A Preemptive, Timeless, Portfolio Protection Strategy

A participant in the morning Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM) workshop observed: I’ve noticed that my account balances are near all time high levels. People are talking down the economy and the dollar. Is there any preemptive action I need to take?

An afternoon workshop attendee spoke of a similar predicament, but cautioned that a repeat of the June 2007 through early March 2009 correction must be avoided — a portfolio protection plan is essential!

What were they missing?

These investors were taking pretty much for granted the fact that their investment portfolios had more than merely survived the most severe correction in financial market history. They had recouped all of their market value, and maintained their cash flow to boot. The market averages seemed afraid to move higher.

Their preemptive portfolio protection plan was already in place — and it worked amazingly well, as it certainly should for anyone who follows the general principles and disciplined strategies of the MCIM.

But instead of patting themselves on the back for their proper preparation and positioning, here they were, lamenting the possibility of the next dip in securities’ prices. Corrections, big and small, are a simple fact of investment life whose origination point can only be identified using rear view mirrors.

Investors constantly focus on the event instead of the opportunity that the event represents. Being retrospective instead of hindsightful helps us learn from our experiences. The length, depth, and scope of the financial crisis correction were unknowns in mid-2007. The parameters of the recent advance are just as much of a mystery now.

MCIM forces us to prepare for cyclical oscillations by requiring that: a) we take reasonable profits quickly whenever they are available, b) we maintain our “cost-based” asset allocation formula using long-term (retirement, etc.) goals, and c) we slowly move into new opportunities only after downturns that the “conventional wisdom” identifies as correction level— i. e., twenty percent.

  • So, a better question, concern, or observation during an unusually long rally, given the extraordinary performance scenario that these investors acknowledge, would be: What can I do to take advantage of the market cycle even more effectively — the next time?

The answer is as practically simple as it is emotionally difficult. You need to add to portfolios during precipitous or long term market downturns to take advantage of lower prices — just as you would do in every other aspect of your life. You need first to establish new positions, and then to add to old ones that continue to live up to WCM (Working Capital Model) quality standards.

You need to maintain your asset allocation by adding to income positions properly, and monitor cost based diversification levels closely. You need to apply cyclical patience and understanding to your thinking and hang on to the safety bar until the climb back up the hill makes you smile. Repeat the process. Repeat the process. Repeat the process.

The retrospective?

The MCIM methodology was nearly fifteen years old when the robust 1987 rally became the dreaded “Black Monday”, (computer loop?) correction of October 19th. Sudden and sharp, that 50% or so correction proved the applicability of a methodology that had fared well in earlier minor downturns.

According to the guidelines, portfolio “smart cash” was building through August; new buying overtook profit taking early in September, and continued well into 1988.

Ten years later, there was a slightly less disastrous correction, followed by clear sailing until 9/11. There was one major difference: the government didn’t kill any companies or undo market safeguards that had been in place since the Great Depression.

Dot-Com Bubble! What Dot-Com Bubble?

Working Capital Model buying rules prohibit the type of rampant speculation that became Wall Street vogue during that era. The WCM credo after the bursting was: “no NASDAQ, no Mutual Funds, no IPOs, no Problem.” Investment Grade Value Stocks (IGVSI stocks) regained their luster as the no-value-no-profits securities slip-slided away into the Hudson.

Embarrassed Wall Street investment firms used their influence to ban the “Brainwashing of the American Investor” book and sent the authorities in to stifle the free speech of WCM users — just a rumor, really.

Once again, through the “Financial Crisis”, for the umpteenth time in the forty years since its development, Working Capital Model operating systems have proven that they are an outstanding Market Cycle Investment Management Methodology.

And what was it that the workshop participants didn’t realize they had — a preemptive portfolio protection strategy for the entire market cycle. One that even a caveman can learn to use effectively.

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Retirement Income Investing: The Dreaded RMD

All of us are approaching retirement, many of us are already there, and some of us (myself included) are thinking about the ultimate IRS slap-in-the-face… The Required Minimum Distribution. It’s time to make sure that your retirement income program is actually ready.

Every investment program becomes a retirement income program eventually.

First off, you need to get to a place where you can say:

“a stock market downturn will have no significant impact on my retirement income”

This applies to everyone; income development is always important, and Tax Free Income (outside the IRA or 401k) is The Very Best. Only private “safe haven” 401k plans are capable of focusing on income development.

Retirement readiness requires active consideration of your asset allocation, your overall diversification, and most importantly, the quality of your holdings. Those of you who are relying on 401k assets to fund your retirement income requirements need to look inside the program.

If you are within five years of retirement, repositioning at the top of a stock market cycle (now) is essential; if you are in retirement, get your portfolio out of any employer plans and into your IRA… you just can’t protect yourself  (and especially, your income) in Mutual Funds or ETFs.

If you are approaching 70, the RMD is “in your face”… here’s how to handle it:

• Position the portfolio to produce slightly more income than you must take from the program.

• Take the income monthly and DO NOT pay the taxes in advance. Lump sum withdrawals require uninvested cash reserves and/or untimely sell transactions.

• Move the RMD disbursements into an individual or joint account and reinvest at least 30% in Tax Free Income CEFs.

• If you hold equities (in addition to the RMD income producers you need), set your profit taking targets lower than usual… and maintain the Cost Based Asset Allocation.

I’m relatively sure that some of you are currently dealing with the RMD incorrectly… with “lump sum + the taxes” distributions.

Some of you have been to my ongoing series of “live SRS portfolio review, Income Investing Webinars”.

Follow this link to the recording of the January 22nd private presentation and don’t hesitate to post it where ever you like… wouldn’t it be cool to have this presentation show up on YouTube.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/28ty6z5dkgn5ulu/Retirement%20Income%20Webinar.wmv?dl=0

Why so much ado about interest rates?

Mal Spooner
Mal Spooner

Why the popularity of shorter-term interest-bearing securities among Canadians, in particular GIC investments?  In fact, we in Canada are not the only investors who seem satisfied investing our money knowing that the rate-of-return might just barely cover the rate of price inflation, with a significant risk of actually losing money if inflation should rise even modestly.  And it is not just people who are content with the arrangement between ourselves and the borrowers of our money – banks, insurance companies and credit unions alike – corporations have been hoarding cash since the Financial Crisis too.

This past summer, Statistics Canada reminded us that corporations in Canada continued to grow their cash hoard rather than invest the funds in their businesses.  Of course, like people, companies don’t actually hold cash, but rather invest the money in low risk short-term interest bearing securities, often in Government of Canada T-bills and bonds, as well as commercial paper offered by financial institutions.

At the end of the second quarter of 2008, corporations held $373.4 billion in cash balances (Statistics Canada November 17th, 2009 study: Indebtedness and liquidity of non-financial corporations).  By the first quarter of this (2014) year the number had grown to a whopping $629.7-billion. So why the stubborn tendency to tolerate a near-zero rate-of-return?

There are at least two factors at work in my estimation.  One has to do with the economics of interest rates in the current environment, another with human nature and demographics.

First of all, what is an interest rate?  It embodies three important expectations-related factors: Real returns, inflation and risk.  We all are reluctant to part with our cash unless we’re able to earn what economists call a ‘real’ return.  Ask yourself, what rate-of-return would make you happy if there was essentially no risk (default, volatility) to speak of and no price inflation.  Whatever you buy today, will in theory cost you the same price next year and every year after that.  Most agree that the very long-term real rate of interest is somewhere between 2% and 4%.  Real Rates Canada 2004 to 2014However, you can easily see from the graph that the real rate of return provided by Government of Canada (as low risk as you can find) long-term real return bonds over the past ten years has been driven down since the Financial Crisis, as all governmental central banks strove to fight disinflation by dampening the general level of interest rates.

Has the return we expect from lending our funds really adjusted downward, or is it that the availability of securities providing the returns we normally demand has changed?  My guess is most folks would agree that the adage ‘once burned, twice shy’ aptly summarizes our tendency to be  biased by recent experience.  It is human nature to be sensitive to bad or good things that have just happened and to oftentimes unreasonably expect them to continue.  Also, we are confronted by a lack of options.  Securities available to us are not promising the rates-of-return we want, given the amount of risk we are prepared to stomach.

In fact, a quick look at one of many high-dividend oriented ETF’s, the iShares Core S&P/TSX Composite High Dividend Index ETF suggests that a collection of dividend paying stocks yielded 4.31% (as of October 2, 2014) over the past (trailing) 12 months.  As a bonus, the tax treatment of dividends is more generous than it is for interest income.  Indeed the stock market has done perhaps too well over the last few years, but judging by the massive dollars invested in short-term securities those equity returns have not been earned by everyday people. The issue is people just don’t seem to want the volatility that comes with investing in stocks; even when the selection of stocks is less risky than the overall stock market.  A real return with some risk is less attractive than no return at all, and it has been like this for quite awhile now. The second ingredient to interest rate levels is inflation expectations.

Source: Bank of Canada
Source: Bank of Canada

Admittedly, we haven’t seen a whole bunch of price inflation have we?  Central bank policy around the world has been more interested in creating some inflation, fearing that disinflation would prove devastating to our economic welfare.  These efforts are in fact evidenced by the historically low level of administered interest rates we have.  If our collective expectations concerning future price inflation are significantly different from what we are experiencing then our behaviour will reflect it. Could it be that the extraordinarily high commitment to GIC’s and equivalents is that Canadians, and Americans are doing it too, are content to simply keep their money (even at the risk of a small loss) intact until rates of inflation and returns get back to levels they think they can believe in?

The third important determinant of interest rate levels is our toleration for risk, and it exists in many different forms.  Our appreciation for the risk of default was certainly modified during the Financial Crisis; and in short order we’ve been willing to tolerate none of it.  We’ve turned a blind eye to significant stock market appreciation and even bond returns preferring to ‘check’ rather than ‘raise’ and ‘all in’ has certainly been out of the question.   But this intolerance to take risk has become very sticky at the individual level and at the corporate level.  This might have more to do with demographics than anything else.

Younger people are quite surprised to learn that real interest rates got as high as 6% – 9% during the mid-1980’s, and during the 90’s and up to the turn of the millennium ranged around the 4% level. (Source: I was there!)  There is a large proportion Canadians who lived through those times.  According to Statistics Canada there is roughly an equal number of young people as there are older people.  Ratio of old to young in CanadaHalf of us in Canada might consider those times ancient history (or have no interest at all in history), and the other half feel as if it was just yesterday that mortgage rates were in the double digits.

These more seasoned citizens look at the rates of return offered by the bond market and similar investment vehicles and say to themselves: “Hey, if I buy a longer term bond, I’m earning next to nothing anyway, so I’ll just put money into shorter term GIC’s and term deposits that are effectively earning nothing and avoid the risk of having my money tied up.”  Having experienced periods of rising inflation and higher real rates, they (and yes, I’m a member of that distinguished group) are inclined to wait until more generous returns come back – if they ever do come back.  And don’t forget, these same folks might actually have to spend their savings sooner rather than later suggesting that any risk of a big loss in the stock or bond market is simply untenable.

Most people when they think of Canada bonds, immediately think of Canada Savings Bonds.  They are not the same at all.  Normal Government of Canada bonds, held in mutual funds and pension plans for example, rise and fall in value as interest rates change.  Although we’ve been through a very long stretch of falling interest rates, which made bond prices steadily go up in value, there have been and will be periods when interest rates rise and people lose money in bonds.  It is smart to learn how the time value of money works and how and why bonds can make or lose money.  There is a plethora of online videos that can help you understand bond valuation and the investment in your time to learn bond dynamics is well worth the minimal effort.

The yield curve is simply a plot of interest rates corresponding to varying maturities at a point in time.  Ordinarily, we expect to earn higher returns the longer our money is lent to someone else.  GIC rates are lower when the hold period is 3 months than they are when your money is tied up for 3 years.  The same should be true for bonds.  But consider where we’ve come from:  US Treasury Dept. Yield CurvesThe graph shows the yield curves for US Treasury bonds as of October 2007 compared to the same today.  The 2007 yield curve reflects the uncertainty at that time about, well almost everything.  We didn’t know if we should accept lower rates for shorter investments or high rates for longer term bonds so the curve was somewhat flattish.  What would inflation be?  Which financial institution would be solvent?  Would the US government even be solvent?  Many questions but few answers in the midst of the financial turmoil.

The more current yield curve reflects today’s reality.  The only interest rates we can earn in the short-term are hovering close to zero, and since longer-term risk-free bonds are paying us barely one percent over inflation why assume the added risk.  If interest rates do rise from these low levels, then you will certainly lose money owning the longer-term bonds.

In a nutshell, people have doing what they should be doing – seeking shelter and waiting it out.   A side-effect of this behaviour is that our willingness to tolerate no return for lots of safety has stalled the return to financial market normality.  By stubbornly remaining in GIC’s, term deposits and money market funds we are inadvertently delaying what we desire – a decent return for taking some risk.  It’s only when money moves freely and to a large extent greedily that financial markets function properly.  This presents quite a conundrum for policy makers around the world, who’ve been praying that businesses invest in business instead of hoarding their cash, and people begin spending more and taking on more risk by investing their savings in more diverse ways.

There are many pundits who have suddenly jumped on the bandwagon predicting a stock market meltdown and impending bond market rout.  If they are right and this happens then we might finally get what we want after-the-fact; returns that compensate us fairly for inflation and risk.  In fact the stock market is suffering of late, and a shift (or rather, twist)  in the yield curve is already causing some havoc for bond managers.  The longer-term rates have declined rather than risen as expected, and mid-term bond yields have surprisingly risen – causing grief even for gurus like Bill Gross, who co-founded PIMCO and until recently managed one of the world’s largest bond portfolios.

If investors have been doing the right thing to feel secure, what should they be doing next?  Over my own lengthy career I’ve found that at some point it is important to combat inertia and begin moving in a different strategic direction.  As stock prices adjust downwards, take advantage of what happens.  The dividends paid on the increasingly lower stock prices become more attractive quickly, and remember they are taxed at preferential rates.  The world economy may continue to grow at only a snail’s pace, so why not test the waters so to speak and begin putting some funds into longer-term interest-earning bonds.  If inflation does creep up and interest rates increase some, then put even more funds to work at the higher yields.    Having done the safe thing during turbulent times, perhaps it’s time to do the smart thing.  Experience teaches us that the best time to be doing the smart thing is almost always when it is most difficult to do it.  The longer you earn nothing, the poorer you get.

 

Lifting the veil on ETFs – Part 2 of 4

Stock ETFs
The first and most popular ETFs track stocks. Many funds track national indexes.

Bond ETFs
Exchange-traded funds that invest in bonds are known as Bond ETFs. They thrive during economic recessions because investors pull their money out of the stock market and move into bonds (for example, government treasury bonds or those issued by companies regarded as financially stable). Because of this cause and effect relationship, the performance of bond ETFs may be indicative of broader economic conditions. There are several advantages to bond ETFs such as the reasonable trading commissions, but this benefit can be negatively offset by other fees and costs.

Actively managed ETFs
Most ETFs are index funds and as such, there is no “management” involved. Some ETFs, however, do have active management as a means to hopefully out-perform the nominal bench-mark index. Actively managed ETFs are at risk from arbitrage activities by market participants who might choose to front run its trades as daily reports of the ETF’s holdings reveals its manager’s trading strategy. The actively managed ETF market has largely been seen as more favorable to bond funds, because concerns about disclosing bond holdings are less pronounced, there are fewer product choices and there is increased appetite for bond products.

Leveraged exchange-traded funds (LETFs), or simply leveraged ETFs, are a special type of ETF that attempt to achieve returns that are more sensitive to market movements than non-leveraged ETFs. Leveraged index ETFs are often marketed as bull or bear funds and because of the leveraging involved, returns and losses are magnified!

ETFs compared to mutual funds

Costs
The first rule to remember – NOTHING is free! Since ETFs trade on an exchange, each transaction is generally subject to a brokerage commission. Commissions depend on the brokerage and which plan is chosen by the customer. Full-service brokers typically charge a percentage commission on both the purchase and sale and may be negotiable depending on the dollar value involved. A typical flat fee schedule from an online brokerage firm $10 to $20, but it can be as low as $0 with certain discount brokers with minimum account values. Due to this commission cost, the amount invested has great impact on costs. Someone who wishes to invest $100 per month may have a significant percentage of their investment destroyed immediately, while for someone making a $200,000 investment, the commission cost may be negligible.

ETFs generally have lower expense ratios than comparable mutual funds. Not only does an ETF have lower shareholder-related expenses, but because it does not have to invest cash contributions or fund cash redemptions these costs are eliminated. Mutual funds may charge 1% to 3%, or more. Index fund (which by the way are NOT the same as ETFs – see future edition of Money Magazine) expense ratios are generally lower, while ETFs are normally in the 0.1% to 1% range.

The cost difference is more evident when compared with mutual funds that charge a front-end or contingent back-end load as ETFs do not have any additional loads at all. Potential redemption and short-term trading fees are examples of other costs that may be associated with mutual funds that do not exist with ETFs. Traders should be very cautious if they plan to trade inverse and leveraged ETFs for short periods of time. Close attention should be paid to transaction costs and daily performance rates as the potential combined compound loss can sometimes go unrecognized and offset potential gains over a longer period of time.

Don’t get whipsawed by Risk Management!

Back in February of 2012, I recall a prominent CFO departing a global insurance company.  This particular individual was labelled “the highly regarded architect of a hedging strategy that proved key in rebuilding investor confidence in the wake of the financial crisis.”  The company had suffered financially during the prior market meltdown because of a huge exposure to equity-linked products;  pre-crisis the company had introduced investment products that guaranteed to return a substantial (if not all) amount of the investor’s initial investment.  The money was invested in the company’s funds which in turn invested in stock markets.  During the financial crisis, the value of these assets (stocks) held in the funds declined below the amount that was guaranteed spelling serious trouble for the company.  In response a stricter approach to risk management was adopted after-the-fact.

Sounds sensible doesn’t it?  But it just isn’t!  I’ve watched this pattern time and again over decades.  The fundamental flaw is a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes risk.

Risk is almost always equated to volatility.  For example, stocks move up and down rapidly with much magnitude so they are deemed more risky than bonds.  But are we really as averse to upside risk as downside risk?  Strangely people become more averse to volatility when they’ve suffered downside risk (and come to adore volatility when upside risk has rewarded them).  Because our internal model of risk is so much more complex than mathematics can reckon with, our efforts to ‘manage’ volatility can actually subject us to less volatility but more risk.  When we reduce risk (hedging strategies usually reduce volatility – both up and down) at the wrong times, we miss the chance to be rewarded by the kind of volatility we adore.  We are our own worst enemies.

The President and CEO of a completely different insurance company was quoted as saying this, also in February of 2012:

“We are maintaining our equity hedges as we remain very concerned about the economic outlook over the next few years. We continue to be soundly financed with year-end cash and marketable securities at the holding company of about $1 billion.”

 

This statement followed the company’s earnings release, having reported substantially increased losses from its investments – management had hedged the company’s equity position in 2010 (again, after-the-fact) and suffered investment losses in that year’s fourth-quarter because stock markets rose (instead of declining).  The actions designed to protect the company against volatility lost money.  Risk aversion after-the-fact caused the company to lose money and avoid potential returns from upside volatility.

Because the pain caused by the downside volatility suffered previously was still fairly recent, aversion remained at a high level causing the company to stick to its hedging strategy (in denial?) despite these huge losses, and it continued to lose money as the market continued to go higher and higher still.

The financial crisis is behind us and now that markets are hitting all-time highs, record amounts of dollars are scrambling to get some upside volatility action. Too late?  It’s hard to put a pin in it, but intuitively might one conclude that if managing risk (or ‘risk off’ as they say on business television) was a bad idea during and immediately after the financial crisis, then perhaps chasing volatility (‘risk on’) might not be such a good idea at present?

It might seem as if I was picking on insurance companies earlier, but many pension funds, other financial services companies, portfolio managers and everyday investors follow the same destructive pattern.  Adoring upside risk but loathing downside risk – always at the wrong times – has ruined careers and put a serious dent in the life-savings of families.  More experienced money managers (there are fewer of us nowadays) increase risk when others are most averse to the idea, and begin to manage risk (hedging, raising cash balances) during periods of ‘irrational exuberance.’  They’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to keep all the hair on your head if you avoid circumstances that make you want to pull it all out.

Mal Spooner

Mutual Fund Mania – Choose wisely during RRSP season!

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

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

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

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

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

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

A great track record might actually guarantee poor performance.

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

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

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

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

Results:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

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

Is AAPL bruised or beginning to rot?

There’s a huge difference between Apple the company and AAPL the stock.  Back in July when the stock seemed to headed to the stratosphere I began to get concerned.  At the risk of seeming ridiculous (which has never stopped me before fyi) I will quote myself at the time:

 “The market value of Apple Inc. has ballooned.  It really hasn’t mattered that Android devices are kicking butt; rapidly gaining market share and being adopted by the more technology-savvy consumers (the nerdy trailblazers).  Until now?” July 29th, 2012

Apple’s 2nd quarter results had just been released and were considered disappointing by most analysts.  However my misgivings were based more on experience than the company fundamentals.  Over decades I’ve watched stock market darlings follow a pattern time and again.  At the outset it’s product itself that folks fall in love with, but eventually it’s the company’s stock they become infatuated with.

Admittedly the rewards to the company are plentiful if the product catches fire, especially in the middle stages of the lifecycle (pricing power and growing demand), but gradually management is obliged to focus on producing more and more of the product; which can mean skyrocketing revenues and economies of scale (reduced costs of manufacturing) – good for the company and its investors.  Eventually competition rears its ugly head, and the company is forced to innovate rapidly (rising expenses) to keep market share.  Competition (Android devices offered by the likes of Samsung, Research in Motion) will inevitably cause prices and profit margins to fall.

Finding a new hit ‘premium-priced’ product is difficult to do unless the company is managed by a tyrannical genius like Henry Ford or Steve Jobs (who can be oblivious to the rantings of those myopic stakeholders who’d rather have dividends than invest in research and development).

One might think that the stockprice should mirror the fortunes of the company.  But there are periods when this just isn’t the case.  This is the chart I was looking at (back in the summer months) when I began to get the heebeejeebies.  The financial results weren’t that impressive, but the share price had gathered its own momentum.

A GOOD  THING: Lineups to buy iPhones and iPads.  DANGEROUS: Lineups to buy shares.

I like to think the stock market  is like a party.  When my daughter was a teenager, she asked if my wife and I could disappear for a few hours one evening so she could invite some friends over for a party (I’m sure this has happened to many of you).  Things went fine until a contingent of uninvited guests began showing up.  No doubt a few more youngsters added to the fun, but once the house was too crowded bad things began to happen – items got broken, drinks were spilled on hardwood floors and carpets, there were empty bottles scattered all over the property and suddently her little party turned into into a nightmare.

When uninvited people (not really investors) scramble to own a stock it usually ends up like my daughter’s party.  At first a few more (uninvited) investors drives up the price which is great for existing shareholders and the company.  Indeed, AAPL shares continued to ramp up into the final quarter of 2012.  But just like my daughters party, things began to get ugly for the stock once it got too crowded.

 There is much speculation concerning the causes of the rapid decline in the price of AAPL shares:  Weak demand for the iPhone V, the threat of Android market penetration and so forth.  Some of this might be true, but pure speculation doesn’t ordinarily impact the price of a company’s shares this radically.  Hard evidence will hurt the stock to be sure but my own experience is that as soon as people realize they’re at a party that just isn’t as much fun as they’d hoped for then they all try to leave at the same time.  There is a great deal of risk associated with buying into stock market darlings.

I mentioned above that there can be a huge difference between the fortunes of the company and the behavior of the stock.  It could very well turn out that Apple (the company) will continue to thrive despite the decline in the share price.  After all there are a great number of people that still plan to buy iPhones.  No doubt there are also many planning to buy other Apple devices.

A recent survey suggested that 50% of those asked what smartphone they intend to buy over the next ninety days said they wanted an iPhone.  This is the same result Apple has enjoyed for that past couple of years.  There will come a time when the company will have to come up with another big hit product or re-invent itself.  After all the company was nearly banktrupt once (1987) and survived.  The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 certainly gave Apple another shot of adrenalin.

There’s no evidence to suggest Apple the company is beginning to rot just yet, but AAPL the stock was due to take a bruising.  Can Apple continue to take advantage of its solid franchise indefinitely without Steve Jobs?  Well that’s the billion dollar question isn’t it?

Mal Spooner

 

 

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.