Managing today’s investment risks

“The way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation.”
– Vladimir Lenin

 

Written by Steve Nyvik, BBA, MBA, CIM, CFP, R.F.P.
Financial Planner and Portfolio Manager, Lycos Asset Management Inc.

 

Not too many years ago, there was a type of investor commonly called a “GIC Refugee”. The rates on Guaranteed Investment Certificates (GICs) once upon a time generated a decent income; but the interest rates on renewal kept dropping. Dropping rates meant dropping income which eventually meant they would have to eat into their capital to maintain their living standard. So GIC Refugees eventually stopped renewing their GICs and moved their money into stocks and bonds seeking higher returns.

Although bonds suffered some of the same problems as GICs, one could get higher interest through extending the term to maturity or by buying non-government guaranteed company bonds that are little more than IOUs. But in an environment where interest rates were declining and the economy was doing well, not only did you get the decent interest, but you also benefitted from the rise in price of the bonds.

Declining interest rates not only helped lift bonds, but companies that borrow also found their interest expense dropped and their after-tax income rise. This has helped to support stock prices which have climbed to record highs and now trade at historically high P/Es. And declining interest rates have also helped people to afford to borrow more to buy real estate. So we’ve been seeing massive asset bubbles in real estate.

Our government has pursued a fiscal path of running deficits to support the economy which may continue for several more years. And we’ve seen our Canadian dollar shrink in value against the US dollar.

To help partially fund government deficits, we’ve also been seeing income taxes rise – directly on those of high income and indirectly through limiting deductions, credits and exemptions for businesses and on estates and Trusts. Of course, there have been some tax reductions for the lower income to middle class to make income tax rises more politically palatable.

The longer term impact of higher income taxes have yet to be felt. But we may see individuals and businesses moving south where tax rates are in process of declining from levels near 35% down to 20%. As a result, their taxes may be quite lower both corporately and personally than in Canada. And if a US border adjustment tax gets implemented, the Canadian economy could be at risk of going into a recession.

A drain of people and businesses to the US may result in relatively less job creation in Canada and less innovation or incentive to create products that can lift our economy.

Rising inflation, rising interest rates, and rising taxes are dangers to meeting our living needs; especially those that are retired. Highly priced and volatile stock markets, like what we experienced in 2008/09, can be extremely scary. There are no longer any worthwhile guarantees and no safe place to put most of your retirement nest egg. It certainly makes my job of investing to help meet my clients living needs more challenging.

The traditional asset allocation view of holding a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds to manage risk and develop a more stable return doesn’t hold the way it used to. That’s because bonds now do not generate enough income to help meet client needs and bonds are at risk to rising interest rates. So in a rising interest rate environment, bonds may generate inadequate income or suffer losses in value.

Mathematics on Bond Returns

Let’s open up the newspaper and look at 5 Year GICs – see: http://www.financialpost.com/personal-finance/rates/gic-annual.html.  The more competitive GIC rates are about 2.25%.  Assuming you buy the GIC and hold it in your personal investment account, the interest is going to be taxable.

Assuming you live in British Columbia, your combined BC and Federal personal marginal tax rates are summarized below:

2017 Marginal Tax Rates

 

Let’s make an assumption you are in the $45,916 to $77,797 bracket having a marginal tax rate of 28.2%.

Now let’s take a look at Canadian inflation:

Consumer Price Index

 

As an aside, the actual level of inflation you are experiencing is likely much higher than this unless the goods and services you buy are similar and in similar proportions to those used by Statistics Canada to measure inflation.  But let’s assume future inflation of 2.0%.

So if you have $100 invested in an annual pay GIC held personally, your situation is as follows:

GIC Return

As a result, you’ve lost purchasing power and will continue to do so as your capital remains locked away for another four years of the five year term. Buying investments that lose purchasing power is a bad investment.

So GICs are a money losing proposition if held personally. But what if they are held in a Tax Free Savings Account or an RRSP/RRIF? Trouble is that they provide a return similar to inflation so you’re not gaining much.

How about bonds? They are generating low returns like GICs see: http://www.financialpost.com/markets/data/bonds-canadian.html. To make matters worse, long term bonds are subject to a high level of risk in a rising interest rate environment. To appreciate this risk, the table below shows that the longer the term to maturity, the greater the potential loss in rising interest rates:

Rising Bond Interest Rates

But what about high yield bonds (“poorer quality loans”)? The trouble with these is that in a poor economic environment, like if we go into a recession, the rate of defaults may rise. Cyclical businesses and poor quality businesses can see their credit quality decline with declines in revenues and/or earnings. Similarly, going to emerging market bond funds may result in high volatility and expose you to currency devaluation risks.

 

Summary

There is a solution to helping retired GIC Refugees achieve a livable standard of living. But one cannot ignore the huge risks now faced.  The search for good risk-adjusted returns in a low interest and highly priced market is that much more difficult today.  And we must be vigilant as ever in diversifying your investments to control risk.  Lastly, we must consider your cash needs through time to develop the right asset mix so you are not exposed to an unnecessarily high level of risk.  This is not the time for the uneducated or inexperienced investor.  The risk of getting it wrong can be a loss of a good chunk of your life savings – that means a lower achievable future retirement living standard.

If you are interested in working with an experienced investment adviser to help you navigate these tough times, please call me, Steve Nyvik, at (604) 288-2083 Extension 2 or email me at: Steve@lycosasset.com.

How can small business deal with today’s currency fluctuations?

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.

Right now it’s no secret that selling merchandise to Americans is pretty lucrative.  We also know that it hasn’t always been this way.  A relative of mine who sells lighting products to customers the U.S. is a case in point.

My brother-in-law built a very successful business with his wife from the ground up.  Their decision to sell to markets in the US worked fine, but the real boost to sales occurred when their son joined the business and talked them into selling on the Internet.  Online sales boomed, but of course so did their company’s vulnerability to exchange rate risk.

A few years ago, he was struggling to make his usual margins (which are not that big at the best of times) when the CAD/USD exchange rate approached par.  In other words, a C$ was pretty much equal to the US$.  Cross-border shoppers from the Canadian side of the border were in heaven (myself included), whereas exporters were beginning to panic.  After all, their costs were still in Canadian dollars, which was an advantage when they received sales revenue in a much stronger $US.  Converting back into Canadian currency provided a substantial bonus to their profits and quality of life.

Things are great once again, but how can a smaller business owner(s) plan ahead to make sure that currency risk doesn’t threaten their livelihood?

The graph below illustrates the impact currency can have on a business.  Imagine a fictional Canadian company that began selling a specialty cheese to the U.S. marketplace in June of 2006. The sale price stays the same (due to competitive pressures) at US$ 2.50.  Costs are steady in C$ 1.98 range.  Sales made in US dollars must be converted back to Canadian dollars.  
USD-CAD sales and profits
It is easy to see how just the exchange rate can wreak havoc on a businesses revenues and profitability.  Is it possible to anticipate or prevent this volatility?  When companies are accustomed to very large orders, it is possible to contact your bank and make arrangements to use the currency forward markets in order to ‘hedge’ your profits.  For instance, if one expects to have to convert a significant amount of foreign currency into one’s domestic currency once the order is delivered, you can arrange to lock in the forward exchange rate today, thereby knowing exactly what your margin is (and will be).

However, the orders for most small businesses aren’t large enough to make hedging a viable option. Can you plan for currency fluctuations?  Experts agree that there is no robust way to forecast exchange rates.  Experts have been frustrated trying to predict exchange rates for years, and the forward markets/futures markets are not very good predictors of the exchange rate that will actually occur in 3 to six months.

One approach that has been around (seems like forever) is the purchasing power parity theory.  The price of a consumer product (same materials, can be sourced locally or at same prices) should be the same in different countries, once adjusting for the exchange rate.  Below, the table compares the price of the rather ubiquitous iPhone in Canada, Europe and Asia.  The price of the iPhone 6s 16GB (unlocked) in the U.S. is about $699, and should be more or less the same in Nanjing, China (their currency (is the remninbi or RMB) adjusting for the exchange rate as it is in Berlin Germany (euros).  As you can see from the table, this is not the case (the prices and exchange rates are not 100% accurate due to rounding).

iPhone intl pricing

Because Germans and the Chinese have to pay an even bigger price, it suggests the the USD is overvalued relative to those currencies.  The Canadian dollar on the other hand, based on this overly simple approach is actually still a bit overvalued compared to our neighbour to the south even at these depressed levels.  Of course, our proximity to the US might simply give Canadians a great deal on iPhones not available in other countries.

We should therefore expect the USD to depreciate relative to both the EUR and RMB in due course – the forces of supply and demand (for products, services and therefore currencies) should cause disparate prices to equilibrate.  The mobile device in theory should cost the same to the consumer no matter where he/she lives.  Should the USD decline significantly (perhaps even compared to the Canadian dollar) then the margin on good and services businesses in those countries are earning today with decline.

When sales are in another currency

The problem, is that historically purchasing power parity is also a poor predictor of exchange rates. The game of international finance is extremely complex.  Not only are exchange rates determined by differing interest rates in countries, balance of payments, trade balance, inflation rates and perceived country risks, the rates are also influenced by expectations associated with these variables and more.  The bottom line for smaller businesses is that when it comes to foreign exchange risk – they are completely exposed.

So what can be done?  Planning.  It is tempting to become overly optimistic when exchange rates have drifted in your favour, encouraging further investment to facilitate more sales in the stronger currency.  Buying equipment, hiring permanent labour and leasing more space introduces higher fixed costs that might dampen or destroy profitability when the tide turns the other way.  It is important to consider ‘what if’ scenarios frequently – and especially before laying out more capital. For entrepreneurs the biggest mistake is to take for granted that the status quo will continue.  All of a sudden, you might be buying yourself a bigger house, a fancier car and sending the kids to private school – all based on current income which is linked to the current prosperity of your business.

Currency instability is a fact of life, and the best way to be prepared is to expect the inevitable. Rather than rush to spend more on expanding the business put aside a ‘safety’ cushion during good times that can be drawn upon during bad times.  If your commitment to the US, European or other markets is firm, then park the cushion into currencies you are vulnerable too.  For example, invest your cushion in US dollar denominated assets – U.S. Treasury bills will provide a natural hedge for your sales.  Similarly, if a significant volume of your sales are in Europe and the company borrows funds for operations, borrow some funds in euros as a hedge – then if the euro appreciates you’re able to pay those obligations in the same stronger currency thanks you your euro receivables.

It is widely believed today that the USD is likely to depreciate relative to a number of other currencies, and perhaps imminently.  Today might indeed be the ideal time to begin considering ‘what if’ scenarios and the actions you can take to plan ahead.

 

 

The Investment Gods Are Furious

Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM) is an historically new methodology, but with roots deeply embedded in both the building blocks of capitalism, and financial psychology— if there is such a thing.

The earliest forms of capitalism sprung from ancient mercantilism, which involved the production of goods and their distribution to people or countries mostly around the Mediterranean.

The sole purpose of the exercise was profit and the most successful traders quickly produced more profits than they needed for their own consumption. The excess cash needed a home, and a wide variety of early entrepreneurial types were quick to propose ventures for the rudimentary rich to consider.

There were no income taxes, and governments actually supported commercial activities, recognizing how good it was for “Main Street” — as if there was such a thing.

The investment gods saw this developing enterprise and thought it good. They suggested to the early merchants, and governments that they could “spread the wealth around” by: selling ownership interests in their growing enterprises, and by borrowing money to finance expansion and new ventures.

A financial industry grew up around the early entrepreneurs, providing insurances, brokerage, and other banking services. Economic growth created the need for a trained workforce, and companies competed for the most skilled. Eventually, even the employees could afford (even demand) a piece of the action.

Was this the beginning of modern liberalism? Not! The investment gods had created the building blocks of capitalism: stocks and bonds, profits and income. Stock owners participated in the success of growing enterprises; bondholders received interest for the use of their money; more and better skilled workers were needed — the K.I.S.S. principle was born.

As capitalism took hold, entrepreneurs flourished, ingenuity and creativity were rewarded, jobs were created, civilizations blossomed, and living standards improved throughout the world. Global markets evolved that allowed investors anywhere to provide capital to industrial users everywhere, and to trade their ownership interests electronically.

But on the dark side, without even knowing it, Main Street self-directors participated in a thunderous explosion of new financial products and quasi-legal derivatives that so confused the investment gods that they had to holler “’nuff”! Where are our sacred stocks and bonds? Financial chaos ensued.

The Working Capital Model was developed in the 1970s, as the guts of an investment management approach that embraced the cyclical vagaries of markets. This at a time when there were no IRA or 401(k) plans, no index or sector funds, no CDOs or credit swaps, and very few risky products for investors to untangle.

Those who invested then: obtained investment ideas from people who knew stocks and bonds, had pensions protected by risk-averse trustees, and appreciated the power of compound interest. Insurance and annuities were fixed, financial institutions were separated to avoid conflicts of interest, and there were as many economics majors as lawyers in Washington.

MCIM was revolutionary then in its break from the ancient buy-and-hold, in its staunch insistence on Quality, Diversification, and Income selection principles, and in its cost based allocation and diversification disciplines. It is revolutionary still as it butts heads with a Wall Street that has gone MPT mad with product creation, value obfuscation, and short-term performance evaluation.

Investing is a long-term process that involves goal setting and portfolio building. It demands patience, and an understanding of the cycles that create and confuse its landscape. MCIM thrives upon the nature of markets while Wall Street ignores it. Working Capital numbers are used for short-term controls and directional guidance; peak-to-peak analysis keeps performance expectations in perspective.

In the early 70s, investment professionals compared their equity performance cyclically with the S & P 500 from one significant market peak to the next — from the 1,500 achieved in November 1999 to the 1,527 of November 2007, for example. Equity portfolio managers would be expected to do at least as well over the same time period, after all expenses.

Another popular hoop for investment managers of that era to jump through was Peak to Trough performance —managers would be expected to do less poorly than the averages during corrections.

Professional income portfolio managers were expected to produce secure and increasing streams of spendable income, regardless. Compounded earnings and/or secure cash flow were all that was required. Apples were not compared with oranges.

Today’s obsession with short-term blinks of the investment eye is Wall Street’s attempt to take the market cycle out of the performance picture. Similarly, total return hocus-pocus places artificial significance on bond market values while it obscures the importance of the income produced.

MCIM users and practitioners will have none of it; the investment gods are furious.

Market Cycle Investment Management embraces the fundamental building blocks of capitalism — individual stocks and bonds and managed income CEFs in which the actual holdings are clearly visible. Profits and income rule.

Think about it, in an MCIM world, there would be no CDOs or multi-level mortgage mystery meat; no hedge funds, naked short sellers, or managed options programs; no mark-to-market lunacy, Bernie Madoffs, or taxes on investment income.

In MCIM portfolios, lower stock prices are seen as a cyclical fact of life, an opportunity to add to positions at lower prices. There is no panic selling in high quality holdings, and no flight to 1% Treasuries from 6% tax free Munis. In an MCIM portfolio, dividends and income keep rolling, providing income for retirees, college kids, and golf trips — regardless of what the security market values are doing.

Capitalism is not broken; it’s just been overly tinkered with. The financial system is in serious trouble, however, and needs to get back to its roots and to those building blocks that the Wizards have cloaked in obscurity.

Let’s stick with stocks and bonds; lets focus on income where the purpose is income; let’s analyze performance relative to cycles as opposed to phases of the moon; let’s tax consumption instead of income; and let’s not disrespect the gods, the “Bing”, or the intelligence of the average investor…

So sayeth the gods. Amen!

Interest Rates Rising – the sequel

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.

No doubt you’ve noticed about half the industry pundits cautioning that the US Federal Reserve is closer to ‘tightening’ monetary policy.  What this implies for us regular folk is that they will introduce monetary measures that will allow interest rates to rise.  We have enjoyed a very long period of inflation and interest rate stability following the financial crisis (a crisis almost forgotten by many).  Despite a recent slowdown in come economic indicators, efforts by governments around to world to jumpstart an economic recovery did bear some fruit.  The rebound in profitability, employment and growth has been particularly robust in the United States.  Both Europe and China are now making efforts to replicate this success by bolstering liquidity in their financial systems as the US did.

So what’s to worry about?  Savvy investors will have already noticed that interest rates in the world’s strongest economy have already begun to rise, even before the FED has taken any action.  This is what markets do – they anticipate rather than react.  Some forecasters predict that although interest rates are bound to trend upward eventually, there’s no need to panic just yet.  They suggest that there’s enough uncertainty (financial distress in Europe, fallout from falling energy prices, Russia’s military ambitions, slow growth in China) to postpone the threat of rising rates far into the future.

Yield Curves 2015-05-02_15-28-30

What they are ignoring is that the bond markets will anticipate the future, and indeed bond investors out there have already begun to create rising interest rates for longer term fixed-income securities.  The graph illustrates that U.S. yield curves have shifted upward.  The curve shows market yields for US Treasury bonds for various maturities back in February compared to rates more recently.  So what’s the issue?  If investors hang on to their bonds while rates are rising, the market value of those bonds declines.  This often comes as a surprise to people who own bonds to avoid risk.  But professional bond traders and portfolio managers are acutely aware of this phenomenon.  So they begin to sell their bonds (the longer term-to-maturity bonds pose the most risk of declining in value) in order to protect themselves against a future rise in the general level of interest rates.  More sellers than buyers of the bonds pushes down the market price of the bonds, which causes the yields on those same bonds to increase.

Many money managers (including me) have learned  that despite how dramatically the world seems to change, in many respects history does repeat itself.  For example, while writing my CFA exams back in the mid-1980’s, I was provided with sample exams for studying, but they were from the most recent years.  I figured it was unlikely that questions on these sample exams would be used again so soon, and managed to do some digging in order to find much older previous exams.  I reasoned there are only so many questions they could ask, and perhaps older exam questions might be recycled.  I was right! In fact several of the questions on the exam I finally wrote were exactly the same as the ones I’d studied from the old examination papers.

In my experience recent history is not useful at all when devising investment strategy or trying to anticipate the future, but often a consideration of historical events further back in time – especially if trends in important economic drivers are similar – can be very helpful indeed.

The consensus is that interest rates will rise eventually.  But it is human nature to stubbornly hang on to the status quo, and only reluctantly (and belatedly) make adjustments to change.  What if what’s in store for us looks like this:  Consistently increasing interest rates and inflation over the next decade?  This has happened many times before (see graph of rising 10-year Treasury bond yields from 1960-1970).

US Treasury Yields 1960 - 1970

Before you rant that things today are nothing like they were then (and I do agree for the most part) consider the following: Is the boy band One Direction so different today compared to The Monkeys then?  And wasn’t the Cold War simply Russia testing the fortitudes of Europe and America just like the country is doing today?  Weren’t nuclear capabilities (today it’s Iran and North Korea) always in the news?

Yes there have been quantum leaps in applied technology, brand new industry leaders in brand new industries.  China’s influence economically was a small fraction of what it is today.  So where is the commonality? The potential for rising interest rates coming out of a recession.  The US government began raising rates in 1959, which caused a recession that lasted about 10 months from 1960 – 1961.  From that point until 1969 the US economy did well despite rising interest rates and international crises.  But which asset classes did well in the environment?

Growth of $100 - 1960 to 1970

Could the disappointing 1st quarter economic data be hinting that we might also be entering a similar transitioning period?  Inflation is bad only for those unable to pass higher prices along to customers.  If the economy is strong and growing then real estate and stock markets provide better returns.  Since the cumulative rate of inflation between 1960 and 1970 was about 31%, investors essentially lost money in constant dollars (returns below the rate of price inflation) by being invested in the bond market.  They would have done better by simply rolling over short-term T-Bills.  An average house in the US cost about $12,700 in 1960 and by 1970 cost $23,450 – beating inflation handsomely.

Do I believe we will see a repeat of the 60’s in terms of financial developments?  Yes and no!  There will be important similarities – especially in terms of stock markets likely performing well enough and the poor prospects for the bond market. There will be differences too.  The outlook for real estate is clouded by the high level of indebtedness that has been encouraged by extremely depressed interest rates over the past few years.  Higher rates mean higher mortgage payments which might serve to put a lid on real estate pricing, or cause prices to fall significantly for a period of time before recovering.

Companies that have substantially financed their acquisition binges with low-cost debt will soon find that unless they can pass along inflation to their customers their profit margins will be squeezed.  Who will benefit?  Commodity producers have had to significantly reduce their indebtedness – commodity prices tend to stagnate when inflation is low, and even decline when economies are growing slowly.  In a global context, these companies have had a rough time of it.  It is quite possible that their fortunes are about to improve.  If Europe and China begin to enjoy a rebound then demand will grow and producers will have more pricing power – perhaps even enjoying price increases above the rate of inflation.

Do I believe any of this retrospection will prove useful?  I hope so.  The first signs that a different environment is emerging are usually evident pretty quickly.  If there were a zero chance of inflation creeping back then why are some key commodity prices showing signs of strength now?

recent aluminum price recent copper price data

If we begin to see inflationary pressures in the US before Europe and Asia, then the $US will depreciate relative to their currencies.  In other words, what might or might not be different this time is which countries benefit and which countries struggle. Globalization has indeed made the world economy much more difficult to come to grips with.  Nevertheless, there are some trends that seem to be recurring over the years.

There will be recessions and growth spurts.  In recessions and periods of slower growth, some formerly stronger industries and companies begin to lose steam as a paradigm shift takes place, but then other industries and companies gather momentum if the new reality is helping their cause.  This is why I’ve biased my own TFSA with commodity-biased mutual funds (resource industries, including energy) and a European tilt.  You guessed it – no bonds.

Any success I enjoyed while I was a money manager in terms of performance was because exercises like this one help me avoid following the mainstream (buying into things that have already done well) and identifying things that will do well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intuitively Obvious Is Usually Wrong

It has been my experience that when I receive summarized data and there is an obviously right conclusion, I should worry.  My rule is that when something is intuitively obvious, it is likely wrong.  I find that it usually pays to be a skeptic with summarized, and especially averaged, data.  Here’s why.

People have intuitive belief systems that are incomplete and the incompleteness provides a source of error.  Worse it is outside their knowledge so they cannot analyze it effectively.

For example, if I tell you that product X has an average approval rating of 7 out of 10, what does that mean to you?  Probably pretty good.  At least average satisfaction.  Okay to own it.

Let’s see.

The population of all those who rated the item gives it an average rating of 7, but the 7 does not tell us anything about the population who rated it.  We fill in that information by assuming the ratings are normally (bell curve) distributed.  What if they are not?  Suppose out of 100 people, 70 rated it 10 and 30 rated it 0.  A U-shaped curve.  The average is still 7 but it means nothing.  You would need to know the characteristics of each group of raters before you could decide if the item is satisfactory in your context.

Mistrust averages.

Using statistical information intuitively tends to create policy errors with both individuals and governments.  It is remarkably common in social policies.

Suppose I tell you that at the University of California Berkley, the grad school discriminates against females.  As proof, I offer the information that of 1,835 women who applied to graduate school 30% were admitted, while in the same period, of 2,590 males who applied, 46% were admitted.  Should the government intervene with quotas to make the acceptance rate more equal?  Pretty clear, right.  Assuming you agree with the intervention idea at all.

Actually not so much.  You do not have enough information to make the assessment.  The part you are missing is the answer to a question  “To which programs did they apply?”  Grad school is an amalgam of many programs and they don’t have the same characteristics.  You assumed equality of base information.   When the breakdown is known, the answer becomes more clear.

         Males       Females
Program Apply Admit Apply Admit
A       825       512 62% 108        89 82%
B       560       353 63% 25        17 68%
C       325       120 37% 593      202 34%
D       417       138 33% 375      131 35%
E       191         53 28% 393        94 24%
F       272         16 6% 341        24 7%
 Total    2,590    1,192 46% 1,835 557 30%

Now we see that in four out of six programs females were more likely to be admitted than males and in the other two programs, it was close.  In any program where more males applied, the female acceptance rate was higher.

Here’s is where it gets interesting.  For programs C,D,E, and F there were 327 of 1,205 males admitted and 451 of 1,702 females.  24% each.

The key to the puzzle is in the relative number of applicants.  In programs with a high acceptance rate A and B, there were not many females who applied.  In programs with lower acceptance rates females outnumbered males.

The conclusion is not that Berkley grad school discriminates against females but rather that the programs females prefer at Berkley have inherently lower acceptance rates.  A quota system would not fix that.  Expanding the facilities for programs C,D,E, and F might.

The data is drawn from Wikipedia and P.J. Bickel, E.A. Hammel and J.W. O’Connell (1975). “Sex Bias in Graduate Admissions: Data From Berkeley”. Science 187 (4175): 398–404. doi:10.1126/science.187.4175.398. PMID 17835295.

I wonder how many quotas are based on faulty but intuitively obvious data?

When you see a summary like this, you are seeing an average of averages.  Always a misleading item.  You cannot average averages unless all the components are identical in population size.

Statistical information looks intuitive but it usually is not.  Our minds are made for simpler things.  It is a bit like compound interest in that you need to work it out to get the real underlying ideas.

In your financial planning, be very cautious with average yield or average inflation rate especially over a long time.  The averages do not mean what you think they mean.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

Inflation Hedges

During the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (around 600 BC) an ounce of gold would buy around 350 loaves of bread, according to the Old Testament.

Gold has maintained its purchasing power for much of the intervening period between Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and today, continuing to buy around 350 loaves of bread per ounce. That’s one of the reasons investors view gold as a good store of wealth.

Gold has certainly provided a good hedge against inflation over the last 30 years, as the chart below shows. Indeed over the last few years the gold price has risen sharply as investors have sought a safe haven during a time of economic uncertainty.

Some believe gold now looks expensive, and when we return to ‘normal’ economic circumstances the price may lag any further rise in the cost of living. However, in the meantime the price is likely to remain high, and could climb even further in the short term as Western nations continue to devalue their currencies by printing money (quantitative easing).
One investment which has a built in ‘hedge’ against inflation is index-linked gilts; returns increase each year in line with the Retail Price Index (RPI), a commonly used inflation measure.

Index-linked gilts have performed respectably over the last 30 years, as the graph below shows, comfortably growing ahead of the rate of inflation, though please note these figures include the reinvestment of any income, which has boosted returns. However, index-linked gilts are sensitive to changes in interest rates, and when interest rates start to rise once again they could fall in value. While we do not anticipate any rise in interest rates in the short term, they could start to rise once a sustained economic recovery is underway.
Investors prepared to take more risk and accept more volatility could consider looking at companies which can increase the price of their goods (and profits) in line with inflation. If the cost of the materials they require to produce their products increases, they can usually pass on higher costs to their customers in the form of higher prices.

Furthermore, well-managed companies will grow their profits above the rate of inflation, by controlling costs or improving their products, and investors should benefit through rising dividends. A higher dividend can attract investors to the shares, pushing up the price, so existing investors could also enjoy some capital growth, although at times the price will still fall. One of our favourite long-term investment strategies is to reinvest dividends to benefit from a ‘snowball’ effect, so more dividends are earned on an ever-increasing number of shares.

This strategy would have provided an excellent hedge against any increase in the cost of living over the last 30 years, and far superior to gold and index-linked gilts, although as the graph shows the value fluctuates and so it is possible to lose money.
We believe this ‘equity income’ approach to investing should be the cornerstone of almost any investment portfolio. The hard part is deciding which shares to hold. With 97 of the 100 shares in the FTSE 100 currently paying a dividend there are plenty to choose from. Then there are higher risk smaller and medium-sized companies – and overseas firms too – many of which pay healthy dividends to their investors.

Equity income funds could provide a convenient solution. They are run by a professional fund manager who chooses the underlying stocks for you, and offer access to a diversified portfolio of typically 60 to 100 stocks, spreading your risk. They are also cost-effective when compared to the transaction costs of buying and holding a significant number of shares yourself or the cost of re-investing the dividends.

Finally, they have the added advantage that the dividend gets re-invested very quickly and you are not left waiting for the dividends to build up to a level where it becomes cost-effective to invest.It is important to remember all stock market investments will fluctuate in value and so the income and capital is not guaranteed.

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.

 

 

Banks own the investment industry! A good thing?

Let’s face it!  In the battle for investment dollars the Canadian banks are clearly the winners!  Is this a good thing?

Once upon a time, the investment business was more of a cottage industry.  Portfolio manager and investment broker were ‘professions’ rather than jobs.  Smaller independent firms specialized in looking after their clients’ savings.  There were no investment ‘products.’  The landscape began to change dramatically – in 1988 RBC bought Dominion Securities, CIBC bought Wood Gundy and so on – when the banks decided to diversify away from lending and began their move into investment banking, wealth management and mutual funds.

Take mutual funds for example.  Over the past few decades Canadian banks have continued to grow their share of total mutual fund sales* – this should not surprising since by acquisition and organic growth in their wealth management divisions they now own the lion’s share of the distribution networks (bank branches, brokerage firms, online trading).

An added strategic advantage most recently has been the capability of the banks to successfully market fixed income funds since the financial crisis. Risk averse investors want to preserve their capital and have embraced bond and money market funds as well as balanced funds while eschewing equity funds altogether. With waning fund flows into stock markets, how can equity valuations rise?  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Many of the independent fund companies, born decades ago during times when bonds performed badly (inflation, rising interest rates) and stocks were the flavor of the day, continue to focus on their superior equity management expertise.  Unfortunately for the past few years they are marketing that capability to a disinterested investing public.

The loss in market share* of the independent fund companies to the banks continues unabated. Regulatory trends also make it increasingly difficult for the independent fund companies to compete.  Distribution networks nowadays (brokers, financial planners) require a huge and costly infrastructure to meet compliance rules.  Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but once a financial institution has invested huge money in such a platform does it make sense to then encourage its investment advisers and planners to use third party funds?  Not really! Why not insist either explicitly (approved lists) or implicitly (higher commissions or other incentives) that the bank’s own funds be used?

Stricter compliance has made it extremely difficult for investment advisers to do what they used to do, i.e. pick individual stocks and bonds.  In Canada, regulators have made putting clients into mutual funds more of a burden in recent years.

To a significant degree, mutual fund regulations have contributed to the rapid growth of ETF’s (Exchange-Traded Funds).    An adviser will be confronted by a mountain of paperwork if he recommends a stock – suitability, risk, know-your-client rules) or even a mutual fund.  An ETF is less risky than a stock, and can be purchased and sold more readily in client accounts by trading them in the stock markets.  Independent fund companies that introduced the first ETF’s did well enough for a time but not surprisingly the banks are quickly responding by introducing their own exchange-traded funds.  For example:

TORONTO, ONTARIO–(Marketwire – Nov. 20, 2012) – BMO Asset Management Inc. (BMO AM) today introduced four new funds to its Exchange Traded Fund (ETF)* product suite.

In fact, the new ETF’s launched by Bank of Montreal grew 48.3% in 2011.  When it comes to the investment fund industry, go big or go home!  You’d think that Claymore Investment’s ETF’s would have it made with over $6 Billion in assets under management (AUM) but alas the company was recently bought by Blackrock, the largest money manager in the world with $29 Billion under management.  It will be interesting to see if the likes of Blackrock will have staying power in Canada against the banks.  After all RBC has total bank assets twenty-five times that figure.  Survival in the business of investment funds, and perhaps wealth management in general depends on the beneficence of the Big Five.

Admittedly, the foray of insurance companies  into the investment industry has been aggressive and successful for the most part.  With distribution capability and scale they certainly can compete, but the banks have a huge head start.  Most insurance companies are only beginning to build out their wealth management divisions.  I can see a logical fit between insurance and investments from a financial planning perspective, but then the banks know this and have already begun to encroach on the insurance side of the equation.  Nevertheless I would not discount the ability of the insurance companies to capture signficant market share.

So, is it a good thing that larger financial institutions own the investment industry?  Consider the world of medicine.  No doubt a seasoned general practitioner will feel nostalgic for days gone by when patients viewed them as experts and trusted their every judgement.  The owner of the corner hardware store no doubt holds fond memories of those days before the coming of Home Depot.  Part of me wants to believe that investors were better served before the banks stampeded into the industry but I’d just be fooling myself.  Although consolidation has resulted in fewer but more powerful industry leaders, the truth is that never before have investors had so wide an array of choices.  Hospitals today are filled with medical specialists, while banks and insurance companies too are bursting at the seams with financial specialists.

It is not fun becoming a dinosaur, but this general practitioner has to admit progress is unstoppable.

Malvin Spooner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*The industry charts are courtesy of the third quarter Scotiabank research report Mutual Fund Review.  The annotations are my own.

The Real Inflation Question

The question isn’t whether or not we are going to have inflation the question is which kind.
inflation is imminent. The only argument that can be made is whether it will be stagflation, higher
inflation or rampant inflation. All of these scenarios are still in play. Does the global economy
continue to contract potentially leading to stagflation? Does the global/U.S. economy begin to grow
a little quicker leading to higher than normal, single digit inflation, or do we experience a global,
high growth/high employment recovery that leads to rampant, double digit inflation?
I think this is the most probable outcome. Rising inflation will be slow at first and then turn up sharply.

Stagflation is still very possible in the U.S. The Federal Reserve continues to increase money supply
in an effort to avoid the most damaging economic scenario. As they continue their attempt to stave
off stagflation they could be creating a high single digit inflation problem or even worse a double
digit 1970’s disaster. It is my belief that the Fed would welcome mid-single digit inflation. An even
weaker U.S. dollar would help the current trend of re-sourcing that is taking hold in the U.S.
manufacturing sector. Companies have begun to bring back manufacturing to the U.S. as it has
become more expensive to produce products in overseas. Higher inflation would benefit homeowners
that are upside down in their mortgages, creating additional jobs and GDP growth. Mid-single digit
inflation would also be a welcome contributor to our ability to pay down some of the $16 trillion
debt load by using cheaper currency. What the Fed would like to avoid is rampant inflation.
The Federal Reserve has artificially kept interest rates low. This is similar to not allowing steam
out of a locomotive engine. The steam would build up and eventually the pressure would cause it to
explode. The U.S. economy is no different. By artificially keeping interest rates low through buy
side liquidity that will eventually fade away, the Federal Reserve is creating a bubble. As soon as
the Federal Reserve stops supplying liquidity on the buy side the fixed income markets have
nowhere to go but down, potentially reversing a 31 year bull market.
I don’t believe stagflation will be the end result of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policies.
Instead, I’m confident that higher inflation and quite possibly rampant, double digit inflation is
likely. I’m a firm believer that economic growth and full employment (4% or less
unemployment) is probable.