Lower gas prices can mean really big TFSA savings!

Many Canadians have grown accustomed to low mortgage rates and strong residential pricing, and now the price of gasoline is leaving a few more bucks in our pockets.  Don’t get too comfortable, because history teaches us that none of this is sustainable.  It is circumstances like the present that make seasoned money managers anxious.  While neophytes are happy to carelessly bathe in the sunshine, experts are usually getting ready for the next storm.  What can you do?  With lower gasoline prices providing some extra cash flow why not use the cash to bolster your savings?

One cloud on the horizon has been getting some attention of late.  The massive global financial stimulus that has caused interest rates to remain low for so long has had a predictable impact on our collective behaviour.  Canadians have borrowed money like there’s no tomorrow.

Household Debt vs Disponable IncomeAccording to data from Statistics Canada, our total borrowing has been on a steady incline since 1990, while servicing the debt has been eating away at our disposable income.  Sure, we tightened our belts some during the financial crisis, but the temptation to borrow at low rates has just been too much to overcome.

It is difficult to save money, when so little of one’s income is disposable.  And most financial advisers would recommend that it doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense to save money at all when you owe money.  It makes far more financial sense to pay down your debt.  Based on numbers alone, this is sound advice.  But our behaviour is seldom governed by numbers alone – we are indeed a complex species.

For example, contributing to your RRSP provides a tax savings in the same year your contribute right?  So where does it go?  A strictly numbers analysis espousing the merits of RRSPs would certainly factor in those savings to illustrate how effective they are at growing your wealth, but I am inclined to agree with the Wealthy Barber (David Chilton) who frequently points out (and I am paraphrasing here) that those dollars you supposedly ‘saved’ were most probably squandered, not saved.  If the tax savings were indeed invested, then it is true that one’s net worth might grow.  However the iPhone, piece of furniture or other consumer good bought with that tax refund hardly qualifies as savings now does it?

Does it make any sense at all to save when wallowing in debt?  I would argue most emphatically YES!  According to an IPSOS Reid poll published in October:  “The average working Canadian believes they would need $45,609 in savings to sustain themselves for a year should they be off work due to illness.”  Where would this money come from?  In real life, a portion of it would be required for food and lodging yet some of it will be needed just to pay the mortgage or rent.  I’d bet that the average Canadian polled would no doubt have seriously underestimated the amount needed to live on while not working (for whatever reason).  In the same poll roughly 68% admitted to having some or lots of debt – suggesting that 1/3rd of Canadians have none?  Pardon me if I suspect that a good percentage of those polled might also have been too embarrassed to answer candidly even if their responses remained anonymous – we are Canadians after all and loathe to taint our conservative image.

Now is an ideal time to bump up your savings!

Where will the extra cash come from to begin a more aggressive savings program?  Let’s start at the gas pump.  We all feel a bit of relief simply watching the price of gasoline come down when fueling, but has anyone really considered how much they might now be pocketing because of lower energy prices?  In April of 2014 Canadians were paying a near-record $1.50 per litre.  Just 6 months ago the price of gasoline in Toronto was 139.9 cents a litre and today (I am writing this on December 10) it is 103.9 cents.  That’s a whopping 25% decrease.  Say a motorist was spending $50 in after-tax dollars a week.  If they price of gas simply stays at 103.9 the cost savings are $12.50 a week which is equivalent to $650 of annual savings requiring about $1000 of your pre-tax income.  If there is more than one vehicle in a family? Let’s keep it simple and assume $1000 in annual family savings simply from the lower gasoline price.  Never mind that other energy costs (heating) and transportation costs (flights) will also create savings.  What if you simply invested that amount every year and earned a rate of return on it?  It will grow to a handsome sum.  Unfortunately, you will have to pay taxes on those returns but more about that later.

Growth in $1000 annually

 

Of course it’s unreasonable to expect gas prices to remain at these levels or fall lower.  It is also not wise to anticipate more generous rates of return.  In point of fact, it is foolhardy to expect or anticipate anything at all.  Returns will be what they will be, and gas prices are determined by market forces that the experts have trouble understanding.

Does the uncertainty we must live with mean that savings might just as well be spent on the fly?  As I tell students studying to be financial planners; one must start somewhere and there are two things worth acknowledging up front:

1)  The power of compounding (letting money earn money by investing it) is very real, as evidenced by the table.

2)  It makes sense to have a cushion in the event of a loss of income, the desire to pay down some debt, make a purchase or just retire.

Yes it makes more financial sense to have no debt at all, but the majority of Canadians will borrow for those things they want now rather than later, like a home or car.  If you must borrow, why not save as well?  Fortunately we have been gifted the perfect savings vehicle.  The Tax Free Savings Account introduced in 2009 has advantages that make it an ideal place to park money you are saving at the gas pump.  The returns you earn in the account are tax-free.  With GIC rates as low as they are, you might be inclined to say ‘so big deal?’ But any financial adviser over 45 years of age (I admit, there aren’t many) can tell you that low interest rates are temporary, and besides you can and will earn better returns over the longer term in equity mutual funds just as an example.

TFSA Contribution LimitsOf course there are limits (see table) to what you are allowed to contribute, but best of all they are cumulative.  In other words, if you haven’t contributed your limit since 2009, you can ‘catch up’ at any time.  Including 2014, you have a right to have put up to $31,000 into the account.   Also the contribution limit rises (is indexed) over time with the rate of inflation.  Perhaps most important, you can withdraw money from the account tax-free.  Your contributions were already taxed (there’s no tax deduction when contributing like when you put funds into an RRSP), and the investment returns are all yours to keep.  Using your TFSA means that won’t have to pay those taxes and the effects of compounding aren’t diminished.  To top it off, you are allowed to replace any money you’ve withdrawn in following years.

The seasoned money manager will want some flexibility in the event that he is blindsided.  With your TFSA savings you too will enjoy more flexibility.  If interest rates are higher when you renegotiate your mortgage, taking money out of your TFSA to reduce the principal amount might help reduce your monthly payments to affordable levels.  Should the economy take a turn for the worse over the next several years and you lose your job, then you’ll have some extra cash available to retire debt and help with living expenses.  For younger Canadians saving money at the gas pump? Investing the extra cash flow in your TFSA account will certainly help towards building a healthy deposit for your first home.

  • Don’t squander the cash you are saving thanks to low energy prices.
  • Your TSFA if you have one, allows you to invest those savings and the returns you earn are tax free.
  • If you don’t have a TFSA, then get one.
  • Be sure to use only qualified investments and do not over-contribute. The penalties are severe.
  • Money earned on your investments is tax-free.
  • Take out cash when you need it, and put it back when you can.
  • When you retire, money withdrawn from your TFSA does not count as taxable income.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it all over for stock market investors? Don’t bet on it!

I’ve been reading lots of articles suggesting that the stock market is ‘overbought’ (an expression meaning that we’re in some sort of a bubble, stocks are overvalued and risk is high that they’ll plummet) but then I’ve been reading the same thing over and over for a few years.  In fact I’ve been hearing the same thing ever since I suggested buying stocks while writing my book (A Maverick Investor’s Guidebook, Insomniac Press) back in 2010.  I’ve been a portfolio manager for a very long time, and find it fascinating that investors – even professional money managers – let their judgement be unduly influenced by their opinions which are biased by experience.  Experience is a funny thing.  For instance, the wife of a good friend of mine went to the trouble of working towards getting her motorcycle license.  Although she passed the test with little difficulty, she hopped on her husband’s bike to go for a ride, lost control and dropped the bike.  She never tried riding a bike ever again because of one bad experience.

Consider this quote from a smart friend of mine:

‘How much has your equity portfolio given on a yearly basis from January 1 , 2007 to today ( 6 years in 3 weeks. By bet is around 2%. You are doing some wishful thinking Mal.  The growth game is over.”

Why did she pick that particular date?  It’s probably not an accident.  Timing is everything when it comes to volatile assets and the stock market is nothing if not volatile.  Randomly chat with folks (like I do) and you’ll find some just can’t believe the stock market has made anyone any money…..EVER!  Talk to someone else and they might tell you they’ve been very happy with their experience.  Have a look at this graph:

If you’d invested your money (starting point) five or six years ago, you’d understandably be disappointed – see the red line.  If you’d decided to include stocks in your financial plan ten years ago (green line), it’s likely you’re satisfied and have no difficulty weathering a temporary storm.  An investor who read my book and put money to work coming out of the financial crisis (orange) will not only be ecstatic, he/she will no doubt have an exaggerated sense of their own investment ‘skills.’

In my estimation (which could be dead wrong) economic growth has only just begun to accelerate and I am not the only soul that believes it.  John Aitkens is an old friend and an excellent investment strategist at TD Securities.  These are his words (and his chart):

We continue to believe that global policy stimulus is driving a re-acceleration of US and global growth that will become increasing evident over the next few months. We therefore continue to recommend an overweight in stocks and an underweight in bonds. We recommend overweighting non-price sensitive cyclical areas (technology, industrials, consumer discretionary), while underweighting defensive sectors (utilities, telecom, consumer staples). We have financials, resources and health care at market weight.

Over many years John and I have been in agreement about the direction of markets…..i.e. he’s usually right.

 

Mal Spooner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Malvin Spooner.

 

 

Sex and the January Effect!

A perplexing phenomenon for money managers and academics alike is the so-called “January effect.”  Also known as the small-cap effect it generally refers to the fact that January tends to be a pretty good month for the stocks of smaller companies.  Despite efforts to come up with an explanation – window dressing by institutional investors, tax-loss selling and so forth – there seems to be no rational reason for the superior performance of these smaller company stocks early in every new year.  Before devling into my own radical theory, is this a real or mythical phenomenon?

Personally, I’ve bet on this phenomenon over many years – loading up the mutual funds I’ve managed with smaller companies during December that I considered inexpensive (their share prices were beaten up for any number of reasons).  The strong January investment performance would often put my portfolio in the top rankings for several months into the new year.  Always good for business.  I’d also encourage clients to buy our specialty fund that concentrated on smaller growth companies in early January, and hold it for a few months to capture the excess return.  It simply worked.

Experiencing or just believing in the effect is one thing, but does the data support the myth?  There are many studies confirming the anomaly.  I found the adjacent chart illustrating that in in January the smallest publicly traded companies indeed do better than the bigger companies.

“From 1926 through 2002, the smallest 10% of all stocks (or “10th decile”) beat the 1st decile stocks by an average of 9.35 percentage points in the month of January.”

Despite repeated efforts to explain why there is a January Effect, everyone agrees that it still remains pretty much a mystery.  Academics refer to such patterns as ‘anomalies.’  My own belief is that there are many instances when statistical observations are better explained by human behavior rather than analytics.

Ever notice that most babies are born in August and September?  Biologically speaking, this would suggest that our species do tend to act somewhat differently nine months prior to these births every year.  During the festive season there’s a whole lot of warm and fuzzy feelings that seem to influence our behavior.  In some cultures there’s a surge in indulgences – food and wine for instance – and for a brief couple of months stress and fear are reduced signficantly.  How do we respond?

Clearly we are inclined to be more intimate.  Couples (if you’ve been married for awhile you’ll understand this) successfully avoid romantic activity for most of the year; bored with their partners or simply turned off by their annoying habits and personality flaws.  Suddenly during the holidays we set aside our grievances and become more tolerant. Those quirks might even seem endearing for a brief period.  Perhaps in the northern hemisphere humans are genetically engineered to seek warmth and comfort during the colder winter months?

 Consider these cold hard facts:

  • We are more than willing to be intimate (hence the birthrate 9 months later) despite the risks – being asked to do more chores and the inevitable burden of an increased level of conversation.
  • During these months we spend recklessly on family and friends who don’t need the consumer items and in some cases don’t deserve them.
  • People drink more alcohol than they should and eat food that is bad for them.

Why wouldn’t the perennial change in our emotional makeup also have an impact on our investment decisions?  My theory is that once a year risk aversion takes a brief backseat in our psyche – and while our hearts and wallets are open why not take some free-spirited risk in the stock market?  Collectively hoping for a big score in those smaller company stocks that occasionally pay big, we all dive in together and cause their prices to rise.

The evidence of humanity’s willingness to take on more risk in the bedroom during the holidays becomes evident nine months later.  And it should come as no surprise that the financial consequences of investment decisions made in a fit of euphoria during the holiday season also show up by September of most every year also.  September is pretty much always the worst month for those stocks bought earlier in the year – small and large companies alike.

I certainly hope you had a good laugh reading my theory explaining the mysterious January effect.  In my opinion it is certainly as good as the explanations you’ll read in the media.  Truth is there is much we’ll never understand about so-called ‘anomalies’ whether they occur in financial markets or in human behavior.  Simply knowing they do occur however can be a powerful tool when making one’s own investment decisions.  Come to think about it, just knowing about some behavioral anomalies might also help when it comes to family planning.

Best wishes to you for a Happy Holiday!

Malvin Spooner.