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.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The swarming of AAPL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can you stay clear of being a victim?

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

 

 

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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Finding an investment adviser is no easy task!

 

When RRSP season rolls around, it’s not unusual for dissatisfied clients to consider firing their investment adviser and finding a new one.  Even though most of the time it’s the client who’s the problem and not the adviser (more about this later), once the decision is made the question is how to select a new adviser?

Out of the several thousand investment advisers and financial planners I’ve met over the years, at least a few ‘hundred’ have what I consider to be the savvy to do an excellent job for their clients.  If only 10% of potential advisers are exceptional, finding one will require some work.  Ideally some of what follows will make the job a bit easier for some.

The most important thing to remember is that a capable stockbroker or financial planner doesn’t have to meet the stereotype.  For example, I was looking to hire a new sales rep for my fund company and received a resume from a fellow who was actually an investment adviser looking for a change.   I arranged to meet with him, and just happened to be standing on the street in front of our building when this black BMW pulls up, and a jittery youngster (young compared to me anyway) gets out.  He has his hair gelled straight back like Gordon Gekko, the fictional bigwig from the movie Wall Street, wearing the well-tailored pinstripe suit complete with suspenders that weren’t really necessary.  I didn’t hire him.

Beware of those advisers that are into role-playing.   It is okay I suppose to have a nice car, but a ‘look-at-me’ aura is a warning sign.  When someone deliberately adorns the trappings of success, I believe there’s insecurity in their personality.  Certainly your adviser should exude confidence but shouldn’t need or want to stand out from the crowd by adorning themselves with accoutrements.

You must be realistic.  Your adviser does work for a financial services firm, so expect to be using products and services offered by his company.  However any evidence that he/she is willing to deviate from the company’s party line for your benefit is a very good sign.

Ask him/her what he/she thinks about the market or a mutual fund, or even an individual stock or two.  If he/she simply regurgitates the newspaper headlines or is in love with a top performing mutual fund (you can’t ‘eat’ past performance is one of my favorite expressions), or his/her favourite stocks are everyone else’s favourite stocks too, you might want to avoid this adviser.  On the other hand, if you sense a real independent thinker willing to disagree with conventional wisdom, the adviser is a keeper.

Larger firms are especially good at marketing their wares, and I would recommend that it is infinitely better that you look for the right adviser rather than to just agree to hire the one that lands on your doorstep.  Keep in mind that good investment managers are not always good with people.  A good first impression is not necessarily an indication that the adviser does good work. Ask questions.  For example, ask exactly how they handled themselves in the financial crisis?

Even though it is extremely difficult (likely impossible) to predict market declines, anyone can certainly “do something” about their circumstances once the proverbial poop hits the fan.  Investment professionals often respond differently depending upon depth of experience or temperament:

  • Some are no more experienced (or no smarter) than their clients – they panic and sell at the bottom of markets.
  • Some proclaim a new respect for caution, and hold more cash and bonds….after it’s too late.
  • Some boldly acknowledge they didn’t see the Bear Market coming, apologize and admit that they are buying cheap assets aggressively ‘near’ the bottom (a good sign indeed).

Asking tough questions will enable you to determine whether you’re talking to a pro.  Don’t be afraid to sound stupid – it’s your money we’re talking about here and not your ego.

You may want to stay with the big firm you’re banking with for convenience, or choose to find a smaller firm that is more specialized in managing money for individuals.  It is much easier to learn about what motivates the professionals in a smaller wealth management boutique, learn about their investment philosophy and get personal attention.

Heads up!  When a firm’s performance presented to you seems too good to be true; it probably is.  A prime example was the case of Bernie Madoff.

In March 2009, Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 federal crimes and admitted to turning his wealth management business into a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of investors out of billions of dollars. Madoff said he began the Ponzi scheme in the early 1990s. However, federal investigators believe the fraud began as early as the 1980s, and the investment operation may never have been legitimate.

Even small wealth management companies ordinarily have their performance numbers calculated and audited by third party services.  Make sure any performance data you see has been vetted by an independent third party.  Although instances of fraud get volumes of press coverage, they are one in millions.

Most boutique investment firms aren’t gifted marketers, and they rely heavily upon word-of-mouth to get new clients.  Ask friends, your accountant or lawyer for referrals.  There’s no harm calling and arranging to visit a few firms.

Tips:

  1. Never hire a Wealth Management firm based only on past performance.
  2. Don’t complain about investment results.  Ask for an explanation.
  3. Never second guess your adviser.
  4. Pay the fees – sure hey hurt when performance is poor, but you won’t care at all when performance is good.
  5. Be patient. Good things don’t happen overnight or every day.

Don’t pretend to be smarter than your adviser, you’re not!  Tips number 2 and 3 are very important.  I mentioned earlier that oftentimes the client is the problem, not the adviser.  In times of stress, we have a tendency to let our emotions get the better of us.  It’s kind of like swimming – if you panic then you’re more likely to drown.  Your investment adviser cannot walk on water, but is trained to swim.  There is an infinite number of things that can and do damage investment portfolios. The most damaging crises cannot generally be controlled, but wealth can be salvaged and even restored if level heads prevail.  Click on the picture to watch a funny video I made – are you at all like this client?

 

Mal Spooner