of winning pretty remote for those lotteries?” Her reply was, “The odds are good. There’s a fifty/fifty chance of me winning.” Confused, I asked, “How do you figure?” I laughed aloud when she said, “Either I win or I lose; that’s fifty/fifty, isn’t it?”

A maverick investor knows there’s always a probability that any decision to buy or sell or hold can prove to be incorrect. The objective is to minimize that probability as much as is feasible. It’s impossible to make it zero. This is why financial firms have sold so many “guaranteed” funds lately. People love the idea, however impossible, of being allowed to gamble with no chance of losing. Whenever there’s a promise that you won’t lose or some other similar guarantee, my senses fire up a warning flare.

There’s usually a promise of significant upside potential and a guarantee that at worst you’ll get all (or a portion) of your original investment back. Many investors a few years ago bought so-called guaranteed funds only to find that the best they ever did receive was the guaranteed amount (extremely disappointing) or much less after the fees were paid to the company offering the product. If you think this stuff is new, trust me, it’s not.

guaranteedA fancy formula-based strategy back in the ‘80s called “portfolio insurance” was popular for a brief period. An estimated $60 billion of institutional money was invested in this form of “dynamic hedging.” It isn’t important to know in detail how the math works. Basically, if a particular asset class (stocks, bonds, or short-term securities) goes up, then you could “afford” to take more risk because you are richer on paper anyway, so the program would then buy more of a good thing. If this better-performing asset class suddenly stopped performing, you simply sold it quickly to lock in your profits. The problem was that all these programs wanted to sell stocks on the same day, and when everyone decides they want to sell and there are no buyers, you get a stalemate.

The “insurance” might have worked if you actually could sell the securities just because you wanted to, but if you can’t sell, you suffer along with everyone else—the notional guarantee isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Remember these are markets, and even though you see a price in the newspaper or your computer screen for a stock, there’s no trade unless someone will step up to buy stock from you. The market crash that began on Black Monday— October 19, 1987—was, in my opinion, fuelled by portfolio insurance programs. The market was going down, so the programs began selling stocks all at once. There weren’t nearly enough buyers to trade with. By the end of October ’87, stock markets in Hong Kong had fallen 45.5%, and others had fallen as follows: Australia 41.8%, Spain 31%, the U.K. 26.4%, the U.S. 22.7%, and Canada 22.5%.

Minimizing the Probability of Stupidity

If you’re gambling, follow the same steps you would as if you were investing. If it’s a particular stock you are anxious to own, do some homework, or at least look at someone else’s research available through your broker or on the Internet. When I was a younger portfolio manager, there were limited means to learn about a company. I would have to call the company and ask for a hardcopy annual report to be sent to me. When it arrived after several days, I’d study it a bit so I didn’t sound too ignorant, then I’d call and try to get an executive (controller, VP finance, or investor relations manager) to talk to me. If asking questions didn’t satisfy my need to know, then I’d ask to come and meet with them in the flesh. Nowadays, you have all the information you need at your fingertips.

Money.ca is a PRIME example of just one such source of valuable information available to investors today!

Mal Spooner
Mal Spooner

It’s time to lock in your mortgage rate…ASAP!

Most of us dream of the day when we can burn our mortgage. Few of us are prepared for the day when the mortgage burns our dreams of home ownership.

For some, the added expense of renewing their mortgage at a higher rate of interest can come as a shock. The rates offered today are crazy low by historical standards. Young homeowners weren’t subjected to skyrocketing mortgage rates during the early 1980’s and God willing they never will.

I recall being asked – long ago when friends thought I was prescient just because I worked in the financial industry – whether or not one should lock in the mortgage rate for the long term since it seemed like they’d just keep going higher. After all, in 1982 the trajectory of interest rates and mortgage rates had been straight UP!

As you can imagine, my answer at the time was an emphatic “NO!”

Today the opposite is true. The cheapest posted mortgage rates are the ones with the shortest terms or are variable. Plug those rates into your calculator and the payment schedule seems like a dream come true. Unfortunately interest rates over short time horizons can be surprisingly volatile. It’s possible just one or a few years later you’re burdened with payments that are no longer manageable.

In March of 1987 the average mortgage rate was close to 10%, but by March of 1990 had climbed to 13.5%. The monthly payment for a $500,000 mortgage at 10% (crude calculations but I am lazy) might have been around $4800. But at 13.5% would be nearly $6000. If you or your partner were lucky enough to get a $15,000 raise over the course of the term (say 3-year in this example) then things would be okay, but otherwise your consumption (food, child’s education, gasoline) or savings plan would suffer. Worst case, you’d have to sell the house.

Strangely enough, housing prices can rise during the early stages of rising interest rates as people who were planning to buy a house begin to hurry up the process, hoping to get a more attractive mortgage rate (before they go any higher). Unfortunately, the panic to buy is short-lived and soon there is a veritable drought of buyers who can’t afford to hold mortgages at the higher rates. Suddenly, there’s a glut of houses for sale, and if you can’t manage the higher monthly payments you have to sell the house at a loss. OUCH!

The process of rising interest rates has already begun in earnest. Historically, mortgage yields are slightly above bond yields. Bond yields go up, mortgage rates go up too. Financial institutions have responded to rising bond yields (see graph) by raising their mortgage rates in recent months as I’m sure you’ve noticed. At present, mortgage rates haven’t risen as much though, because these institutions continue to compete with one another by offering incentives and there’s also a bit of a lag as head office communicates its changes in corporate strategy down to the marketing departments.

There is still a bit of time to buy your dream home and walk away with a low-rate mortgage, but not nearly as much time as you might think. You might be reading that governments are inclined to keep the ‘bank rate’ (or discount rate which is the rate of interest the central bank charges the commercial banks to borrow money) low, in order to help the economy along. This policy is long-in-the-tooth already, and central banks cannot continue lending money to the banking system at a ridiculously low rate, when the interest rates the central banks have to pay to raise money for government spending (bond rates) keep rising. The strain on the country’s finances will become too onerous, and unwanted inflation inevitable.

If you haven’t taken advantage of low mortgage rates yet, go ahead and lock up your rate at the lending institution for as long a term as possible. And if you’ve been holding off buying that new car, don’t wait. I’ve been in the financial industry long enough to know a good thing when I see it and I took advantage of one of those generous 0% financing offers – I figure I may not see another opportunity like it in my lifetime.

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

The swarming of AAPL.

Understanding how the shares of Apple Inc. managed to get squashed so badly has much to do with knowing a bit about investor psychology and modern market dynamics. It wasn’t very long ago that shares in AAPL were universally loved – about a year ago now, CNN made it known that Poland, Belgium, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan all had GDPs that were less that Apple’s market value (around $500 billion at the time).

It’s all about probabilities. If absolutely everything is going well, encouraging publicity abounds and everyone you know has both the iPhone and owns the stock, then the only thing that is left to occur is suddenly something (sentiment, earnings disappointments, hurricanes) not-so good-happens which cools investor enthusiasm. When a stock is widely held, the subsequent selling can prove disastrous for all shareholders.

In September of 2012 AAPL traded a tiny bit north of $700 per share and is now in the neighborhood of $420 give or take. Losing 40% of one’s investment in a bull market is painful.

On business television you’ll hear lots of Apple pundits (who still own the stock in their portfolios) say the company is worth far more than the share price would suggest. This may or may not be true, but the fact of the matter is that the share price does represent what it is worth to investors right now! Doesn’t it?

The answer used to be yes, but with the increase in the popularity of short-selling it is difficult to determine nowadays what a company is really worth. In many instances there is absolutely no connection between the actual economic value of a business and its stock price.

Swarming is the term now applied to the crime where an unsuspecting innocent bystander is attacked by several culprits at once, with no known motive. Because swarming at street level involves violence, it is criminal. However in financial markets it is perfectly legal and different because there definitely is a motive. The motive is to rob shareholders of their invested dollars.

In a recent (April 6th, Thomson Reuters: Reuters Insider) interview Bill Ackerman, founder of Pershing Square Capital Management and who is described as an ‘activist’ investor, admitted “There is something inherently shadowy or evil about short-sellers.” Ackerman gained notoriety when he publicly claimed the company Herbalife was nothing more than a pyramid scheme, suggested the stock was worth zero and admitted his company had an enormous short position.

When any company today stumbles (or is perceived to have stumbled) it ignites something akin to a swarming. For example, this quote is from CNBC.com on November 10th, 2012:

“The question has been asked by nearly every Apple watcher following a brutal two-week stretch that began with a worse than expected earnings report, quickened after the ouster of a high-profile executive and culminated with news this week that it had fallen behind competitor Samsung in the smartphone wars.”

Although one might expect the stock to decline under the circumstances, the subsequent pummeling of the share price seems a bit cruel. What happened? Have a gander at this graph of the short interest (the total number of shares that were sold short) since about a year ago. To gain perspective, in April of 2013 the short interest has grown to 20,497,880 shares. The dollar value of this is about the same as the Gross Domestic Product of the entire country of Malta.

In English, short-sellers detected vulnerability, and swarmed AAPL. The irony is that short-sellers borrow the stock from real shareholders (via third parties) in order to sell it on the market. After the selling pressure wreaks havoc on the stock price, the short-seller then buys shares at a much lower price, returns the ‘borrowed’ shares to those real shareholders and keeps the profits.

The irony is that short-sellers claim to be providing a public service. Bill Ackerman was simply exposing a company that he believed (discovered) was misleading its shareholders. He even went so far as to say he didn’t even want the profits – they would be donated to charity. The problem is that it isn’t just some big bad corporation that is punished, but its shareholders and in due course even its employees.

I’ve never claimed to be all that smart, but I just can’t figure out how aggressively attacking a company’s share price, selling stock that the seller doesn’t even own, for the sole purpose of transferring the savings of innocent investors into one’s own coffers (whether it goes to charity of not) is a noble thing. Isn’t it kind of like a bunch of thugs beating someone up and stealing his/her cellphone declaring it was the loner’s own fault for being vulnerable?

How can you stay clear of being a victim?

  • Avoid owning stocks that have become darlings. When it seems nothing at all can go wrong, it will ,and when it does there’s sure to be a swarming.
  • If there’s evidence of a growing short interest in a company, best not own the stock.
  • Instruct your financial institution that your shares are not to be available for securities lending purposes.
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