Ed Rempel Org

Ed Rempel – Not Sold on ETF’s and Index Funds

Why I Won’t Own an Index Fund or ETF

 Skilled Fund Managers

Many investors are skeptical that there exist fund managers who have skill and who can beat the index over the long-term. Other investors believe that there are fund managers who have skill, but that it’s impossible to identify them ahead of time.

There are skilled fund managers that can be identified ahead of time. I know quite a few of them. You just have to look using the right criteria.

Identifying Skill

When looking at funds, many investors take an objective approach and study recent returns, look at ratings or statistics, or try to forecast which sectors will perform well.

Other kinds of skill evaluations are more subjective and rely on insider judgments, e.g., doctors assessing other doctors, or even actors judging performances of their peers.

The evaluation of a fund manager falls somewhere in between those two approaches, the objective and the subjective. I believe that, to find the best fund managers, you have to study them, not the fund.

Start by finding fund managers that have beaten their index over their career or long periods of time. This could be in more than one fund. They do not need to beat the index every year – just over time. Then study them to find out how they do it. Is it because of stock-picking skill?

Outperforming the appropriate indexes is just one factor in the criteria. Top fund managers are usually not trying to secretly follow the index–they’re more likely to have an effective style (like value investing), and have high “active share,” which means that they’re investing in a way that differs from the index; they also often have great experience and have their own money invested in the funds that they manage, i.e. “skin in the game”.

My All-Star Fund Managers

One of my special skills is identifying all-star fund managers — it’s essentially my main focus related to investments. I’ve found around 50 fund managers over the years who I would characterize as having superior skill, and all of them have beaten their index over long periods of time.

Most of those 50 managers are on my “watch list”. I own only a handful of those funds. Although I’m resistant to the idea of sharing statistics about my own personal investments, mostly because my investment style may not be suitable for every investor, I want to emphasize that it’s possible to identify skilled fund managers early and ahead of time.

Why I Will Never Own an ETF or Index Fund

I won’t ever own an ETF or an index fund because I’m not happy with below-index returns. I choose investments based on the fund managers–I want to invest with the Albert Einstein of investors, the absolute best. ETFs and index funds don’t have fund managers, so I’m not interested. The goal of investing is to obtain the highest long-term return after fees, and a skilled fund manager provides enough value to pay for those fees and more.

Above-Index Returns

There are really two options when you’re pursuing above-index returns: one, you can find yourself an all-star fund manager, or, second, you can choose a portfolio manager who’s paid by performance fee. When portfolio managers are paid by performance fee, they’re motivated to beat their index. If they don’t beat the index, the fees are similar to ETFs. If they do beat the index, the fee pays for itself.

Getting above-index returns is all about finding skill.

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Interest Rates Rising – the sequel

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

No doubt you’ve noticed about half the industry pundits cautioning that the US Federal Reserve is closer to ‘tightening’ monetary policy.  What this implies for us regular folk is that they will introduce monetary measures that will allow interest rates to rise.  We have enjoyed a very long period of inflation and interest rate stability following the financial crisis (a crisis almost forgotten by many).  Despite a recent slowdown in come economic indicators, efforts by governments around to world to jumpstart an economic recovery did bear some fruit.  The rebound in profitability, employment and growth has been particularly robust in the United States.  Both Europe and China are now making efforts to replicate this success by bolstering liquidity in their financial systems as the US did.

So what’s to worry about?  Savvy investors will have already noticed that interest rates in the world’s strongest economy have already begun to rise, even before the FED has taken any action.  This is what markets do – they anticipate rather than react.  Some forecasters predict that although interest rates are bound to trend upward eventually, there’s no need to panic just yet.  They suggest that there’s enough uncertainty (financial distress in Europe, fallout from falling energy prices, Russia’s military ambitions, slow growth in China) to postpone the threat of rising rates far into the future.

Yield Curves 2015-05-02_15-28-30

What they are ignoring is that the bond markets will anticipate the future, and indeed bond investors out there have already begun to create rising interest rates for longer term fixed-income securities.  The graph illustrates that U.S. yield curves have shifted upward.  The curve shows market yields for US Treasury bonds for various maturities back in February compared to rates more recently.  So what’s the issue?  If investors hang on to their bonds while rates are rising, the market value of those bonds declines.  This often comes as a surprise to people who own bonds to avoid risk.  But professional bond traders and portfolio managers are acutely aware of this phenomenon.  So they begin to sell their bonds (the longer term-to-maturity bonds pose the most risk of declining in value) in order to protect themselves against a future rise in the general level of interest rates.  More sellers than buyers of the bonds pushes down the market price of the bonds, which causes the yields on those same bonds to increase.

Many money managers (including me) have learned  that despite how dramatically the world seems to change, in many respects history does repeat itself.  For example, while writing my CFA exams back in the mid-1980’s, I was provided with sample exams for studying, but they were from the most recent years.  I figured it was unlikely that questions on these sample exams would be used again so soon, and managed to do some digging in order to find much older previous exams.  I reasoned there are only so many questions they could ask, and perhaps older exam questions might be recycled.  I was right! In fact several of the questions on the exam I finally wrote were exactly the same as the ones I’d studied from the old examination papers.

In my experience recent history is not useful at all when devising investment strategy or trying to anticipate the future, but often a consideration of historical events further back in time – especially if trends in important economic drivers are similar – can be very helpful indeed.

The consensus is that interest rates will rise eventually.  But it is human nature to stubbornly hang on to the status quo, and only reluctantly (and belatedly) make adjustments to change.  What if what’s in store for us looks like this:  Consistently increasing interest rates and inflation over the next decade?  This has happened many times before (see graph of rising 10-year Treasury bond yields from 1960-1970).

US Treasury Yields 1960 - 1970

Before you rant that things today are nothing like they were then (and I do agree for the most part) consider the following: Is the boy band One Direction so different today compared to The Monkeys then?  And wasn’t the Cold War simply Russia testing the fortitudes of Europe and America just like the country is doing today?  Weren’t nuclear capabilities (today it’s Iran and North Korea) always in the news?

Yes there have been quantum leaps in applied technology, brand new industry leaders in brand new industries.  China’s influence economically was a small fraction of what it is today.  So where is the commonality? The potential for rising interest rates coming out of a recession.  The US government began raising rates in 1959, which caused a recession that lasted about 10 months from 1960 – 1961.  From that point until 1969 the US economy did well despite rising interest rates and international crises.  But which asset classes did well in the environment?

Growth of $100 - 1960 to 1970

Could the disappointing 1st quarter economic data be hinting that we might also be entering a similar transitioning period?  Inflation is bad only for those unable to pass higher prices along to customers.  If the economy is strong and growing then real estate and stock markets provide better returns.  Since the cumulative rate of inflation between 1960 and 1970 was about 31%, investors essentially lost money in constant dollars (returns below the rate of price inflation) by being invested in the bond market.  They would have done better by simply rolling over short-term T-Bills.  An average house in the US cost about $12,700 in 1960 and by 1970 cost $23,450 – beating inflation handsomely.

Do I believe we will see a repeat of the 60’s in terms of financial developments?  Yes and no!  There will be important similarities – especially in terms of stock markets likely performing well enough and the poor prospects for the bond market. There will be differences too.  The outlook for real estate is clouded by the high level of indebtedness that has been encouraged by extremely depressed interest rates over the past few years.  Higher rates mean higher mortgage payments which might serve to put a lid on real estate pricing, or cause prices to fall significantly for a period of time before recovering.

Companies that have substantially financed their acquisition binges with low-cost debt will soon find that unless they can pass along inflation to their customers their profit margins will be squeezed.  Who will benefit?  Commodity producers have had to significantly reduce their indebtedness – commodity prices tend to stagnate when inflation is low, and even decline when economies are growing slowly.  In a global context, these companies have had a rough time of it.  It is quite possible that their fortunes are about to improve.  If Europe and China begin to enjoy a rebound then demand will grow and producers will have more pricing power – perhaps even enjoying price increases above the rate of inflation.

Do I believe any of this retrospection will prove useful?  I hope so.  The first signs that a different environment is emerging are usually evident pretty quickly.  If there were a zero chance of inflation creeping back then why are some key commodity prices showing signs of strength now?

recent aluminum price recent copper price data

If we begin to see inflationary pressures in the US before Europe and Asia, then the $US will depreciate relative to their currencies.  In other words, what might or might not be different this time is which countries benefit and which countries struggle. Globalization has indeed made the world economy much more difficult to come to grips with.  Nevertheless, there are some trends that seem to be recurring over the years.

There will be recessions and growth spurts.  In recessions and periods of slower growth, some formerly stronger industries and companies begin to lose steam as a paradigm shift takes place, but then other industries and companies gather momentum if the new reality is helping their cause.  This is why I’ve biased my own TFSA with commodity-biased mutual funds (resource industries, including energy) and a European tilt.  You guessed it – no bonds.

Any success I enjoyed while I was a money manager in terms of performance was because exercises like this one help me avoid following the mainstream (buying into things that have already done well) and identifying things that will do well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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