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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why so much ado about interest rates?

Mal Spooner
Mal Spooner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Bank of Canada
Source: Bank of Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

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

How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimizing the Probability of Stupidity

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

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

Mal Spooner
Mal Spooner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

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Don’t get whipsawed by Risk Management!

Back in February of 2012, I recall a prominent CFO departing a global insurance company.  This particular individual was labelled “the highly regarded architect of a hedging strategy that proved key in rebuilding investor confidence in the wake of the financial crisis.”  The company had suffered financially during the prior market meltdown because of a huge exposure to equity-linked products;  pre-crisis the company had introduced investment products that guaranteed to return a substantial (if not all) amount of the investor’s initial investment.  The money was invested in the company’s funds which in turn invested in stock markets.  During the financial crisis, the value of these assets (stocks) held in the funds declined below the amount that was guaranteed spelling serious trouble for the company.  In response a stricter approach to risk management was adopted after-the-fact.

Sounds sensible doesn’t it?  But it just isn’t!  I’ve watched this pattern time and again over decades.  The fundamental flaw is a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes risk.

Risk is almost always equated to volatility.  For example, stocks move up and down rapidly with much magnitude so they are deemed more risky than bonds.  But are we really as averse to upside risk as downside risk?  Strangely people become more averse to volatility when they’ve suffered downside risk (and come to adore volatility when upside risk has rewarded them).  Because our internal model of risk is so much more complex than mathematics can reckon with, our efforts to ‘manage’ volatility can actually subject us to less volatility but more risk.  When we reduce risk (hedging strategies usually reduce volatility – both up and down) at the wrong times, we miss the chance to be rewarded by the kind of volatility we adore.  We are our own worst enemies.

The President and CEO of a completely different insurance company was quoted as saying this, also in February of 2012:

“We are maintaining our equity hedges as we remain very concerned about the economic outlook over the next few years. We continue to be soundly financed with year-end cash and marketable securities at the holding company of about $1 billion.”

 

This statement followed the company’s earnings release, having reported substantially increased losses from its investments – management had hedged the company’s equity position in 2010 (again, after-the-fact) and suffered investment losses in that year’s fourth-quarter because stock markets rose (instead of declining).  The actions designed to protect the company against volatility lost money.  Risk aversion after-the-fact caused the company to lose money and avoid potential returns from upside volatility.

Because the pain caused by the downside volatility suffered previously was still fairly recent, aversion remained at a high level causing the company to stick to its hedging strategy (in denial?) despite these huge losses, and it continued to lose money as the market continued to go higher and higher still.

The financial crisis is behind us and now that markets are hitting all-time highs, record amounts of dollars are scrambling to get some upside volatility action. Too late?  It’s hard to put a pin in it, but intuitively might one conclude that if managing risk (or ‘risk off’ as they say on business television) was a bad idea during and immediately after the financial crisis, then perhaps chasing volatility (‘risk on’) might not be such a good idea at present?

It might seem as if I was picking on insurance companies earlier, but many pension funds, other financial services companies, portfolio managers and everyday investors follow the same destructive pattern.  Adoring upside risk but loathing downside risk – always at the wrong times – has ruined careers and put a serious dent in the life-savings of families.  More experienced money managers (there are fewer of us nowadays) increase risk when others are most averse to the idea, and begin to manage risk (hedging, raising cash balances) during periods of ‘irrational exuberance.’  They’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to keep all the hair on your head if you avoid circumstances that make you want to pull it all out.

Mal Spooner

Investment Industry needs independent players!

The most recent print issue of Money noted that the big Canadian banks managed to earn $31.7 billion in 2012, just a few years after there was grave concern that they’d even remain solvent.

“There is no question that Canadian banks play a vital role; locally, provincially, nationally and inter-nationally. Without the banks, our economy could simply not function efficiently or effectively. But are the banks getting too big and going too far to gain market share and profits at the expense of their own customers?” (Quote from Spring 2013 issue of Money Magazine.)

In November of last year I published a piece entitled Banks own the investment industry! A good thing? In many respects allowing the banks to provide everything from our mortgage to investment services is incredibly convenient. But at what price? It has become near impossible for many smaller investment dealers to stay in business. Fraser Mackenzie is a recent victim of an industry that requires scale in order to compete:

At their shareholder meeting on April 29th, 2013 it was decided: “Our assessment of the current business climate has led the owners to conclude that deploying our capital in the continuance of our regulated investment dealer businesses can no longer generate an acceptable rate of return. Institutional interest in early stage mining and oil & gas companies, sectors to which we have been heavily committed, has dried up: as has the associated trading in the equities of early stage resource companies. Furthermore, the regulatory cost burden is increasing at a time that industry-wide revenues are declining. On balance, it makes sense for our shareholders to re-deploy their capital.”

Indeed, well over half of the total value of trading done on the TSX in a typical month is conducted by the banks.

My guess is their actual market share of all trading is far above half if we were to also include trading platforms not part of the Toronto Stock Exchange. The banks keep growing, and the regulatory burden also grows more onerous. In my estimation, the larger financial companies relish regulation as an additional barrier to entry. Regulatory oversight is a minor inconvenience to the big banks, whereas for less diversified specialty businesses (mutual fund companies, standalone investment dealers, investment managers) the added expense can be devastating.

Obviously there are huge benefits to scale – but do consumers really benefit or are these economies of scale all kept as bank profits? MER’s for their proprietary mutual funds might appear very reasonable, but it’s impossible to determine whether or not the plethora of fees I pay for other services are subsidizing these seemingly lower expense ratios. Transparency is near impossible. Although many banks did collapse as a result of the the financial crisis, the massive rebound in the profitability of those surviving banks (even though they lost ridiculous amounts of capital doing stupid things with asset backed securities, derivatives trading etc.) suggests that those everyday fees paid by consumers and businesses must exceed the marginal cost of providing these services by quantum leaps and bounds.

Another concern I have – besides the demise of competition in the financial services industry – has to do with motivation. It’s true that every business is designed to make money, but in days of yore a mutual fund company, investment manager or stock broker had to have happy customers in order to succeed. If they didn’t help the client make money, the client would go somewhere else. I believe that as each independent firm disappears, so does choice. Making a great deal of money from you no longer requires you to be served well. What are you going do? Go to another bank?

The prime directive (to borrow an expression from Star Trek) of the financial services behemoths is profits. The financial advisor’s role is to enhance corporate profitability. Financial advisors today are increasingly handcuffed not just by regulatory compliance, but also ‘corporate’ compliance. Wouldn’t an investment specialist whose only mandate is to do well for his client be more properly motivated (and less conflicted professionally)? Would your investment objectives be better served by an independent advisor who is rewarded only because you the client are earning profits (and not because you are earning his employer more revenues)?

It isn’t necessarily true that an independent advisor is any better than one employed at a bank. I personally know of hundreds of outstanding advisors working at banks and insurance companies. But it must also be true that a satisfied, properly motivated, objective and focussed financial professional will do a better job whether he/she is at an independent or a bank.

We can’t begrudge the banks their success but left to their own devices, they’d all have merged into one by now. In December of 1998 then Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin rejected the proposed mergers of the Royal Bank with the Bank of Montreal and CIBC with the Toronto-Dominion Bank. We know from our U.S. history that government and regulatory authorities are frequently frustrated by the political muscle (lobbyists, lawyers) of the large financial firms. Ultimately having one gigantic Canadian bank – providing all our financial services, investment needs, insurance requirements – might (or might not) be a worthy corporate ambition, but it’s hard to imagine such a monopoly being good for the likes of us. After all, just consider the progress that has been made in telecommunications since Bell Canada (or AT&T) was forced to reckon with serious competition.

The banks need independent players. Not only should banks discourage the obliteration (by bullying or by absorption) of non-bank competition, they should use their political muscle to keep the regulators from picking on Independent players. Government agencies cannot help themselves – if they are impotent against the strong they naturally attack the weak – even though when all the weak are dead the regulators would have no jobs. You don’t need a police force when there’s nobody you can effectively police.

Independent players create minimum standards of service and ethics, and fuel industry innovation. In every instance, the independent is a bank customer too. Mutual fund and investment managers pay fees to banks, buy investment banking offerings, custodial services and commercial paper and also trade through bank facilities. Independent dealers provide services and financing to corporations deemed too small to matter by larger financial companies; that is, until these businesses grow into large profitable banking customers. Put another way, why not adopt the Costco model where smaller independents can shop for stuff to sell to their own customers, and higher end specialty shops and department stores can all remain standing, rather than the take-no-prisoners approach of Walmart?

Let’s hope that the few surviving independent firms can be allowed to thrive, and if we’re lucky perhaps new players will arise to provide unique services to Canadian clients and homes for advisors who are inclined to specialize in managing and not just gathering assets.

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

 

 

Reacting to headlines is perilous!

You can avoid plenty of grief by reading headlines and as George Costanza (from the popular sitcom Seinfeld) says: “Do the opposite.”

You might notice that the average ‘Joe’ was far more concerned about his job (justifiably) until we began seeing headlines such as ‘Dow Hits Highest Close Ever.’ All of a sudden the stock market is once again a worthy topic for discussion and it’s okay to actually speak to one’s investment advisor. Judging by money flows it’s a good bet that clients are instructing their advisors to buy stocks, EFT’s, equity mutual funds or whatever it takes to get them invested and fast. There’s nothing but good news. As I type this, ‘Stocks resume winning ways’ appears on the TV screen (CNBC).

Before succumbing to the urge to herd let me take you back to June of 2010.

In the first chapter of A Maverick Investor’s Guidebook (Insomniac Press, 2011) I wrote the following:

In one newspaper, under the title “Economic crisis,” I found the headline: “World recovery under threat as growth slows, stimulus wanes.” On the same day in another newspaper, under the title “Recovery angst” was the similarly ominous caption: “Economic trouble is all investors see.”

If you are spooked by such nonsense and inclined to adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach before investing any of your money at all in financial markets, then give your head a shake. These headlines are gold!

I went on to pose the question: “If the press is even partially representative of what economists and strategists are recommending, and if investors all share the same sentiments, then what happens when there’s some good news?”

There was plenty of good news even in 2010, but it was generally delegated to those pages in the back of the newspapers which people seldom read. One example, and a very important one for stocks, was rapidly improving corporate profitability.

While the general mood was (and continued to be) let’s say ‘despondent,’ institutional and retail investors kept taking money out of stocks and channeling it into money market funds and bonds – to take advantage of what tiny returns were available in those securities (yes, I am being sarcastic).

Meanwhile in answer to my rhetorical – because it should have been obvious what the answer would be – question in 2010 we certainly know now what happened when there was good news. Stocks skyrocketed and recently surpassed their previous highs.

My concern today is that investors will make the same mistake they always seem to make. Rather than ‘interpreting’ headlines, they will simply take them at face value and chase the stock market at an inopportune time.

I am paraphrasing, but I’ve heard and read nothing but good news of late such as:

  • “It’s definitely a ‘risk on’ market.”
  • “Don’t fight the FED!”
  • “Looks like we might avoid the usual summer slowdown this year.”

Most worrisome: Kramer (wait long enough and you’ll eventually be right) is more wound up than a four-year old high on chocolate. I do believe that stocks are a better investment than bonds over the next several years, but the trend in corporate profitability (and consumer sentiment, GDP and job growth) will be interrupted – count on it – affording convenient opportunities to get invested. With nothing but good news and euphoria, what happens if we get some bad news? A chance to invest at lower price levels. Right now, ‘risk-on’ is exactly what you should expect if you respond to headlines.

Click on this link for a chuckle: George Costanza Does the Opposite

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

 

 

Canada’s most flexible and legitimate tax shelter!

In 2004 I wrote a book (with my friend Pamela Clarke and published by Insomniac Press) called Resources Rock: How to Invest and Profit from the Next Global Boom in Natural Resources. Since taxes are fresh in everyone’s mind at this time of year, I thought I’d reproduce a chapter in the book that explains one of Canada’s most flexible and robust tax planning tools. It’s not widely understood but has the advantage of being 100% legitimate – it is written right in our tax code. Here’s the chapter:

“Certainty? In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes,” said American scientist Benjamin Franklin over two hundred years ago. The only difference these days is that while death is still final, taxes can be deferred or reduced. Canadians didn’t always have to worry about taxes. Income tax was introduced as a temporary measure (sounds like the GST saga) to help cover the country’s military expenses during World War I. By 1948, the wars were over, but the government decided to not surrender. Instead, the Income War Tax Act became the Income Tax Act. Since then, Canadians have had to declare income from all sources, including capital gains on the sale of investments or property. We’re allowed to deduct some expenses and there are a few tax credits, but by and large, there aren’t too many opportunities for us to reduce our taxable income. Taxes are steep and vary greatly depending on where you live.

But that’s not all. You pay tax on everything you earn as well as on everything you buy. Take the price of gas, for example. It was pumped up to over $1.40 a liter in some provinces and more than one-third of the price was taxes: provincial sales tax, GST, and something called the Federal Excise Tax. It hurts even more if you consider that you’re paying for the gas taxes with after-tax dollars. Ouch.

One of the best means of minimizing the pain is to take advantage of all the tax deductions that you can. Standard ones include childcare expenses, family support payments, moving and medical costs, and of course, RRSP contributions. Unfortunately, not too many taxpayers are familiar with the deductions that are available from investing in the “flow-through” shares of junior Canadian resource companies, or ventures that qualify for the Canadian Exploration Expense (CEE). You should consult your tax advisor for precise information on the benefits of these deductions for your portfolio, but in the meantime, here’s a brief introduction to these tax-deductible investments.

Buried deep in the Income Tax Act (Section 66 (1) to be exact) there’s a clause that says:

“A principal-business corporation may deduct, in computing its income for a taxation year, the lesser of (a) the total of such of its Canadian exploration and development expenses as were incurred by it before the end of the taxation year…”

The Section goes on ad nauseam, but only tax accountants need to get into that level of detail. What you do need to know from the clause is that most junior energy and mining companies spend all of their money on exploration programs and usually have little or no revenue. Because they have virtually zero income, they’re not able to use all the tax deductions that they’re entitled to as a resource exploration company. Mining companies are allowed to deduct prospecting, drilling, geological or geophysical expenses, but if they don’t have any revenue, then these deductions remain unclaimed or“wasted”.

In a rare moment of generosity, the government decided to allow exploration companies to give up those tax deductions and pass them on to people who can use them. Companies can bundle the tax deductions with their shares, then sell them to investors and use the proceeds from the sale of these shares to finance their exploration projects. The ventures don’t mind selling off their unused deductions. If they can’t afford to keep digging or drilling, they’ll be out of business anyway. These deductions, sold as shares, are called “flow-through shares” because they transfer the tax deductions from the company to the investor.

In other words, the government allows a tax deduction that would usually only be granted to an exploration venture to be passed on, or “flow-through,” to their investors. It’s a win-win situation as the company gets the money to finance their exploration work while investors can claim up to 100% of their investment as a tax deduction. The government created this program as a means of encouraging people to invest in resource exploration companies. That’s nice of them, but given our incredibly high tax rates, it’s a good idea to understand how investing in exploration—either in flow-through shares, or in shares of a limited partnership that owns a portfolio of flow-through shares—can help you lower your taxable income.

Investors can buy flow-through shares directly from a company, or own them indirectly by purchasing units in a limited partnership specially created to buy shares in a portfolio of several junior exploration companies. Buying units in a limited partnership can be beneficial for individual investors because it gives them the tax deduction from the flow-through shares, in addition to reducing their investment risk. A limited partnership can usually buy a much greater variety of flow-through shares than an individual investor could afford to purchase on their own. Therefore, investors in a limited partnership end up owning shares in a basket of startups, rather than just in one venture. Given that a lot of exploration companies could go bankrupt or walk away from their projects, buying shares in several of them minimizes the risk that you could lose your entire investment. The answer varies from one investor to another, but as long as the exploration company – or companies if they’re in a portfolio owned by a limited partnership – spends all the money they raised from selling flow-through shares on eligible exploration expenses, then almost the entire amount invested in the shares can be deducted.

A word of caution: Don’t let the tax appeal of flow-through shares affect your decision-making skills as an investor. Remember that even though the tax deductions alone are beneficial, you’re still investing in the riskiest side of the resource industry. It is possible for you to lose all your money if the exploration team repeatedly comes up empty-handed. On the other hand, investing in an exploration startup by means of flow-through shares does mitigate the risk of losing your investment to some extent. Depending on your marginal tax rate, the after-tax cost of buying the flow-through shares (or portfolio of flow-through shares) is virtually cut in half, compliments of the government .

In the Economic Statement and Budget Update of October 18, 2000, the Minister of Finance announced a temporary, 15% investment tax credit (applied to eligible exploration expenses) for investors in flow-through shares of mineral exploration companies. Oil and gas exploration companies were excluded. This announcement introduced a credit, known officially as the Investment Tax Credit for Exploration(ITCE), which reduces an investor’s federal income tax for the taxation year during which the investment is made. Although deemed ‘temporary’, after expiring at the end of 2005, the credit was re-introduced effective May 2,2006 and is currently subject to annual review.

The ITCE is a non-refundable tax credit that can be carried back three years or carried forward twenty years. So if you invest in flow-through shares (of mining exploration companies only) this year, you can use the deduction any time up to 20 years in the future, or back three years. It’s a real bonus being able to use this deduction when you need it the most. Keep in mind, however, that the ITCE has to be reported as income in the year after you claimed the tax deductions from the flow-through shares. The only downside is that when you sell your investment, or trigger a “deemed disposition”(which means the government thinks you’ve unloaded the investment even if you haven’t actually sold it), then you’re on the hook for capital gains tax. That’s not so bad, as capital gains tax rates are better than regular income tax rates.

Let’s look at how these tax credit programs can help you reduce your taxes. For example, if you live in Ontario and your annual taxable income is $300,000, and you’re taxed at the highest marginal tax rate of 46.41%, then you’d pay $139,230 in tax. (Of course, to make it simple,we’re unrealistically assuming there are no personal exemptions or other allowable deductions and that all income is taxed at the same rate.) If you invested $50,000 in flow-through shares, and the entire amount qualified as a CEE, then 100% of your investment could be deducted from your taxable income. Your taxable income is reduced to $250,000 and you now owe $116,025 in taxes—a savings of $23,205! That’s a nice chunk of change that stays in your pocket.

It can get even better. If a part of your investment in flow-through shares is with companies that are exploring for metals and minerals that are eligible for the Federal Investment Tax Credit, you’ll get an additional tax credit of $7,500. That extra credit would cut your total tax bill down to $108,525. In a perfect world, you could save yourself $30,705 in taxes. Serious money by any standards.

In addition to these federal government programs, there are several provincial flow-through initiatives that we won’t address here as they vary tremendously from one province to another. Flow-through shares are starting to sound like they’re the best discovery since Chuck Fipke dug up some diamonds in the Northwest Territories. As wonderful as they are, keep in mind that since money is made and taxes are paid in the real world, things aren’t always as rosy as simplified examples in a book on investing. Before buying into the example above, remember that:

  • Taxes Vary: Everyone pays taxes on a sliding scale, so not all of your income is taxed at the top marginal rate.
  • Diversify: Your entire portfolio should never be solely invested in just mineral exploration stocks—diversification is advisable even for investors with an incredibly high tolerance for risk.
  • No Guarantees: An exploration company is obligated to spend 100% of the money it receives from selling flow-through shares on expenditures that qualify for tax deductions, but if for some reason it doesn’t, then you can’t claim 100% of the deductions.

The bottom line is that there are many variables that will influence the impact of flow-through shares on your tax situation. Investment advisors can provide details on the limited partnerships or flow-through shares that are available in the market today. Ask them to help you research and screen limited partnership funds so you end up investing in a portfolio of companies that meets your investment objectives.

That’s the end of the chapter, and before you say this is more complicated than it’s worth let me excessively simplify and round in order to provide an example of how powerful this tool can be.

Imagine you’ve sold an income property for $500,000 and long ago used up your personal capital gains exemption. To keep it simple, you are not subject to minimal tax and are at the highest marginal tax bracket which I will round to 50%. Let’s ignore all the other deductions and stuff too. Your options are:

1. Report the proceeds as income and let the CRA (government) keep half of your money.

2. Invest the entire sum in one (or more) flow-through limited partnerships.

Let’s examine #2. The $500,000 can now be deducted against income, so your taxable income (money going to CRA) is reduced – you keep half at 50% tax rate or (roughly) $250,000. So far you’re no worse off right? Even if your get nothing back (I’ve never seen this happen personally and I’ve managed dozens of these funds myself) you’re no worse off.

Say after two years (the lifespan of most of these funds) you get your whole investment back (it happens). Once the fund is wound up your $500,000 is now subject to capital gains tax (roughly 25% rather than 50%) so you’ll net $375,000. Isn’t keeping the extra $125,000 for yourself worth the effort? Whether you end up with half that amount, or double you are still ahead.

By the way, when a flow-through limited partnership is ‘wound up’ your money is usually rolled into a more liquid mutual fund – you can leave some or all the the money in there and not pay the capital gains taxes until you redeem. If you can afford it, use the tax shelter every year and watch your tax savings grow over time. You will have to pay a tax accountant (since filling out the tax returns correctly is critical and often you have to re-submit them when you receive additional or more precise information from the fund company after-the-fact), and seek advice from a good investment advisor. If either of them tells you not to do it without a really good explanation….it’s because they don’t understand them or want to avoid the added work. Find someone else.

Mal Spooner

 

You are energy efficient!

If you listen to extreme environmentalists, you’d think the entire human race was oblivious to the fact that many of the resources we use are non-renewable, and that our fate is to irresponsibly destroy the planet.

Well I have some good news. According to the U.S. Energy Information Adminstration’s (EIA) most recent Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), U.S. homes built in 2000 and later consume only 2% more energy on average than homes built prior to 2000, despite being on average 30% larger.

I recall the brouhaha created when in 1972 (yes, I’m that old) when the Club of Rome (a distinguished think-tank) published a study called Limits to Growth. Many folks have since criticized the work, and still others have tried to defend it (by re-interpreting the study “using modern language” or some other sleight of hand). The prediction was that humanity’s pursuit of constant growth and consumption of resources (energy, food, trees etc.) would use up the planet within 100 years. Yes, Limits to Growth did suggest that if mankind undertook to minimize greed, control population growth and take advantage of technology that things might not turn out so bad, but it was unequivocally pessimistic about this possibility. Quite a stir was caused by the publication.

We had another panic more recently: The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) suggested regular conventional oil reached an all time peak in 2005. The ‘theory’ was that we’ve used up half of the oil the earth has to offer, and so it’s all downhill from now on.

So how can it be that suddenly the U.S. is expected to be almost energy self-sufficient?

“The United States, which currently imports around 20 per cent of its total energy needs, becomes all but self-sufficient in net terms — a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy-importing countries,” the Paris-based International Energy Agency said in its World Energy Outlook released Monday Nov. 12, 2012.

What these ‘studies’ and occasional panics fail to take into account is the greatest innovation ever – CAPITALISM! Shortages and surpluses are corrected by economics. The laws of supply and demand and the unencumbered adjustments in pricing ensure that there are very few limits to growth. We’ve come to appreciate over the years that a ‘price’ isn’t necessarily a dollar amount. Increasingly some things are just too expensive if they also cause irreparable harm to the environment. When one non-renewable resources becomes just too expensive, we find substitutes (biofuel, gas, nuclear, clean coal and hydroelectric).

I’ve read that recent polls show falling support for capitalism all over the world. This is sad when you consider the alternatives. Was it better when no system existed? I visited Africa several years ago and learned that some areas had long ago been cleared of all indigenous tree varieties. In a primitive society everything belongs to everyone, and everyone managed to destroy every tree. A quick study of the former Soviet Union should make it clear that communism inflicted serious environmental damage and scarcity. The population of China only stopped starving once a more capitalist system was tolerated.

So fret not my friends. You are energy efficient, and no doubt one day your home will consume no fossil fuels at all. You will no doubt substitute an electric vehicle for your hybrid. Personally, I pray there will be enough oil and gasoline left, no matter how expensive, so that I can still ride my Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

 

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You want back into stocks…but should it be growth or value?

Decades ago, the academic community and financial services industry, in an effort to better understand what causes good versus bad rates of return in stock markets, began studying differing styles of investment management. There isn’t a hope of my staying awake long enough to cover even a sampling of the variety of styles that are out there, so I’ll keep it simple. Two styles in particular get plenty of attention: growth and value.

With the growth style, portfolio managers use their ingenuity to identify companies that are growing most rapidly. Since I carried around a BlackBerry (aka CrackBerry) for many years, I’ll use its creator Research in Motion (RIM) as an example. When the company was first getting its legs, it offered me and other research analysts a free trial of a little device with a monochrome screen that allowed you to send and receive text messages. We became addicted to them overnight and believed that this kind of service would catch on. Early movers can grow businesses very quickly with sufficient research depth, management expertise, and capital. We professional money managers provided the capital to RIM and the rest is history.

Early on, RIM was a growth company because even though they weren’t profitable and wouldn’t be making money for many years, the company kept selling more and more units. Revenues grew like crazy and, with some occasional disruptions (a market crisis, the technology bubble bursting), so did the stock price.

Portfolio managers who specialize in companies such as RIM are commonly called growth managers. The funds they manage are “growth funds.” The portfolio will usually have many stocks in various industries. They can be fast growing companies in slow growth industries or companies benefitting from an industry that is suddenly growing. Growth stocks can be very expensive. Investors expect the company to grow fast and so are willing to pay a higher price. However, you’ll have to buy a book explaining price/earnings (P/E) ratios, P/E to growth rate ratios, price/sales (P/S) ratios if you really want to get into security analysis yourself.

A value manager is more interested in buying and owning cheap stocks. Some companies grow slowly but pay their shareowners high dividends as compensation. A stock can be in an industry that is out of favour with the investment herd, or an industry can be out of favour entirely, making all the stocks in the sector cheaper. There are measures such as price/book ratios (P/B) and price to net asset value ratios that analysts use to gauge whether a stock is cheap or not.

Growth funds are considered riskier or more volatile than value funds. For instance, if the market is going higher because of a particularly strong economy, then the growth fund should go even higher still. A value manager might not perform as well as a growth manager in a bull market but won’t do as poorly in a bear market. A value manager is therefore considered more conservative.

A strategist friend of mine of TD Newcrest Research allows me to use his charts on occasion.  One of the most telling charts compares growth stocks in the S&P 500 Index to Value stocks.  The adjacent chart is an older one.  When the line is rising, growth stocks are significantly outperforming value stocks.  You can see vividly the technology bubble – growth stocks skyrocketing relative to value stocks – prior to the bubble bursting in the year 2000.

The shaded areas are periods of economic stimulation (US Federal Bank monetary easing).  During these periods it’s not unusual for growth funds to perform much more strongly than value-oriented funds.

Conventional wisdom says that conservative investors who can’t stomach as much volatility should use value funds and that investors who don’t mind a wild ride should use growth funds. Alternatively, you can invest most of your money into a value fund while also putting some into a growth fund so that you might occasionally get more returns in a buoyant market with at least a portion of your savings.

Why not growth when growth is performing and value at other times?

There are portfolio managers like me who hate being pigeonholed into either one of these styles. However, it is inevitable that one label or the other will be associated with a money manager because of the way consulting services are compensated and the way mutual funds are marketed (when growth is sexy, it only makes sense to promote the growth manager).

A maverick investor who understands the ebbs and flows of market sentiment will want to be invested in their favourite growth fund at the right time and to switch into a value fund at other times.

Whenever I’ve recommended a more active approach to selecting mutual funds in print or on television, such as using a growth fund and switching into a value fund when appropriate, I always get the same question: “How do you know when to switch?”

There is an easy answer, but nobody likes hearing it. The answer is: “You will know!” You should switch when your intuition or emotions tell you not too. It is that simple. If the fund you own has been doing extremely well and drifted up towards the top quartile or is now in the “best performing funds” category (rankings are available from a wide variety of publicly available services) and so you’ve begun to love it dearly, it’s time to switch into a different style of fund.

Here is a more current chart.  In this case the shaded areas are periods of recession, and we are all aware that for the past few years monetary stimulus has been the norm.  Not surprisingly then, growth stocks – avoided by most investors like the plague – have been outperforming value stocks.

As investors divest their income biased stocks (and bonds) they will naturally be tempted to move the money into the better performing growth style.  However if history (and experience) is any guide, they’d be well advised to focus their attention on stocks and funds that have not yet participated in the recent market rally.  In the event that government policy, encouraged by the rebound in the housing market, strong corporate earnings and slowly improving employment outlook, becomes less stimulative then value will in all likelihood become the place to be.

Mal Spooner