Lower gas prices can mean really big TFSA savings!

Many Canadians have grown accustomed to low mortgage rates and strong residential pricing, and now the price of gasoline is leaving a few more bucks in our pockets.  Don’t get too comfortable, because history teaches us that none of this is sustainable.  It is circumstances like the present that make seasoned money managers anxious.  While neophytes are happy to carelessly bathe in the sunshine, experts are usually getting ready for the next storm.  What can you do?  With lower gasoline prices providing some extra cash flow why not use the cash to bolster your savings?

One cloud on the horizon has been getting some attention of late.  The massive global financial stimulus that has caused interest rates to remain low for so long has had a predictable impact on our collective behaviour.  Canadians have borrowed money like there’s no tomorrow.

Household Debt vs Disponable IncomeAccording to data from Statistics Canada, our total borrowing has been on a steady incline since 1990, while servicing the debt has been eating away at our disposable income.  Sure, we tightened our belts some during the financial crisis, but the temptation to borrow at low rates has just been too much to overcome.

It is difficult to save money, when so little of one’s income is disposable.  And most financial advisers would recommend that it doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense to save money at all when you owe money.  It makes far more financial sense to pay down your debt.  Based on numbers alone, this is sound advice.  But our behaviour is seldom governed by numbers alone – we are indeed a complex species.

For example, contributing to your RRSP provides a tax savings in the same year your contribute right?  So where does it go?  A strictly numbers analysis espousing the merits of RRSPs would certainly factor in those savings to illustrate how effective they are at growing your wealth, but I am inclined to agree with the Wealthy Barber (David Chilton) who frequently points out (and I am paraphrasing here) that those dollars you supposedly ‘saved’ were most probably squandered, not saved.  If the tax savings were indeed invested, then it is true that one’s net worth might grow.  However the iPhone, piece of furniture or other consumer good bought with that tax refund hardly qualifies as savings now does it?

Does it make any sense at all to save when wallowing in debt?  I would argue most emphatically YES!  According to an IPSOS Reid poll published in October:  “The average working Canadian believes they would need $45,609 in savings to sustain themselves for a year should they be off work due to illness.”  Where would this money come from?  In real life, a portion of it would be required for food and lodging yet some of it will be needed just to pay the mortgage or rent.  I’d bet that the average Canadian polled would no doubt have seriously underestimated the amount needed to live on while not working (for whatever reason).  In the same poll roughly 68% admitted to having some or lots of debt – suggesting that 1/3rd of Canadians have none?  Pardon me if I suspect that a good percentage of those polled might also have been too embarrassed to answer candidly even if their responses remained anonymous – we are Canadians after all and loathe to taint our conservative image.

Now is an ideal time to bump up your savings!

Where will the extra cash come from to begin a more aggressive savings program?  Let’s start at the gas pump.  We all feel a bit of relief simply watching the price of gasoline come down when fueling, but has anyone really considered how much they might now be pocketing because of lower energy prices?  In April of 2014 Canadians were paying a near-record $1.50 per litre.  Just 6 months ago the price of gasoline in Toronto was 139.9 cents a litre and today (I am writing this on December 10) it is 103.9 cents.  That’s a whopping 25% decrease.  Say a motorist was spending $50 in after-tax dollars a week.  If they price of gas simply stays at 103.9 the cost savings are $12.50 a week which is equivalent to $650 of annual savings requiring about $1000 of your pre-tax income.  If there is more than one vehicle in a family? Let’s keep it simple and assume $1000 in annual family savings simply from the lower gasoline price.  Never mind that other energy costs (heating) and transportation costs (flights) will also create savings.  What if you simply invested that amount every year and earned a rate of return on it?  It will grow to a handsome sum.  Unfortunately, you will have to pay taxes on those returns but more about that later.

Growth in $1000 annually

 

Of course it’s unreasonable to expect gas prices to remain at these levels or fall lower.  It is also not wise to anticipate more generous rates of return.  In point of fact, it is foolhardy to expect or anticipate anything at all.  Returns will be what they will be, and gas prices are determined by market forces that the experts have trouble understanding.

Does the uncertainty we must live with mean that savings might just as well be spent on the fly?  As I tell students studying to be financial planners; one must start somewhere and there are two things worth acknowledging up front:

1)  The power of compounding (letting money earn money by investing it) is very real, as evidenced by the table.

2)  It makes sense to have a cushion in the event of a loss of income, the desire to pay down some debt, make a purchase or just retire.

Yes it makes more financial sense to have no debt at all, but the majority of Canadians will borrow for those things they want now rather than later, like a home or car.  If you must borrow, why not save as well?  Fortunately we have been gifted the perfect savings vehicle.  The Tax Free Savings Account introduced in 2009 has advantages that make it an ideal place to park money you are saving at the gas pump.  The returns you earn in the account are tax-free.  With GIC rates as low as they are, you might be inclined to say ‘so big deal?’ But any financial adviser over 45 years of age (I admit, there aren’t many) can tell you that low interest rates are temporary, and besides you can and will earn better returns over the longer term in equity mutual funds just as an example.

TFSA Contribution LimitsOf course there are limits (see table) to what you are allowed to contribute, but best of all they are cumulative.  In other words, if you haven’t contributed your limit since 2009, you can ‘catch up’ at any time.  Including 2014, you have a right to have put up to $31,000 into the account.   Also the contribution limit rises (is indexed) over time with the rate of inflation.  Perhaps most important, you can withdraw money from the account tax-free.  Your contributions were already taxed (there’s no tax deduction when contributing like when you put funds into an RRSP), and the investment returns are all yours to keep.  Using your TFSA means that won’t have to pay those taxes and the effects of compounding aren’t diminished.  To top it off, you are allowed to replace any money you’ve withdrawn in following years.

The seasoned money manager will want some flexibility in the event that he is blindsided.  With your TFSA savings you too will enjoy more flexibility.  If interest rates are higher when you renegotiate your mortgage, taking money out of your TFSA to reduce the principal amount might help reduce your monthly payments to affordable levels.  Should the economy take a turn for the worse over the next several years and you lose your job, then you’ll have some extra cash available to retire debt and help with living expenses.  For younger Canadians saving money at the gas pump? Investing the extra cash flow in your TFSA account will certainly help towards building a healthy deposit for your first home.

  • Don’t squander the cash you are saving thanks to low energy prices.
  • Your TSFA if you have one, allows you to invest those savings and the returns you earn are tax free.
  • If you don’t have a TFSA, then get one.
  • Be sure to use only qualified investments and do not over-contribute. The penalties are severe.
  • Money earned on your investments is tax-free.
  • Take out cash when you need it, and put it back when you can.
  • When you retire, money withdrawn from your TFSA does not count as taxable income.

 

Mal Spooner is a veteran fund manager and currently teaches at the Humber College School of Business.
Mal Spooner is a veteran fund manager and currently teaches at the Humber College School of Business.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why so much ado about interest rates?

Mal Spooner
Mal Spooner

Why the popularity of shorter-term interest-bearing securities among Canadians, in particular GIC investments?  In fact, we in Canada are not the only investors who seem satisfied investing our money knowing that the rate-of-return might just barely cover the rate of price inflation, with a significant risk of actually losing money if inflation should rise even modestly.  And it is not just people who are content with the arrangement between ourselves and the borrowers of our money – banks, insurance companies and credit unions alike – corporations have been hoarding cash since the Financial Crisis too.

This past summer, Statistics Canada reminded us that corporations in Canada continued to grow their cash hoard rather than invest the funds in their businesses.  Of course, like people, companies don’t actually hold cash, but rather invest the money in low risk short-term interest bearing securities, often in Government of Canada T-bills and bonds, as well as commercial paper offered by financial institutions.

At the end of the second quarter of 2008, corporations held $373.4 billion in cash balances (Statistics Canada November 17th, 2009 study: Indebtedness and liquidity of non-financial corporations).  By the first quarter of this (2014) year the number had grown to a whopping $629.7-billion. So why the stubborn tendency to tolerate a near-zero rate-of-return?

There are at least two factors at work in my estimation.  One has to do with the economics of interest rates in the current environment, another with human nature and demographics.

First of all, what is an interest rate?  It embodies three important expectations-related factors: Real returns, inflation and risk.  We all are reluctant to part with our cash unless we’re able to earn what economists call a ‘real’ return.  Ask yourself, what rate-of-return would make you happy if there was essentially no risk (default, volatility) to speak of and no price inflation.  Whatever you buy today, will in theory cost you the same price next year and every year after that.  Most agree that the very long-term real rate of interest is somewhere between 2% and 4%.  Real Rates Canada 2004 to 2014However, you can easily see from the graph that the real rate of return provided by Government of Canada (as low risk as you can find) long-term real return bonds over the past ten years has been driven down since the Financial Crisis, as all governmental central banks strove to fight disinflation by dampening the general level of interest rates.

Has the return we expect from lending our funds really adjusted downward, or is it that the availability of securities providing the returns we normally demand has changed?  My guess is most folks would agree that the adage ‘once burned, twice shy’ aptly summarizes our tendency to be  biased by recent experience.  It is human nature to be sensitive to bad or good things that have just happened and to oftentimes unreasonably expect them to continue.  Also, we are confronted by a lack of options.  Securities available to us are not promising the rates-of-return we want, given the amount of risk we are prepared to stomach.

In fact, a quick look at one of many high-dividend oriented ETF’s, the iShares Core S&P/TSX Composite High Dividend Index ETF suggests that a collection of dividend paying stocks yielded 4.31% (as of October 2, 2014) over the past (trailing) 12 months.  As a bonus, the tax treatment of dividends is more generous than it is for interest income.  Indeed the stock market has done perhaps too well over the last few years, but judging by the massive dollars invested in short-term securities those equity returns have not been earned by everyday people. The issue is people just don’t seem to want the volatility that comes with investing in stocks; even when the selection of stocks is less risky than the overall stock market.  A real return with some risk is less attractive than no return at all, and it has been like this for quite awhile now. The second ingredient to interest rate levels is inflation expectations.

Source: Bank of Canada
Source: Bank of Canada

Admittedly, we haven’t seen a whole bunch of price inflation have we?  Central bank policy around the world has been more interested in creating some inflation, fearing that disinflation would prove devastating to our economic welfare.  These efforts are in fact evidenced by the historically low level of administered interest rates we have.  If our collective expectations concerning future price inflation are significantly different from what we are experiencing then our behaviour will reflect it. Could it be that the extraordinarily high commitment to GIC’s and equivalents is that Canadians, and Americans are doing it too, are content to simply keep their money (even at the risk of a small loss) intact until rates of inflation and returns get back to levels they think they can believe in?

The third important determinant of interest rate levels is our toleration for risk, and it exists in many different forms.  Our appreciation for the risk of default was certainly modified during the Financial Crisis; and in short order we’ve been willing to tolerate none of it.  We’ve turned a blind eye to significant stock market appreciation and even bond returns preferring to ‘check’ rather than ‘raise’ and ‘all in’ has certainly been out of the question.   But this intolerance to take risk has become very sticky at the individual level and at the corporate level.  This might have more to do with demographics than anything else.

Younger people are quite surprised to learn that real interest rates got as high as 6% – 9% during the mid-1980’s, and during the 90’s and up to the turn of the millennium ranged around the 4% level. (Source: I was there!)  There is a large proportion Canadians who lived through those times.  According to Statistics Canada there is roughly an equal number of young people as there are older people.  Ratio of old to young in CanadaHalf of us in Canada might consider those times ancient history (or have no interest at all in history), and the other half feel as if it was just yesterday that mortgage rates were in the double digits.

These more seasoned citizens look at the rates of return offered by the bond market and similar investment vehicles and say to themselves: “Hey, if I buy a longer term bond, I’m earning next to nothing anyway, so I’ll just put money into shorter term GIC’s and term deposits that are effectively earning nothing and avoid the risk of having my money tied up.”  Having experienced periods of rising inflation and higher real rates, they (and yes, I’m a member of that distinguished group) are inclined to wait until more generous returns come back – if they ever do come back.  And don’t forget, these same folks might actually have to spend their savings sooner rather than later suggesting that any risk of a big loss in the stock or bond market is simply untenable.

Most people when they think of Canada bonds, immediately think of Canada Savings Bonds.  They are not the same at all.  Normal Government of Canada bonds, held in mutual funds and pension plans for example, rise and fall in value as interest rates change.  Although we’ve been through a very long stretch of falling interest rates, which made bond prices steadily go up in value, there have been and will be periods when interest rates rise and people lose money in bonds.  It is smart to learn how the time value of money works and how and why bonds can make or lose money.  There is a plethora of online videos that can help you understand bond valuation and the investment in your time to learn bond dynamics is well worth the minimal effort.

The yield curve is simply a plot of interest rates corresponding to varying maturities at a point in time.  Ordinarily, we expect to earn higher returns the longer our money is lent to someone else.  GIC rates are lower when the hold period is 3 months than they are when your money is tied up for 3 years.  The same should be true for bonds.  But consider where we’ve come from:  US Treasury Dept. Yield CurvesThe graph shows the yield curves for US Treasury bonds as of October 2007 compared to the same today.  The 2007 yield curve reflects the uncertainty at that time about, well almost everything.  We didn’t know if we should accept lower rates for shorter investments or high rates for longer term bonds so the curve was somewhat flattish.  What would inflation be?  Which financial institution would be solvent?  Would the US government even be solvent?  Many questions but few answers in the midst of the financial turmoil.

The more current yield curve reflects today’s reality.  The only interest rates we can earn in the short-term are hovering close to zero, and since longer-term risk-free bonds are paying us barely one percent over inflation why assume the added risk.  If interest rates do rise from these low levels, then you will certainly lose money owning the longer-term bonds.

In a nutshell, people have doing what they should be doing – seeking shelter and waiting it out.   A side-effect of this behaviour is that our willingness to tolerate no return for lots of safety has stalled the return to financial market normality.  By stubbornly remaining in GIC’s, term deposits and money market funds we are inadvertently delaying what we desire – a decent return for taking some risk.  It’s only when money moves freely and to a large extent greedily that financial markets function properly.  This presents quite a conundrum for policy makers around the world, who’ve been praying that businesses invest in business instead of hoarding their cash, and people begin spending more and taking on more risk by investing their savings in more diverse ways.

There are many pundits who have suddenly jumped on the bandwagon predicting a stock market meltdown and impending bond market rout.  If they are right and this happens then we might finally get what we want after-the-fact; returns that compensate us fairly for inflation and risk.  In fact the stock market is suffering of late, and a shift (or rather, twist)  in the yield curve is already causing some havoc for bond managers.  The longer-term rates have declined rather than risen as expected, and mid-term bond yields have surprisingly risen – causing grief even for gurus like Bill Gross, who co-founded PIMCO and until recently managed one of the world’s largest bond portfolios.

If investors have been doing the right thing to feel secure, what should they be doing next?  Over my own lengthy career I’ve found that at some point it is important to combat inertia and begin moving in a different strategic direction.  As stock prices adjust downwards, take advantage of what happens.  The dividends paid on the increasingly lower stock prices become more attractive quickly, and remember they are taxed at preferential rates.  The world economy may continue to grow at only a snail’s pace, so why not test the waters so to speak and begin putting some funds into longer-term interest-earning bonds.  If inflation does creep up and interest rates increase some, then put even more funds to work at the higher yields.    Having done the safe thing during turbulent times, perhaps it’s time to do the smart thing.  Experience teaches us that the best time to be doing the smart thing is almost always when it is most difficult to do it.  The longer you earn nothing, the poorer you get.

 

Custom-built Equity- or Index-linked GICs

No doubt you have heard or read about Equity- or Index-linked GICs. Many financial institutions market variations of these products. The intention is to provide the guaranteed return of your principal and give you the potential of higher returns based on some external equity fund or market index. The options for early withdrawal are virtually none – except your death! Sarah and Lee are frustrated with the choices available for several other reasons too.

This product is not always available. Many institutions only offer these products during “RRSP Season”. In addition, sales of new issues are sometimes suspended because of periods of poor market performance.

Limited choice of terms. Usually these products are only offered for a 3 or 5 year term. If Lee and Sarah want a different term, they are out of luck.

Limited choice of equity or index links. The company offering the product makes the investment choice. All issues have a maximum rate of return that they will pay – a cap on returns. Clients are in a take-it or leave-it position.

Lee and Sarah are looking for greater choice and control over their investment, both in duration and the investment linked to the GIC. They are looking for a better way to invest and get the best of both worlds. There is good news for them – it can be done and without the restrictions of the other products.

Lee and Sarah, together with their financial advisor designed their own personalised equity-linked GIC with no restrictions, full flexibility and no cap on returns.

First, they choose their own term. In most cases, a long term – say 5 to 7 years at least, is preferable. Time is their friend since it gives the equity portion of their investment a higher probability of good returns. A term of 10 years or more is even better!

Next, they buy a plain, regular, off-the-shelf redeemable GIC to guarantee their full principal. After discussing things, they decide a 7-year term is appropriate and they have $75,000 to invest. After pushing a few buttons on a financial calculator and knowing the 7-year rate is 4%, they need to deposit $56,993 today so it will be worth $75,000 in 7 years.

Finally, they choose their equity investment. With just over $18,000 left to invest in equities, they now consult their advisor for an appropriate solution. They can use mutual funds, segregated funds, Index funds, ETFs or individual stocks. Their advisor will have them complete a Risk Tolerance questionnaire to determine appropriate choices. This will be their profit with no cap!

Sarah and Lee are happy to have control of their investment with no upside limits and no restrictions on liquidity or withdrawal. Shouldn’t you take control of your choices?

Invest Risk Free —- NOT!

I saw this headline on a half-page ad in the Vancouver Sun this past week – 4 colours – no-one could possibly miss it. The headline in very large print read INVEST RISK FREE with a very, very small asterisk directing readers to the bottom of the ad for the usual disclaimers.

I must say that it continues to amaze me that companies (in this case a very large bank) would continue to advertise such absolute rubbish. In this instance, the institution publishing the ad was promoting their version of an equity-linked GIC. The theme being, buy this product, hold it until maturity and regardless of what happens to the stock market index chosen as the benchmark, you will be guaranteed to get your money back. With this fact, the ad promotes this as a “risk free” investment – oh, by the way, this was for a non-registered product. If the benchmark market went up, then within certain limits, the holder would get back some interest return on the positive side – no losses.

Let’s examine this a bit more closely – has everyone forgotten about this thing called INFLATION? Or how about TAXES?? I am not going to do a lot of fancy calculations here – you can all do that on your own time.

Scenario ONE

Product pays ZERO interest at the end of the 5-year holding period – you get back 100% of your initial investment – so according to the bank in question – no loss – therefore risk free. Absolute nonsense! If no interest – no taxes so they drop out of this equation. But inflation is still here! If we assume that inflation stays at the current low level of 1.9% and it stays there for the next 5 years, then (ignoring compounding), your money has lost at least 10% in purchasing power – that is a LOSS to the investor and worse, it is a loss which is NON-DEDUCTBLE!!

Scenario TWO

Same as number 1, but let’s throw in an average gain of 3% for each of the next 5 years. Lowest marginal tax bracket currently in BC is about 25%. So 3% gross equals about 2.25% net, after tax. If we again subtract inflation of 1.9%, then the client is left with a real, net, after-tax, after inflation rate of return of .35% – yes .35% – but at least in this possibility, the client hasn’t lost any $$ nor have they lost any purchasing power. If the investor is in a 35% marginal tax backet or higher, then we are back to Scenario ONE but with a smaller net loss of purchasing power.

But – that is a lot of buts! Please, don’t be fooled – there is NO SUCH THING as NO RISK INVESTING!

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