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.

 

 

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