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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iPhone intl pricing

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

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

When sales are in another currency

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

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

Mutual Fund Mania – Choose wisely during RRSP season!

Usually the first vehicle of choice for new investors is a mutual fund. In days of yore, which in the investment industry is more than five years ago, investors usually bought equity funds but in more recent times balanced funds have grown more popular and even bond funds have attracted money.

Oftentimes, the first mutual fund experience is a disappointing one. There’s a reason for this. People intuitively want to be associated with success, so their first mutual fund will have these characteristics:

  • A great track record of top quartile performance over at least three to five years.
  • Billions of dollars invested in it, so it is “safe.”
  • Offered by an investment firm with a long and “distinguished” history.

Many years ago, there was much less data readily available and few statistical tools at one’s disposal, but I was curious and decided to examine a group of funds over time to see what their performance looked like. What I discovered is represented in the chart. There were no exceptions; every fund in my sample followed this same pattern.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to interpret a picture. If you invest in the fund when it’s a dog (ranks very poorly compared to other funds), the odds are great that given time it will be a top performer soon enough.

The problem is that most investors will pick a top performer. However, the top performer will soon become a dog, and the investor will be unhappy.

A great track record might actually guarantee poor performance.

When it comes to your money, intuition sucks. You “intuitively” steer towards something that “feels good.”

There is enough publicly available data nowadays to help you find a few funds that suit your tastes and examine their performance patterns. What suits your tastes may include funds that are easy to buy in and out of, those you have read about in the press, whose portfolio manager sounds smart on TV, or you may prefer socially responsible funds. When one of the funds that does occasionally perform very well has been in a slump over the past year or two, buy it. After the performance has improved over the course of a couple of years and you’re happy with the results, consider selling (or redeeming) it when the fund is in the top of the rankings (or wins an award) and buy a different fund that is in a temporary slump.

Being a curious sort, I once had the urge to see if award-winning funds followed the same pattern. After all, if someone wants a top-performing fund, wouldn’t they head straight for the ones that have just won awards for their outstanding performance?

I looked at the award-winning funds in any given year, and then checked their performance just one year later. Rather than examine every category (there are just too many nowadays) I stuck to basic Canadian equity, U.S. equity, small cap, international equity. Included were “thematic” funds popular at the time, such as ‘precious metals’ and the ‘dividend and income’ funds. Here are a couple of examples of what I usually found:

Results:

  • 100% of the winners were either 1st or 2nd quartile funds. The next year, 88% of these had fallen to 3rd or 4th quartile.
  • All the former 3rd quartile funds (dogs) rose to 1st quartile (stars) in the following year.

Winning an award (being a top performer) is not an indication of how that fund will rank in terms of its future performance, even in the following year. In fact, the odds are awfully good that your 1st or 2nd quartile pick will be below the median or worse one year later. Interesting! If there’s a lesson, I suppose it’s simply that funds should be bought because they meet your objectives, not because they’ve been performing well recently.

It’s not important to understand why this roller coaster occurs for mutual funds, it just does. Markets change, so, for example, when a growth fund invested primarily in technology stocks suffers, it’s no doubt because the upward trend in technology stocks, or their popularity among the herd, has either stopped or deteriorated. Apple is a prime example in the news right now.

Portfolio managers are just people working for people. I’ve witnessed the following scenario occur time and again:

  • Fund performance begins to soar.
  • Fund attracts lots of new money.
  • Marketing folks want more and more time from portfolio manager for meetings.
  • Money pours into the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager’s head swells (the “I’m a genius” syndrome).
  • Performance begins to deteriorate.
  • Money leaves the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager has to sell the fund’s best stocks (there are still buyers for these).
  • Performance sucks, and it takes two to three years for things to get back to normal.

Size really doesn’t matter…unless the fund is humongous.

A thinking person should be able to figure out that it doesn’t take a big fund or a big fund company to provide good performing funds. Think about it. Do you shop at the big box stores because the level of service is better? Is the quality of the merchandise better? No. You shop there because the economy of scale for the store allows them to buy products at a lower cost. They can order in bigger volumes and squeeze their suppliers. They then pass these savings to their customers.

Larger financial institutions enjoy similar economies of scale. Of course, the transactions and administration costs of the bank or insurance company are lower, and these benefits might come your way in the form of lower fees and expenses, but we’re not talking about buying lawnmowers. Rates of return on funds managed nimbly and intelligently can make those fees and expenses pale by comparison.

Bigger is safer possibly when you’re banking, but legitimate capital management companies are structured so that they never really touch your money. The custodial (where the money is physically held) and administrative (recordkeeping) functions are usually provided to these firms by big banks or huge financial institutions anyway—for safety and regulatory reasons and it makes the potential for fraud near impossible.

The reason why large financial services companies got into the fund management business was simply economics. They were providing banking, custodial, and administrative services to mutual fund and other asset management companies anyway, so why not also earn management fees by offering their own mutual funds and private wealth management services?

Take it from someone who knows from experience. Managing a massive quantity of money in one fund is much more difficult for a portfolio manager. You can only buy big companies. A portfolio manager will try to buy the best big companies, but since everyone else with big portfolios is doing the same thing, it’s not like you can outsmart them. It’s sort of like playing poker with jacks, queens, and kings being the only cards in the deck. If the three other players see three kings on the table, everyone knows you still have one in your hand.

Applying some discipline is important when directing your savings and will spare you much grief. For several years since the financial crisis, investors have swarmed into bond (see chart – it shows the net Sales of bond mutual funds) and balanced funds because of their strong relative performance and are considered to be less risky. Even today buying into income-oriented funds ‘feels good’ – everyone else is doing it, past performance is good and the fright we all experienced during the financial crisis still stings a bit.

Equity funds have been avoided for years – constantly redeemed – despite the fact the stock market returns have been outstanding since the crisis more or less ended (or at least stabilized). Now that the past returns are looking better, investors will be shifting money out of the bond funds (and perhaps balanced funds as well) and chasing the top performing equity funds.

This is an inferior strategy. If you examine the best ‘rated’ funds you will find they hold more dividend paying and income securities and will likely drop in the rankings very soon after you buy them.

With RRSP season comes a plethora of marketing campaigns and firms will be pushing us to buy their best performing funds (we are so quick to buy what ‘feels good’). Since you won’t see many advertisements for those not doing so well today, but are likely to do very well tomorrow, it would be wise to do a bit of homework before buying in. Good luck!

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

Is it the 1950’s again? The financial war is over!

There is a plethora of articles and blogs out there desperately trying to find a period comparable to now, in order to get some understanding of what markets might have in store for us over the next several years.  After three decades in the investment business, the only thing I can say with certainty is that such comparisons just don’t work.

George Santayana (December 16, 1863 – September 26, 1952) the philosopher and man of letters, is often quoted: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

It’s true people will make the same mistakes over and again, but history never actually repeats itself.  Trying to forecast the future is absurd, and so it must be even more ridiculous to expect that the future will be similar to some time period long ago.  Nevertheless, it’s winter and all my friends are on vacation so I’ve nothing else to do.

Post-War Reconstruction: In my simple mind, we’ve just fought a global war against financial corruption.  The weapon of mass destruction?  The ‘derivative!’ These things managed to infiltrate the entire global banking system and almost brought it crumbling down.  Like most wars, it’s difficult to put a pin into when things flipped from a crisis to all out war, but let’s say the seeds were planted when the U.S. Senate tried to introduce a bill in 2005 to forbid Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) from holding mortgage-backed securities (pretend capital) in their portfolios. That first cannonball missed the mark when the bill failed to pass.  By 2007 the two government sponsored entities were responsible for 90% of all U.S. mortgages, and the fly in the ointment was the use of ‘derviatives’ instead of real capital to hedge their interest-rate risk.   Banks did the same thing but much more aggressively. What followed is a long story we’ve been living for years.

Paul Volcker once said, “I wish someone would give me one shred of neutral evidence that financial innovation has led to economic growth — one shred of evidence.”  Well, we’ve plenty of evidence now that financial innovation led only to the mass destruction of wealth.

When the foundation fell out from under us (value of the derviatives dropped) we went to war in earnest.  The list of casualties like Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (announced September 15, 2008 it was bankrupt) just kept getting longer.

I believe the war ended six years after that failed 2005 Senate bill – in the summer of 2011. You can disagree, but your opinion is as meaningless as this whole exercize. (Laughing out loud.)

Way back when World War II (1939 – 1945) ended, governments around the globe began to print money and spend to rebuild the wealth that had been destroyed.  Isn’t this precisely what we’ve been doing since our financial crisis decimated wealth on a global scale?

So maybe some of what happened in the 1950’s post-war period will happen again?

In 1949 there was a brief struggle with the threat of deflation (and again in 1954) but for most of the decade inflation remained steady between 0% to 3%. We too saw the threat of deflation briefly in 2009.  However since then inflation has been fairly steady:  1.5% (December to December) in 2010 and 3.2% in 2011 in the U.S.  Although T-bills are currently paying a negative real rate of return (yields are below the inflation rate) there will come a time soon when investors insist on earning something or they just won’t hold them.  Short term rates will climb as they did throughout the 1950’s.

Prediction #1:  T-Bills will begin to rise until their returns cover the rate of inflation (see chart).

What happened in the stock market back then?  Government spending to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs had a significant impact, because arguably the 1950’s was one of the best if not the best decade for making money in the stock market.  Unfortunately, we only have reliable data for the Dow Jones Industrial Average dating back that far (okay, there might be more data out there but I’m surely not going to go looking for it). 

At the end of 1949 the Dow was at 200.13 and by the end of 1959 it had climbed to 679.36.  Excluding dividends that equates to a (IRR) return of about 13% per year for a decade.  As always lots of volatility had to be endured in stocks, but in the long run the reward was not shabby!  On the other hand, in Treasury bonds you might have averaged a 2% return, but suffered an actual loss in 5 out of the 10 years.

Prediction #2: Global growth fueled by government initiatives will translate into healthy returns on average in stock markets for several years to come.

Are we doomed to repeat history?  Although the 1950’s turned out okay, a wild ride was to come during the following couple of decades.  Easy money and inflation would eventually get the better of us and although there were some very good years for investors in the stock market (and those invested in shorter term T-bills for sure), inflation mayhem was on its way.

All we can hope for is that today’s policy makers have studied their history.  If we allow inflation to get out of control, interest rates will skyrocket like they did through the 60’s and 70’s. Younger folks today will have to suffer rising interest rates (mortgages, car loans) of the sort that created havoc for decision-makers and choked economic growth to a standstill for us older generations back in the day.

It’s true that if we don’t learn from history, we can and will make the same mistakes over again.  But I also said history does not repeat itself.  Although we somehow managed to eventually wrestle the inflation bogieman under control before, this does not mean we will be so lucky next time around.  And it’s a wealthier more technologically advanced world we live in now….which means we’ve so much more to lose if we really screw things up.

Prediction #3:  If governments don’t slow down their spending, bond investors will really get burned.

My instincts tell me that 2013 will be a happy New Year.  And bear in mind that if none, any or all of these predictions come true it will be an unadulterated fluke.

 

 

 

 

Malvin Spooner.

 

 

Banks own the investment industry! A good thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malvin Spooner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Deja vu – all over again!

Another interesting US Presidential election has come and gone – and there will be lots of comments over the next few days before this blog is posted – but I just wanted to put out a few random thoughts for consideration.

The US legislative branch is fundamentally no different than before this election. The Congress is controlled by farther-right Republicans who will do anything they can to avoid an increase in taxes to retire the national debt and are all about cutting services to reduce the debt. The Senate is still controlled – even more so – by left and moderate-left Democrats who seem to want to both raise taxes on upper-income taxpayers and are willing to reduce some services – by how much is the big issue!

The White House is just the same with President Obama – left-leaning Democrat – but now the popular vote seems to be with him and Senate folks and combined against the Congress. Can they all work together or will there be another stalemate as there has been for much of the past 2-years?

Investors don’t like uncertainty or instability – anywhere. I am not an economist (thankfully) but I think things will be shaky on the markets for certainly the rest of this year and past Inauguration Day in 2013 until people get a handle on how The Executive Branch and Legislative Branches can or will work together. Despite all the talk about being willing to work “across the aisle” – I have my doubts. Which doesn’t bode well for the Excited States as a whole.

I suspect the housing markets are going to be very lacklustre and a great many States are going to be very hard-pressed to come in with balanced budgets – California being a huge question-mark despite Jerry Brown’s tax plan getting voter approval.

My personal belief is that anyone looking for short-term stability in world financial-markets is going to be in for a great deal of disappointment until sometime around the end of 2013 or early 2014 so ensuring a good financial foundation should be a key for everyone!