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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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.