Brave Old World: Market Cycle Investment Management

The Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM) methodology is the sum of all the strategies, procedures, controls, and guidelines explained and illustrated in the “The Brainwashing of the American Investor” — the Greatest Investment Story Never Told.

Most investors, and many investment professionals, choose their securities, run their portfolios, and base their decisions on the emotional energy they pick up on the Internet, in media sound bytes, and through the product offerings of Wall Street institutions. They move cyclically from fear to greed and back again, most often gyrating in precisely the wrong direction, at or near precisely the wrong time.

MCIM combines risk minimization, asset allocation, equity trading, investment grade value stock investing, and “base income” generation in an environment which recognizes and embraces the reality of cycles. It attempts to take advantage of both “fear and greed” decision-making by others, using a disciplined, patient, and common sense process.

This methodology thrives on the cyclical nature of markets, interest rates, and economies — and the political, social, and natural events that trigger changes in cyclical direction. Little weight is given to the short-term movement of market indices and averages, or to the idea that the calendar year is the playing field for the investment “game”.

Interestingly, the cycles themselves prove the irrelevance of calendar year analysis, and a little extra volatility throws Modern Portfolio Theory into a tailspin. No market index or average can reflect the content of YOUR unique portfolio of securities.

The MCIM methodology is not a market timing device, but its disciplines will force managers to add equities during corrections and to take profits enthusiastically during rallies. As a natural (and planned) affect, equity bucket “smart cash” levels will increase during upward cycles, and decrease as buying opportunities increase during downward cycles.

MCIM managers make no attempt to pick market bottoms or tops, and strict rules apply to both buying and selling disciplines.

NOTE: All of these rules are covered in detail in “The Brainwashing of the American Investor” .

Managing an MCIM portfolio requires disciplined attention to rules that minimize the risks of investing. Stocks are selected from a universe of Investment Grade Value Stocks… under 400 that are mostly large cap, multi-national, profitable, dividend paying, NYSE companies.

LIVE INTERVIEW – Investment Management expert Steve Selengut Discusses MCIM Strategies – LIVE INTERVIEW

Income securities (at least 30% of portfolios), include actively managed, closed-end funds (CEFs), investing in corporate, federal, and municipal fixed income securities, income paying real estate, energy royalties, tax exempt securities, etc. Multi level, and speculation heavy funds are avoided, and most have long term distribution histories.

No open end Mutual Funds, index derivatives, hedge funds, or futures betting mechanisms are allowed inside any MCIM portfolio.

All securities must generate regular income to qualify, and no security is ever permitted to become too large of a holding. Diversification is a major concern on an industry, or sector, level, but global diversification is a given with IGVSI companies.

Risk Minimization, The Essence of Market Cycle Investment Management

Risk is compounded by ignorance, multiplied by gimmickry, and exacerbated by emotion. It is halved with education, ameliorated with cost-based asset allocation, and managed with disciplined: selection quality, diversification, and income rules— The QDI. (Read that again… often.)

Risk minimization requires the identification of what’s inside a portfolio. Risk control requires daily decision-making. Risk management requires security selection from a universe of securities that meet a known set of qualitative standards.

The Market Cycle Investment Management methodology helps to minimize financial risk:

  • It creates an intellectual “fire wall” that precludes you from investing in excessively speculative products and processes.
  • It focuses your decision making with clear rules for security selection, purchase price criteria, and profit-taking guidelines.
  • Cost based asset allocation keeps you goal focused while constantly increasing your base income.
  • It keeps poor diversification from creeping into your portfolio and eliminates unproductive assets in a rational manner.

Strategic Investment Mixology – Creating The Holy Grail Cocktail

So what do your Investment Manager and your neighborhood bartender have in common, other than the probability that you spend more time with the latter during market corrections?

Antoine Tedesco, in his “The History of Cocktails“, lists three things that mixologists consider important to understand when making a cocktail: 1) the base spirit, which gives the drink its main flavor; 2) the mixer or modifier, which blends well with the main spirit but does not overpower it; and 3) the flavoring, which brings it all together.

Similarly, your Investment Manager needs to: 1) put together a portfolio that is based on your financial situation, goals, and plans, providing both a sense of direction and a framework for decision making; 2) use a well defined and consistent investment methodology that fits well with the plan without leading it in tangential directions; and 3) exercise experienced judgment in the day-to-day decision making that brings the whole thing together and makes it grow.

Tedesco explains that: new cocktails are the result of experimentation and curiosity; they reflect the moods of society; and they change rapidly as both bartenders and their customers seek out new and different concoctions to popularize. The popularity of most newbies is fleeting; the reign of the old stalwarts is history — with the exception, perhaps, of “Goat’s Delight” and “Hoptoad”. But, rest assured, the “Old Tom Martini” is here to stay!

It’s likely that many of the products, derivatives, funds, and fairy tales that emanate from Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) were thrown together over “ti many martunies” at Bobby Van’s or Cipriani’s, and just like alcohol, the addictive products created in lower Manhattan have led many a Hummer load of speculators down the Holland tubes.

The financial products of the day are themselves, created by the mood of society. The “Wizards” experiment tirelessly; the customers’ search for the Holy Grail cocktail is never ending. Curiosity kills too many retirement “cats”.

Investment portfolio mixology doesn’t take place in the smiley faced environment that brought us the Cosmo and the Kamikaze, but putting an investment cocktail together without the risk of addictive speculations, or bad after- tastes, is a valuable talent worth finding or developing for yourself. The starting point should be a trip to portfolio-tending school, where the following courses of study are included in the Investment Mixology Program:

Understanding Investment Securities: Investment securities can be divided into two major classes that make the planning exercise called asset allocation relatively straightforward. The purpose of the equity class is to generate profits in the form of capital gains. Income securities are expected to produce a predictable and stable cash flow in the form of dividends, interest, royalties, rents, etc.

All investment securities involve both financial and market risk, but risk can be minimized with appropriate diversification disciplines and sensible selection criteria. Still, regardless of your skills in selection and diversification, all securities will fluctuate in market price and should be expected to do so with semi-predictable, cyclical regularity.

Planning Securities Decisions: There are three basic decision processes that require guideline development and procedural disciplines: what to buy and when; when to sell and what; and what to hold on to and why.

Market Cycle Investment Management: Most portfolio market values are influenced by the semi-predictable movements of several inter-related cycles: interest rates, the IGVSI, the US economy, and the world economy. The cycles themselves will be influenced by Mother Nature, politics, and other short-term concerns and disruptions.

Performance Evaluation: Historically, Peak-to-Peak analysis was most popular for judging the performance of individual and mutual fund growth in market value because it could be separately applied to the long-term cyclical movement of both classes of investment security. More recently, short-term fluctuations in the DJIA and S & P 500 are being used as performance benchmarks to fan the emotional fear and greed of most market participants.

Information Filtering: It’s important to limit information inputs, and to develop filters and synthesizers that simplify decision-making. What to listen to, and what to allow into the decision making process is part of the experienced manager’s skill set. There is too much information out there, mostly self-motivated, to deal with in the time allowed.

Wall Street investment mixologists promote a cocktail that has broad popular appeal but which typically creates an unpleasant aftertaste in the form of bursting bubbles, market crashes, and shareholder lawsuits. Many of the most creative financial nightclubs have been fined by regulators and beaten up by angry mobs with terminal pocketbook cramps.

The problem is that mass produced concoctions include mixers that overwhelm and obscure the base spirits of the investment portfolio: quality, diversification, and income.

There are four conceptual ingredients that you need to siphon out of your investment cocktail, and one that must be replaced with something less “modern-portfolio-theoryesque”:

1) Considering market value alone when analyzing performance ignores the cyclical nature of the securities markets and the world economy.

2) Using indices and averages as benchmarks for evaluating your performance ignores both the asset allocation of your portfolio and the purpose of the securities you’ve selected.

3) Using the calendar year as a measuring device reduces the investment process to short-term speculation, ignores financial cycles, increases emotional volatility in markets, and guarantees that you will be unhappy with whatever strategy or methodology you employ —most of the time.

4) Buying any type or class of security, commodity, index, or contract at historically high prices and selling high quality companies or debt obligations for losses during cyclical corrections eventually causes hair loss and shortness of breath.

And the one ingredient to replace: Modern Portfolio Theory (the heartbeat of ETF cocktails) with the much more realistic Working Capital Model (operating system of Market Cycle Investment Management).

Cheers!

Income CEF Price Volatility… No Problem at All

Market Cycle Investment Management portfolios are different from any others you may be analyzing, and all investors analyze their portfolios most intently when their “bottom line” market values begin to crumble. This focus on market value is part of Wall Street’s Brainwashing of the American Investor.

MCIM investing is more realistic. It recognizes that investment markets (both equity and income) are cyclical. Rarely do portfolio market values trend upward as long as they have since March of 2009, and most equity investors have forgotten the five month, 22%, mini-correction that ran from May through September 2011. When will we experience the real deal?

MCIM focuses on “working capital”, a measure of the total cost basis of the securities and cash contained in an investment portfolio. Managed properly, this measure should grow in all market, economic, and interest rate environments, irrespective of changes in “market value”… really.

MCIM portfolios include 30% Income Purpose securities (based on Working Capital), and never own non Investment Grade Value Stock equities. This translates into portfolios of high quality securities, each contributing to higher realized base income than that contained in market averages and blended Mutual Funds.

Embracing the cycles, MCIM portfolios strive to grow both total Working Capital and portfolio “Base Income”steadily, regardless of what is going on in the investment markets, in either direction.

MCIM portfolio “Working Capital” will be higher now than on January 1st; and “base income” will have risen in all portfolios where cash flow has remained positive… in spite of lower CEF market values. Long term, this is the single most important of all portfolio management issues.

Income Closed End Fund (CEF) prices have been moving lower since November 2012; the decline accelerated in May — but with barely any change in total income generated. In November 2012, you’ll recall, many CEFs were selling at premiums to NAV. The premiums are now gone, taking a whole lot of market value with them… but, again, with little or no change in income.

Stock market numbers have also weakened recently, and this 2.5 year divergence between equity and income security prices is quite normal; accelerated weakness in income security prices often signals an upcoming stock market correction, as it did in 2007..

The vast majority of income CEFs are now selling at significant discounts to the Net Asset Value of the security portfolios inside. The vast majority of income CEFs are selling at significant discounts to the market value of the securities they contain. (repetition intended)

Wall Street wants you to believe that higher prices and lower yields are better… how does that make any sense with no change in the portfolio content?

A selection universe of about one hundred taxable income CEFs and seventy tax free income CEFs is used in constructing MCIM portfolios. In the six plus years since the depths of the financial crisis, and in spite of the lowest interest rate environment in history, the vast majority of these CEFs have maintained their regular payouts to shareholders.

Lower prices now are as much a result of FED tinkering as threatened rate hikes.

Historically, in more “normal” interest rate environments, income increases have been more prevalent than income reductions. Overall, income CEF managers coped well with the lowest interest rates ever…. how have they been dealing with the specter of higher rates? Keep in mind that no actual interest rate change has yet occurred.

After six years of artificially low interest rates, many have been forced to reduce their payouts… very few have made significant dividend cuts.

Now the interesting part: at current prices, the average dividend yield on 57 taxable CEFs paying over 7.0% is approximately 8.5%; the average on 53 tax free CEFs paying over 6% is about 6.7%

The vast majority of all CEFs made their regular scheduled distributions throughout the financial crisis; more actually raised their payouts than reduced them; after six years of close-to-zero rates, higher “coupons” will eventually increase CEF dividend payouts to normal, pre-financial crisis, levels.

The current yield on the MCIM CEF Universe is well above 6% for tax free income and above 8% for taxable. Why is this bad news? Only, yes only, because professional bond traders have to realize losses when they trade… income investors do not have to sell at all…. they can take advantage of “discounts” to increase their spending money.

What’s lnside the CEFs:

• Each CEF portfolio contains hundreds of individual issues with varying qualities, maturities, call provisions, etc. The average duration is between 7 and 8 years

• Managers use short term borrowing to purchase additional securities; nothing forces them to borrow at higher rates if they can’t still invest profitably

• Managers capitalize on profit-taking opportunities; and are not forced to sell at losses.

• CEF share prices are completely “uncoupled” from NAV; shareholders are investing in the investment company as opposed to owning a piece of the investment portfolio itself.

As I see it, and this is no prediction or recommendation of any specific course of action, CEFs provide investors with the opportunity to take advantage of irrational price dislocations in the income securities market — an opportunity that is difficult for the average investor to capitalize upon using individual securities.

By adding to existing CEF positions, investors increase overall portfolio yield, increase yield on specific holdings, and reduce per share cost basis.

Thus, even if some reduced payouts are experienced, the overall level of income is likely to be at least stable, and possibly higher. Right now, the expectation of higher interest rates is probably the main force driving Closed End Fund prices lower.

BUT, particularly if the stock market corrects, higher interest rates and higher demand for safety may cause investors to seek out higher yielding and safer investments.

Never forget, all companies must pay their bond, note, and preferred stock investors BEFORE a penny goes to their Equity investors… income CEFs contain no equities, even though your (purposely) confusing Wall Street account statement tells you that they are equities…. hmmm

Is Your Investment Portfolio Prepared For Higher Interest Rates?

I’ve heard a lot of discussion lately pressing the idea that rising interest rates are something to be feared, and prepared for by: accepting the lower rates now, buying the shortest duration positions, or even liquidating the income portfolio entirely.

A rising interest rate environment is super good news for investors… up to a point. When we loan money to someone, is it better to get the lowest possible rate for the shortest period of time? Stop looking at income investing with a “grow the market value” perspective. That’s not what it’s all about. Lower market values or growing discounts to NAV don’t have to be problems… they can be benefits.

The purpose of income investments is the generation of income. YOU are NOT a bond trader. Control the quality selected, diversify properly, and compound that part of the income that you don’t have to spend. Price is pretty much irrelevant with income purpose securities; you don’t spend the market value.

Long, long, ago, many bonds were of the “bearer” variety; my father never owned any others. Each month, he went to the bank, clipped his coupons, cashed them in, and left the bank with a broad smile. If interest rates went up, he knew he could go out and buy new bonds to put larger coupon dollars in his pocket.

He had no reason to even consider selling the bonds he already owned — they were, after all, income purpose securities that (in his experience) never failed to do their job. Market value never fluctuates (visually) if the securities are kept in the (mental) safe deposit box.

No, that’s not at all what I’m recommending… And, even when your brokerage statement shows that your bond prices have risen to chest-pounding wealth levels, just try to convert those numbers into spending money. Despite the profit-taking-temptation your statement reports, the bid you get on your smallish positions is never even close to the “insider” market value…

The thing dear old Dad thought about least was the market value of his bonds. This was his tax free retirement plan. He bought them for income, and the coupons were always redeemed without question. The only problem (actually, no longer a problem) with the periodic decreases in market value was the inability to add to existing positions. The small position bond market has limited liquidity.

Before I move on to the simple solution to this non-problem, a word or two on the only real benefit of lower interest rates — there is no benefit at all if you don’t already own individual, income producing, securities. If you own interest rate expectation (IRE) sensitive securities in a downward interest rate cycle, you will have the opportunity for what I call “income-bucket-gravy”.

This is the opportunity to sell your income purpose securities at a profit, over and above the income you’ve already banked. Income investors rarely are advised to do this, which is why they lament the thievery occasioned by higher interest rates. They didn’t sell at a premium, so now they just sit and watch the premiums disappear.

The only thing this behavior accomplishes is bestowing on investors the lowest possible yields while pushing them into an overpriced market for short duration debt securities. A gift that keeps on stealing investor profits.

The solution is simple, and has been used successfully for decades. Closed End Funds (scoff, laugh, and say “leverage makes them volatile” all you like) solve all the liquidity and price change problems… in a low cost, much higher income, environment.

Answer me one question before you throw stones at these remarks. Is 7% or more on a diversified, transparent, income portfolio, compounded over the past ten years and still growing income, better or worse than the 3.5% or less that most investors have realized in individual securities during the same time period… and then there are the profits that non-bond traders seldom realize can be realized.

Of course CEF market values fell during the financial crisis (the 3nd greatest buying opportunity ever), but at their peak in November 2012, they had gained nearly 65% since March 9, 2009, or 17.7% per year…. nearly outperforming the S & P 500.

But speaking of  “drawdowns”, what do you think the economic activity drawdown of near zero money market rates has been, particularly for “savings account” Baby Boomers. Did the Fed’s messing around with short term interest rates help or hurt your retired relatives… really, think about it.

Rising interest rates are good for investors; so are falling rates. Fortunately, they routinely move in both directions, cyclically, and now can be traded quickly and inexpensively for exceptional results from a stodgy old income portfolio. So much for Total Return, short duration, and leverage-phobic thinking.

  • What if you could buy professionally managed income security portfolios, with 10+ years income-productive track records?
  • What if you could take profits on these portfolios, say for a year’s interest in advance, and reinvest in similar portfolios at higher yields?
  • What if you could add to your positions in all forms of debt securities when prices fall, thus increasing yield and reducing cost basis in one fell swoop?
  • What if you could enter retirement (or prepare for retirement) with such a powerful income engine?

Well, you can. but only if you are able to add both higher and lower interest rates to you list of VBFs.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

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The swarming of AAPL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can you stay clear of being a victim?

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

 

 

Confetti season begins for 2013!

We start the New Year with the annual return of confetti season! You don’t know about it? Amazing!

Every year at this time, we begin the 3 month process of receiving pieces of paper called T-slips – I call them confetti. They come in white, beige, pink, blue, yellow and green. Some have stripes of other colours on them as well. Our Federal Government is one of the largest creators of this annual phenomenon. Charities are another group that create lots of these things and they add myriad colours to the collection.

Slightly tongue-in-cheek of course, however, our entire taxation system revolves around this annual festive period. Usually by the end of January the storm is well underway and continues usually until the end of March with some of the more tardy issuers dragging things out into April – regardless of the fact that most people file early to claim a refund and are now forced to file adjustments and/or send letters pleading for grace to our friends at the CRA.

As someone who prepares a couple of hundred returns of various types each year, I see this first hand and I get phone calls and emails from clients when slips appear late, or even worse after they get a Notice of Assessment that says they hadn’t reported all of their income on T-slips and CRA is applying penalties and interest.

I recommend that most clients wait until at least the 3rd week of March before even thinking about submitting their returns. There are regulatory deadlines established for all companies (and Governments) that issue T-slips are supposed to meet, but this very rarely happens because there are no significant consequences when these deadlines are missed – all to the detriment of taxpayors.

Losing, misplacing or never receiving all of the T-slips happen with great regularity yet even delays not caused by the taxpayor can result in CRA assessing penalties and interest for “failure to report” – and the client is then blacklisted (unofficially of course) for several years by CRA resulting in more audits and wasted time even when the error is caused by the Government failing to issue some slips on time or they have been sent to out-dated addresses.

So what can you do? Here are some pointers to make this easier for everyone:
a) notify Service Canada (by phone) of your correct address – this will catch everything issued by the Government.
b) notify every financial institution, by phone, email or fax of your account numbers and your current correct mailing address.
c) notify all charities to which you have contributed of your correct postal address.
d) notify all of your financial advisors of your correct postal address.
e) if you moved within the past 12 months, contact your local office of Canada Post and place an address forwarding notice on your old address – this should be in effect for at least 12 months to protect you!
f) immediately get a large brown envelope or 3-sided-closed file folder, label it T-SLIPS 2012 and keep it next to where you sort your daily mail. Each time a slip arrives, put it in the envelope or folder right away after noting the issuer, the amount and account number on the outside of the folder or envelope.
g) in the middle of March, compare your list with all of your annual account statements, bank records and your 2011 Tax Return, to see that you have everything and if a slip is missing, phone that issuer immediately!

These tips won’t guarantee everything arrives as it should, but it will reduce panic and errors! Cheers