What’s Next? (And When Will It Happen)

economyis bad

Talk of recession is in the air and amongst my clients and readers of this blog the chief question is “when”?

Ever since Trump was elected, questions about when “it’s going to happen” have been floating about. Trump, an 800-pound gorilla with a twitter addiction, has left a predictable path of destruction and the promise of more chaos always seems on the horizon. It should not be surprising then that investors have been waiting with bated breath for an inevitable correction.

Those predicting imminent doom got a little taste of it last week when markets convulsed and delivered the worst day of the year so far, shedding a dramatic 800 points off the Dow Jones. Globally the news hasn’t exactly been stellar. Germany, Italy and France are all showing a weakening economic outlook, which is to say nothing of Great Britain. Despite three Prime Ministers and two deadline extensions, the nation has yet to escape its Brexit chaos and is no closer to figuring out what to do about Northern Ireland. China too is facing a myriad of problems. Trump’s tariffs may be making American’s pay more for things, but it does seem to be hurting the Chinese economy. Coupled with the persistent Hong Kong protests and its already softening market, last week the Chinese central bank opted to weaken the Yuan below the 7 to 1 threshold, a previously unthinkable option aimed at bolstering economic growth.

In all of this it is the American economy that looks to be in the best shape. Proponents of the “U.S. is strong” story point to the historic low unemployment and other economic indicators like consumer spending and year over year GDP growth. But this news comes accompanied with its own baggage, including huge subsidies for farmers hit by Chinese import bans and other trade related self-inflicted wounds. This issue is best summarized by Trump, who himself has declared that everything is great, but also now needs a huge rate cut.

Trump TweetThe temptation to assume that everything is about to go wrong is therefore not the most far-fetched possibility. Investors should be cautious because there are indeed warning signs that the economy is softening and after ten years of bull market returns, corrections and recessions are inevitable.

But if there is an idea I’ve tried to get across, it is that prognostication inevitably fails. The real question that investors should be asking is, “How much can I risk?” If markets do go south, it won’t be forever. But for retirees and those approaching retirement, now ten years older since the last major recession, the potential of a serious downturn could radically alter planned retirements. That question, more than “how much can I make?”, or “When will the next recession hit?”, should be central to your conversations with your financial advisor.

As of writing this, more chaotic news has led Trump to acknowledge that his tariff war may indeed cause a recession, but he’s undeterred. The world is unpredictable, economic cycles happen, and economists are historically bad at predicting recessions. These facts should be at the center of financial planning and they will better serve you as an investor than the constant desire to see ever more growth.

So whether Donald Trump has markets panicked, or a trade war, or really bad manufacturing numbers out of Germany, remember that you aren’t investing to do as well as the markets, or even better. You’re investing to secure a future, and ask your financial advisor (assuming it isn’t me) how much risk do you need, not how much you’ve got.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

Making Kids Money Smart, Reprise

Little girl withdrawing money form ATM with help of mother.

Some time back I had written about how we could better prepare children to handle money responsibly, how to help establish good financial habits and why that was important. You might have thought that banks would have played a role in that education, but I failed to talk about them and what positive (and negative) aspects they can play when it comes to a child’s money intelligence.

In theory banks should be the obvious first stop when it comes to talking about money and yet they rarely are. They may not even be helpful. This is partly because banks have long since given up being a waystation for protecting money from the general economy. While banks themselves have always had a central part to play in lending and growing the economy, the roll of doing that off the back of people who are housing their savings for a rainy day has been replaced by the desire to more quickly facilitate economic activity. Whereas banks were once a speedbump on the road to making a purchase, today they occupy the chief role of facilitating that purchase. No one would dare deposit money with a bank that did not provide debit cards, credit cards and easy online financial transactions.

Being money smart though has a lot more to do with instilling patience and setting goals, not immediately reacting to every consumer temptation. But a teenager with a bank account is not going to find that he or she is hindered much by their savings account. Furthermore, they are unlikely to see the benefits of keeping money in a savings account since there is little growth to be offered. This gives banks a paradoxical role in your child’s financial education, one that offers little incentive to save while facilitating bad financial choices.

For instance, TD Bank offers a Youth Account, a basic savings account for children up to the age of 18. There’s no fees, unlimited transactions per month and minimal interest rates for savers at 0.05%, or 50₡ for every $100. However, a child of 12 will receive a debit card with the Visa Debit system and a daily limit of $25 or $50/day. Meanwhile Scotiabank’s Getting There Savings Account offers similar low fees and minimal interest, but throws in 2 free Interac transactions per month and Scene Reward Points for the movies. The lesson banks teach kids is that putting money in the bank helps buy things they want whenever they want it.

For parents who opened an account for their children when they were small it may be a surprise that banks will send teens and pre-teens bank cards. And even approaching a bank about what can and cannot be done with a bank card may not offer up much help. I went to three separate banks to ask about their youth accounts and was frequently met with several “umms” and “ahhs” when I pressed for details. At one bank I was assured that even though the bank card was a “Visa Debit” that card could not be used to buy items online (which is what the Visa Debit system does). When I pressed for confirmation that this was the case the person disappeared to consult with other employees before returning and confirming that online purchases would be allowed. Financial limits are also not particularly inspiring. A $25 limit per day totals pretty quickly, and parents may not realize what that money is going towards since online purchases can be easily overlooked.

And yet.

This is also the system that we live in. Children should be raised to understand that there will be few breaks when it comes to making bad financial choices. Banks and credit card companies will happily provide debt to those who can barely afford it and defend themselves with impenetrable multi-page legal documents. Engaging with this system is essential to beating it.

So what can parents do?

As I wrote back in 2015 the best course of action is to do planning with kids to help establish good habits. Giving kids an allowance in exchange for chores isn’t a bad idea, but it might make more sense to both expand the money that is given, and then set up automatic withdrawals to cover expenses. Rather than receive $20/week as an allowance, consider $50/week and automatically take $30 back for RESP contributions. Or up it even further and charge them room and board. The experience of seeing financial responsibilities coming ahead financial luxury would establish a good habit of the real costs of living.

Another idea would be to sit and plan the purchase of a large item together that a child wants. Maybe it’s a video game system or a subscription of some kind. Go through the budgeting process together and figure out how many weeks it would take to get the item while also factoring money in that time for usual expenses like eating out with friends and going to movies (people still go to the movies right?). Invariably good budgeting forces us to question what we’re doing and whether it makes sense, so the action of picking an item and working towards it will go a long way to either validating those wants or rethinking what to do with that cash.

If you can convince your child to save and budget, help them as well consider alternative things to do when it comes time and they’re tempted to spend the money they were meant to be saving. Budgeting should help provide a passage to success and being left home alone while their friends are out having a good time will be hard.

Lastly, take your kids to the bank and have a meeting with someone together about the ins and outs of their youth account. Parents should know what is and is not allowed and not assume that simply because they opened the account 8 or 9 years ago, they understand what that account does or does not allow.

Financial planning remains an unpopular pastime, and few enjoy the responsibility of dealing with money. This may have more to do with how out of control Canadians feel with regard to their expenses and how much debt we carry. But as parents we should be looking for every opportunity to teach our children some of the bitter truths about money, debt, banks and budgets. Nobody else is.

As always, if you have questions about fees, performance or your financial future, please don’t hesitate to give me a call or send a message.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared  by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

The Exciting New Field of Recession Prognostication

PsychicI wish to inform you about an exciting new profession, currently accepting applicants. Accurate recession prognostication and divination is an up and coming new business that is surging in these turbulent economic times! And now is your chance to get in on the ground floor of this amazing opportunity!

I am of course being facetious, but my satire is not without precedent. As 2018 has devolved into global market chaos, finally losing the US markets in October, experts have been marshalled to tell investors why they are wrong about markets and why they should be more bullish.

Specifically analysts and various other media friendly talking heads have been trying to convey to the general public that the negative market sentiment that has driven returns down is misplaced, and have pointed to various computer screens and certain charts as proof that the economy is quite healthy and that in this moment we are not facing an imminent recession. Market returns through the final quarter of 2018 indicate this message has yet to find fertile ground among the wider public.

Dow Jones Dec 31
The Dow Jones has had a wild ride this year, with significant declines in February, October and finally in December when the markets ended the year lower than they began.

While these experts, analysts and financial reporter types may not be wrong, indeed the data they point to has some real merit, I don’t think that investors are wrong to heavily discount their advice. For the wider investing audience, being right 100% of the time is not a useful benchmark to strive towards with investments ear-marked for retirement. Instead a smarter approach is to be mindful about risks that can be ill-afforded. Investment specific risk, like that of an individual stock may be up to an investor (how much do I wish to potentially lose?). On the other hand, a global recession that is indiscriminate in the assets that suffer may be more risk than an investor can stomach.

TSX Dec 31
The S&P TSX has had another dismal year, and is currently lower than it was in 2007, marking a lost decade. Making money in the Canadian markets has been a trading game, not a buy and hold strategy.

The experts have therefore made two critical errors. The first is assuming that what is undermining investor confidence is an insufficient understanding of economic data. The second is that there is a history, any history, of market analysts, economists and journalists making accurate predictions of recessions before they happen.

This last point is of particular importance. While I began this article with some weak humor on prognostication and divination, it’s worth noting that predicting recessions has a failure rate slightly higher than your local psychic and lottery numbers. That so many people can be brought forth on such short notice to offer confident predictions about the state of world with no shame is possibly the worst element of modern investment culture that has not been reformed by the events of 2008.

2008 Predictions vs reality
These are the economist predictions for economic growth at both the start of Q3 and Q4 in 2008. Even as the collapse got worse, economists were not gifted with any extra insight. 

This doesn’t mean that investors should automatically flee the market, listen to their first doubt or react to their gut instincts. Instead this is a reminder that for the media to be useful it must think about what investors need (guidance and smart advice) and not more promotion of headline grabbing prognostication. The markets ARE down, and this reflects many realities, including economic concerns, geopolitical concerns and a host of other factors outside of an individual’s control. It is not a question of whether markets are right or wrong in this assessment, but whether good paths remain open to those depending on market returns.

A Canadian Story of Woe

 

drowning
A Canadian homeowner going for a relaxing swim in his mortgage…

 

One of the challenges of being a financial advisor is finding ways to convey complex financial issues in simple ways to my clients and readers. I believe I do this to varying degrees of success, and I am informed of my failures by my wife who doesn’t hesitate to point out when I’ve written something boring or too convoluted.

One such subject where I feel I’ve yet to properly distill the essential material is around the housing market. While I’ve written a fair amount about the Canadian housing market, I feel I’ve been less successful in explaining why the current housing situation is eating the middle class.

In case you’re wondering, my thesis rests on three ideas:

1. The middle class as we know it has come about as a result of not simply rising wages but on sustained drops in the price of necessities.
2. The rise of the middle class was greatly accelerated by the unique historical situation at the end of the Second World War, which split the world into competing ideological factions but left the most productive countries with the highest output and technological innovation to flourish.
3. A global trend towards urbanization and a plateauing of middle-class growth has started reversing some of those economic gains, raising the cost of basic living expenses while reducing the average income.

The combination of these three trends has helped morph housing from an essential matter of accommodation into a major pillar of people’s investment portfolios and part of their retirement plan. The result is that homeowners are both far more willing to pay higher prices for a home in the belief that it will continue to appreciate into the future, while also attempting to undercut increases in density within neighborhoods over fears that such a change will negatively impact the value of the homes. In short, stabilizing the housing market is getting harder, while Canadians are paying too much of their income to pay for existing homes. All of this serves to make the Canadian middle class extremely vulnerable.

 

Household Debt
You may be tempted to think “Wow, debt levels really jumped through 2016” you should remind yourself that this chart STARTS at 166%!!!

 

Proving some of this is can be challenging, but there are some things we know. For instance, we know that Canadians are far more in debt than they’ve ever been before and the bulk of that debt is in mortgages and home equity lines of credit (HELOC), which means much of that debt is long-term and sensitive to hikes in interest rates. We also have abundant evidence that zoning restrictions and neighborhood associations have diligently fought against “density creep”. But to tie it all together we need the help of HSBC’s Global Research division and a recent article from the Financial Times.

FT Global Leverage

Last week, HSBC issued a research paper on global leverage. Providing more proof that since 2008 the world has not deleveraged one bit. In fact, global debt has settled just over 300% of global GDP, something that I wrote about in 2016. An interesting bit of information though came in terms of the country’s sensitivity to increasing interest rates. Charting a number of countries, including Canada, the report highlights that Canadians (on average) pay 12.5% of their income to service debt. A 1% increase in the lending rate would push that up over 13%. For a country already heavily in debt, a future of rising rates looks very expensive indeed.

It would be wrong to say that fixing our housing market will put things right. There is no silver bullet and to suggest otherwise is to reduce a complex issue to little more than a TED Talk. But the reality is that our housing market forms a major foundation of our current woes. A sustained campaign to grow our cities and reduce regulatory hurdles will do more to temper large debts that eat at middle-class security than anything I could name.