Suddenly you are an Executor!

After his sister’s death, Andrew suddenly realized he was the Executor of her Will. He figured she must have asked him about it at some time, but he’d forgotten about it. Now he had to find out what Executors are supposed to do. Their responsibilities and duties scared him at first, because he found he has to:

• Find his sister’s original Will and establish that it’s her “last Will and Testament”;
• Determine the provisions of her Will;
• Learn about his sister’s financial affairs;
• Locate all of her assets, both personal and business;
• Arrange for the continuation or sale of her business;
• Make sure that all assets are safe from loss or damage;
• Arrange to have the assets valued;
• Arrange for the sale of assets, if necessary;
• Pay all debts and claims;
• Make the most advantageous income tax elections to benefit the estate and its beneficiaries;
• File the necessary Income Tax and GST returns;
• Obtain clearances from the tax departments;
• Establish any trusts dictated by the will; and
• Distribute the remaining assets to the beneficiaries.

At first this looked overwhelming, and he thought of resigning. But he discovered he could hire professionals to assist him with the legal, tax and investment aspects of the estate to make sure that it is handled properly. After all, he may be held personally responsible for his actions if he makes a mistake.

So if a relative or friend asks you to be her or his Executor, take it seriously, and discuss with them beforehand the various things that should be done to make your job as easy as possible, such as:

• Having the Will professionally prepared. Do-it-yourself Wills have disclaimers stating that the publisher of the Will kit is not responsible for the validity of the Will you prepare from it. An improperly prepared Will can cause more grief, delays and expenses than not having a Will at all.
• Getting a copy of the Will, and knowing where to find the original. This lets you know its terms and conditions, and allows you to discuss any problem areas with the Testator (the person whose Will it is) while he or she is there to explain it. Advance knowledge minimizes surprises and costly delays.
• Getting a list of the details of the estate. Finding out about ALL its assets, and their locations; and all certificates, identification documents, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, key locations, credit cards, loans, mortgages, leases; life, disability, group, property and casualty insurance; securities and investments; real estate holdings; business agreements; medical and professional advisors, etc.

As you discover the amount of work that you, as Executor, have to do you may want to suggest that the Testator name some additional Executors to spread the load and responsibilities.

You should review your Estate Plans before discussing it with your Executors!

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

What Does Insurance Do?

An interesting question and if you ask 50 people, I doubt you will get 50 coherent answers. Maybe not 20. People often own insurance because they think they are supposed to, or because their spouse thinks they are supposed to, or because the government requires it, (car insurance) or because the bank requires it (fire insurance.)

While these may be true, and the motivator, for many, it is possible to rationally decide to buy insurance because it has value to you.

People usually think about insurance in two ways:

  1. Insurance protects wealth that exists. The fire insurance, the lawsuit for negligent driving, the all-peril loss of your 40 carat diamond, your errors and omissions coverage. or,
  2. Insurance creates wealth where none exists. Typically life insurance although some make the case for critical illness or disability income insurance.

While these are a little true they are very limiting.

First of all, 2) is almost always not the case. Life and other like forms of insurance protect an intangible asset. Your career value, the ability to earn income. Just because you cannot sell it to someone else does not alter its nature as wealth. Later on, these forms of insurance protect the wealth you have from being used to pay debts or taxes or medical bills.

So most simply, insurance protects wealth from loss. More true, but still not the complete reason that people should own insurance. Besides most people will not buy the proper insurance for that reason. It has no feelings attached.

With life insurance, there is nothing in it for them. It is like betting against the home team. There is a loss no matter the outcome. If the home team wins, (live a long time) then I lose the premiums. If I collect the benefit, I died.

Most people do not own life insurance for what it is. Actually that would be an odd reason to own anything. Value is in use.

Salespeople usually suggest that people own it for what it does. Create liquidity, protect assets from forced sale, liquidate actual and implied liabilities and in some cases a way to accumulate wealth. Again limiting although possible to explain.

People should not own insurance only for what it is, that is just silly, or only for what it does, that is just the adult decision. People should own insurance because it allows them to do things they can do only if they have it. It offers them choices previously unavailable.

For example, suppose I owe the government $2 million upon my death. I could own some assets specifically for this liability. Those assets have limits, principally they must be liquid and secure. That is a very restrictive start. They cannot be business assets because those are neither liquid nor secure. They cannot be things like development properties or personal real estate. Again not predictable enough. The limitations dominate.

Suppose instead, I set aside $1million in a secure and somewhat liquid account to pay premiums on a $2 million life insurance policy. Maybe even buy an annuity. Now my tax liability is liquidated, whenever I may die, and I have $1 million in my hand to do with as I please. Maybe educate grandchildren, or payoff mortgages, or make down-payments, or buy a nice Hennessey Venom GT Spyder like Steven Tyler’s, or invest in a very speculative, completely illiquid investment, like a farm 5 miles out of town. Maybe some seed money for the kid’s business or a nice condo in the Caribbean.

No matter my tastes, the insurance allows me to do something I could not have done without it.

With insurance done right and for the right reasons, the home team always wins.

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. don.s@protectorsgroup.com

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

Disability Insurance – different occupation definitions

Today I will explore some of the different definitions that can be in disability insurance policies that relate to your occupation. Essentially there are 3 main types of DI policies re your occupation. Own Occupation, Regular Occupation and Any Occupation. There are 1 or 2 companies that add some little twists, but these are the main types of contracts.

OWN OCCUPATION – this type of policy pays the benefit if you cannot do “substantially all” of the duties of your own occupation. A surgeon for example, who cuts off 5 fingers on one hand while building a sundeck, is not going to be able to be a surgeon any longer – despite the fact he/she could still be a radiologist, conduct research or become a family doctor, the plan would pay.

REGULAR OCCUPATION – this type is one-step down in the hierarchy of plans and is good middle-of-the road coverage at a more modest cost than the OWN OCCUPATION plans. The difference, to use the previous example of the doctor, is that with this type of contract, few if any benefits would be paid because the REGULAR occupation is that of a medical doctor – surgeon is a specialty – but he/she could still practice medicine.

ANY OCCUPATION – this type of policy is the least expensive since no benefits will be paid as long as the insured can perform the regular duties of any occupation for which they are qualified by reason of education or experience.

Some contracts will have split definitions such as 2-year OWN OCCUPATION protection followed by REGULAR OCCUPATION. In this situation, our surgeon would get full benefits for the first 2 years and nothing thereafter.

Based on statistics, there is a 1 in 3 probability of a person age 20 suffering a long-term disability before they reach age 65. Once they are disabled, current figures indicate the average duration of disability at approximately 2 1/2 years. This is very important coverage that should be carefully considered by everyone. Make sure you provide full disclosure to your insurance advisor about your health, occupation and recreational activities and get the most appropriate coverage for the risks you face on a daily basis!

Disability Income Insurance – two myths debunked

Most people know at least something about this product – usually called DI – however there are a lot of misconceptions and I am going to try and sort out a couple of the main ones here.

Myth – none of the policies ever pay and if they do pay, you have to be nearly dead!
While it is true that there tends to be some litigation or mediation involved for many claims, most situations where payment is contested by an insurance company involve either a lack of full disclosure of pre-existing conditions or issues arising from the claim itself concerning the true extent of disability. When answering the medical, personal habits and activities question, make sure you disclose everything, regardless of how trivial it might seem. Ensure your advisor is accurately recording your responses because you are responsible for what is on the application even though someone else wrote the information. All insurance contracts are defined as contracts of the “utmost good faith” and the insurance companies have a legal right – and responsibility – to hold to that definition. Trying to hide or not disclosue information such as recreational drug use or even something such as mountain biking, can result in the claim being denied.

As for the second part of this Myth, it is unfortunate that news reports only focus on cases where benefits are being denied, not the hundreds of millions of dollars that are being paid. Cases that involve obvious physical or medical injuries or damage are very rarely questioned – it is the potentially ambiguous cases that get challenged. Many such cases involve soft-tissue injuries which don’t appear on traditional X-rays, MRIs or CT-scans – it is the client’s word and most medical practitioners will err, as they should, on the side of caution and support claims for disability when requested. Believe it or not, the insurance company does want to pay the claim – but only the legitimate claim. Soft-tissue cases are very hard to evaluate but there is new technology that is now being used – IR scans – Infra-Red scans of the human body. Quite interesting to see actually – the scan measures heat being radiated and displays this on screen or printed hardcopy in living colour! Our bodies are miraculous compensators and the body does its best to heal itself. It does this by sending more blood to injured parts of the body – and concentrations of blood are WARMER than the surrounding tissue. Guess what, the higher temperature areas appear in RED on the IR scan and it is very easy to see if there is indeed an injury to soft tissue, because the affected area now appears bright red!

Guess what – no concentrated area of heat, no soft-tissue injury and therefore no valid claim!

If a claim is denied, there is always a sound reason for that decision – insurance companies don’t take those decisions lightly; they know it will end up in the media somewhere. When you do see such stories, don’t judge by the headlines; read the facts. Headlines are written to get your attention and mine – they do not tell the entire story.

Self-Education is THE Path to Prosperity

You are playing the Money Game. There is no way to take yourself out of the game. It is just a fact of life. The good news is you can learn how to play the game better. How you do that is by committing to getting an education on money and to make learning about money (and learning in general) a regular part of your life.

Fortunately there are so many ways that you can learn about this wonderful and exciting game. Take a course or two, that are offered through the internet, correspondence courses, or classes offered through your local continuing education office. Start talking to financially successful people to find out how they make their financial decisions and what has worked for them. Watch a television show that deals with the subject of money.

Go to your local library and check out all the many available books on the subjects of budgeting, investing, insurance, and emotions around money or better yet go to your local book store and start building your own collection. A few good authors on the various topics surrounding money that I recommend are:
Dr. Thomas Stanley
T. Harv Eker
Suze Orman
David Chilton
Gail Vaz-Oxlade
David Bach
Robert Kiyosaki
Gordon Pape

There are so many wonderful resources available to anyone that is willing to look. Start learning, start questioning, and start taking an active role in your financial life. It is a decision that you will never regret.

If you would like to start your kids or grandchildren off on the path to prosperity I would highly recommend (and yes I know I’m biased) my children’s financial books. www.financialfoundationsbooks.com

As you learn more about money you will automatically make better choices that will move you forward. Go out there and start asking questions and finding the answers.

“Nourish the mind like you would your body. The mind cannot survive on junk food.”
Jim Rohn

What Should I Insure?

Insurance poor is a bad idea. So is poor because I had too little or none. There is a way to think about it.

Future unknown losses fall into four categories. The defining elements are the cost of the loss and the probability of the loss occurring. Each of the categories has an implicit insurance strategy. The combinations are:

Low cost / low probability. Things like: Left my umbrella at the restaurant, ripped my shirt, damaged a rental DVD. Tactic: self insure

Low cost / high probability. Things like dental care, dents in your car. Tactic: Manage the costs. If you insure, have a significant deductible. Self insure the small stuff because all insurers have overhead to recover. On average the insurance premium is about $1.25 per $ of claim. Use a meaningful sized deductible.

High cost / High probability. Things like sending a ship full of product into a war zone, life insurance for someone with pancreatic cancer. No insurance will be available except possibly at a prohibitive price. Tactic: fuggedaboutit or better, avoid the risk.

High cost, low probability. The only area where real insurance exists. Things like life insurance for healthy people, most liability insurance and fire insurance, medical insurance for huge drug claims. Tactic: Define the loss you cannot afford and cover it.

Most people who fail to insure wisely share mistakes. The most common are to

  • overvalue the loss or
  • over estimate the probability of loss
  • or misunderstand the policy.

An accidental death would be unfortunate and costly but very rare. It looks like you get a big payout and a small premium. Most of the time the premium is multiples of its real value to you. I once had a client with a $1,000,000 “personal catastrophe” policy. The premium was less than $300 per year. Upon examination we discovered that the only likely claim would be if he were trampled to death by a rabid yak while mountain climbing in Tibet. Even then, he might only be able to stop paying premiums.

Accidental death is not as common as you would think. If an event that causes death is “reasonably foreseeable” then it is not an accident. Playing Russian Roulette for example. Walking on a bridge parapet. Climbing a high tree. Being stupid is generally not a covered condition.

Workers Compensation is an example of overestimating the probability. Only a tiny fraction of disabilities occur on the job. I have seen statistics that say as few as 1 in 30. In most cases, premiums are lower than individual disability insurance but not 1/30. You are a lot more likely to be in a car accident or fall off your roof or have a heart attack or get cancer than you are to be hurt at work.

Insurance is merely a financial tool. Figure out what you need done, figure out what insurance does, compare the value of the loss to the price to avoid it and get on with it.

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. don.s@protectorsgroup.com

One Day Makes All the Difference

So last week we made a commitment to make changes in our life to bring us to a happy conclusion with our financial goals. It is the small steps that are actually taken that get us through the journey.

This week we have a very simple step to take and that is choosing our annual Financial Day. It can be any day that is consistent that you will remember. Your wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, Canada Day, Ground Hogs Day … Whatever works!

The next question is what do you do on your Financial Day? Well it is a day of review and update. So much stuff can happen in one year that affect us financially or otherwise and it is a good idea to stay current. A baby is built and born in less than a year and we all know how much of an impact that has on us. But how many of us haven’t reviewed anything in years if not decades?

Go through and do a household inventory, preferably on video. Open up your closets, cupboards, storage room and highlight any new and / or valuable items. Keep the video in a safety deposit box or fire proof lock box.

Pull out your home and auto insurance policies. Are you properly insured for the full replacement value of your stuff? Do you have groupings of belongings (example: sports equipment, books, computer stuff, tools, etc) that could be worth more than $1,500? How are they protected under your policies? Do you run a home based business or bring work home? Are you covered for that? Have your driving habits or commutes changed? Do you have coverage you don’t need or do you need to increase coverage? Have you gotten all available discounts?

Review your life, critical illness, disability, group insurance, travel insurance policies. What are you covered for and for how much? Is it adequate based on your financial situation? Have you had another child or have you had a child grow up? Are you covered for what you need and not what you don’t? Has your work coverage changed?

Review your Will, Enduring Power of Attorney, and personal directives (also known as Representative Agreements in some provinces). First off do you have these documents? Can you read them and understand what you signed? Is everything still relevant? Have any of your choices for Personal Representatives, Guardian, or Trustee changed? Have you added minor children, had children turn into adults, gotten married or divorced, moved, business changes, or any other significant life change?

Look over all of your investments: RRSPs, pensions, TFSAs, RESPs, Scholarship Trusts, Universal and Whole Life policies, stocks, bonds, exempt market securities, non-registered investments, and bank accounts. Where is everything? How is it doing? Do you want to be contributing more, differently, changing your investments?

Go over your credit cards, mortgages, loans, and lines of credit. Who all do you owe money to? Do you have open and available debt that you don’t need or use? Should you be looking for a better interest rate? Could you increase the payments on any of them to get out of debt faster? Also, make sure you get your current credit reports from both Equifax and TransUnion. See where you are and what you need to fix / update to protect yourself.

The first time you do your Financial Day it will take a few hours, but after that, as long as you keep it annual, it is a relatively fast and painless exercise. It helps you know where you are standing financially, helps you prepare to meet with your financial advisor to plan for the next step in your money life, and allows you to see your positive progress.

Go ahead, pick your day, and get ready to see your life move forward in the right direction.

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
Woody Allen

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.