Investing in the Age of Brexit Populism

There is going to be lots of news around Brexit for the next while, and we have many other things to look at. So until more is known and more things are resolved this will be our last piece looking at the In/Out Referendum of June 23rd.

 

So far the best thing that I’ve read about Brexit is an essay by Glenn Greenwald, who has captured much of the essential cognitive dissonance that revolves around the populist uprisings we’ve seen this year, from Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn and from Donald Trump to UKIP. You can read the essay here, but I think he gives a poignant take down of an isolated political class and an elitist media that fails to capture what drives much of the populism intent on burning down modern institutions. In light of that criticism, what should investors think about the current situation and how does it apply to their investments?

Let’s start with the basics; that leaving the EU is a bad idea but an understandable one. The Eurozone is rife with problems, from bureaucratic nonsense to democratic unaccountability, the whole thing gets under many people’s skin, and not just in the UK. Across Europe millions of people have been displaced from good work, have lost sight of the dignity in their lives and have come to be told repeatedly that the lives they lead are small, petty and must make way for a new way of doing things. The vast project that is the EU has been to reorder societies along new globalized lines, and if you live in Greece, Spain, Portugal or Italy those lines have come with terrible burdens of austerity and high unemployment.

It’s easy to see that the outstanding issues of the 21st century are going unchecked. Wealth inequality and increasing urbanization are colliding with the problems of expensive housing markets, wage stagnation and low inflation rates. The benefits of economic growth are becoming increasingly sparse as the costs of comfortably integrating into society continue to rise.

In response to these problems the media has shown little ability to navigate an insightful course. Trump is a fascist, Bernie Sanders is clueless, “Leave” voters are bigots, and any objection to the existing status quo that could upset the prescribed “correct” system is deemed laughably impractical or simply an enemy of free society.

This is a dynamic that can plainly not exist and if there is any hope in restoring or renewing faith in the institutions that govern much of our lives. We must find ways to more tactfully discuss big issues. Trump supporters are not idiots and fascists. Bernie supporters are not ignorant millennials. Leave campaigners are not xenophobic bigots. These are real people and have come to the feeling that they are disenfranchised citizenry who see the dignity of their lives is being undercut by a relentless march of progress. Addressing that will lead to more successful solutions to our collective woes than name calling and mud slinging.

For investors this continued disruption could not happen at a worse time. In some ways it is the needs of an aging population that have set the stage of much of the discontent. As one generation heads towards retirement having benefited from a prolonged period of stability and increasing economic wealth, the generations behind it are finding little left at the table. Fighting for stability means accepting that the current situation is worth fighting for. For retirees stability is paramount as years of retirement still need to be financed, but if you are 50 or younger fighting for a better deal may be worth the chaos.

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For anyone doubts that cities are the most important part of our society and economic wealth, here is the history of cities over the past 5000 years. – From the Guardian

 

Investors should take note then that this is the new normal. Volatility is becoming an increasing fact of life and if wealth inequality, an unstable middle class and expensive urbanisation can not be tamed and conquered our politics will remain a hot bed of populist uprisings. So what can investors do? They need to broaden their scope of acceptable investments. The trend currently is towards more passive investments, like ETFs that mimic indices, but that only has the effect of magnifying the volatility. Investors should be speaking to their advisors about all options, including active managers, guaranteed retirement investments, products that pay income and even products with limited liquidity that don’t trade on the open market. This isn’t the time to limit your investment ideas, its the time to expand them.

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Let’s Undo Brexit! (Here’s How)

Brexit-2If there was ever going to be a moment to gain some clarity about what the Brexit would truly and ultimately mean, Friday was the day. Following the win by the leave camp, markets were sent reeling on the uncertainty stirred up by the referendum, and by the day’s end Britain had gone from being the 5th largest economy to the 6th, $2 trillion in value had been wiped from the markets, Scotland wants another referendum as Northern Ireland is proposing a unified Ireland, and embarrassingly the top google result in the UK following the referendum was “What is the EU?”

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The buyers remorse now swirling around the UK seems to have ignited a renewed “Remain” campaign. Already there is a petition to have another referendum, citing the quite reasonable objections that a 52-48 split does not indicate the kind of definitive turnout to, in good conscience, topple the British economy and break up the UK. In other corners some of the bloom has quickly come off the rose.

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Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader who has been championing the leave vote while Boris Johnson (BoJo for short) has parading across the country with a bus emblazoned with the phrase “we give the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund the NHS instead” has said that was a poor choice of campaign phrase. In other words the NHS will not be getting an additional £350 million per week. JoJo on the other hand has said that there is no urgency in triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, and instead there should be preliminary discussions before actually starting the leaving process.

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Liars! Lying Liars!

In Cornwall, the picturesque seaside county with a crumbling and weak economy, it has suddenly dawned on the residents that they are hugely dependent on cash transfers from Brussels, an idea that had apparently not occurred to them when they overwhelmingly voted in favour of leaving.

It is worth taking some time to consider some underlying facts. The referendum is non-binding, merely advisory to the government. As the impact of a leave vote starts to set in and people begin to reject the emotional tenor of the campaign in favour of some hard truths, the next government will have time to try and potentially weasel out of the deal. The current front-runner for the next Prime Minister is BoJo himself, a man who had said that he sided with Leave (and became its very public face) because he didn’t think Brussels would really negotiate with the UK unless they knew the Britain might seriously leave.

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Brexit will not happen, at least not like the worst case scenarios have made it out to be. David Cameron has said triggering Article 50 will fall to the next Prime Minister, which is months away. The chief proponents of Brexit don’t seem eager to start the clock on an official leave at all. Despite calls from within the EU to get the ball rolling on leaving, the real appetite to lock down a time table for a permanent withdrawal from the eurozone isn’t there. Instead it seems the winners are happier to let everyone know that they’ve got the gun, and that it’s loaded.

There are months to still screw this up, but the leave camp has had its outburst and now its time to look in the mirror and see the outburst for what it is; and ugly distortion of what the future could be. Nigel Farage and UKIP have had their moment, letting everyone know they are a serious force that needs to be addressed. But the stakes are far higher than I think many believed or thought could come to pass. The GBP fell dramatically, markets convulsed, Scotland and Northern Ireland might leave and starting Monday many financial jobs will start being cut in London. Now is the time to calm markets not with more interest rate cuts but with some measured language that could open the door to another referendum, or at least avoid the worst outcomes of an isolated and petulant Britain.

* this article had initially incorrectly identified Boris Johnson’s nickname as JoJo

The Robo-Advisor Cometh

 

roboadvisorAs proof that the robot revolution will spare no one, even our industry is feeling the intense weight of cheap human alternatives in the form of “robo-advisors”. Given some glowing press by the Globe and Mail over the last weekend, robot advisors now represent a real and growing segment of the financial services markets and are forcing many advisors, including us, to ask how they and we will live together and what our respective roles will be.

200To say that robo-advisors are a hot topic among financial advisers is to understate the collective paranoia of an industry that has come to see itself as besieged with critical and often unfair press. We haven’t been to a conference, meeting or industry event that doesn’t at some point involve financial advisors attempting to rationalize away the looming presence of cheap and impersonal financial advice. While there are some good questions that get asked at these events, there is a whiff of denial that must have given false hope to autoworkers in the 80s and 90s in these conversations.

For the uninitiated, robo-advisors are investing algorithms that provide a model portfolios based on a risk questionnaire that people can complete online. Typically using passive investment strategies (ETFs), these services charge lower fees than their human counterparts and offer little in the way of services. There isn’t anyone to talk to, no advice is dispensed and you won’t ever get a birthday card. But you can see your portfolio value literally anytime you like on your iPhone.

Looking past the idea of reducing your lifetime financial needs down to a level equivalent to a Netflix subscription, the concern around robo-advisors illustrates everything that our industry gets wrong about what services we provide that are most valuable. The pitch of automated cheap portfolio alternatives revolves entirely around the cost of the investments and has little to say about what it is that leads to bad financial self management.

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The distinguishing feature between what we do, and what a computer algorithm can offer extends well past the price of the investment. Time and time again investors have shown themselves to be bad at investing regardless of their intentions. Financial advisors do not exist because there haven’t been cheap ways to invest money, they exist because there is an existential struggle between planning for events decades away and the fight or flight responses burned into our most reptilian brains. When times get tough investors make bad choices. Financial advisors are there to stop those decisions before they permanently define or destroy an investor’s long term plans.

That multi-decade struggle between an advisor and their client’s most primal instincts is an intangible quality and takes many forms. Genial conversations about new investing ideas, gentle reminders not to overweight stocks that are doing well, trimming earnings and investing in out of favour sectors and sometimes just being there to listen to people as they make sense of their problems and financial concerns is an ongoing roll that we, and thousands of other advisors, have been happy to fill. These qualities can be difficult to quantify, but can be best expressed in two ways. First, by the independent research which has shown that Canadians who work with a financial advisor have 2.7x the assets of investors who didn’t and second, by the number of our clients who have remained clients for the near quarter of a century of our family practice.

Fees, by comparison, are very tangible and as a rule people hate fees. And while bringing down costs is a reasonable expectation in any service, there is a snarky cockiness to proponents of robo-advisors that see the job of financial management as both straight forward and simple. Robot champions are quick to say that financial advisors must adapt to the new world that they are forging, but it is unclear just how different and liberating this world will be. Far from creating a new utopia of cheap financial management for everybody, what seems more likely is that they will have merely created a low cost financial option for low income Canadians, a profitable solution for banks and other large financial firms but not for their investors.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, as they say. When the markets suddenly collapsed in the beginning of the year, bottoming out in mid-February, robo-investors did not sit idly by and let their robot managers tend to their business unmolested. Robot advisory practices were swamped with phone calls and firms relied on call centres and asked employees to stay later and work more hours to deal with the sudden influx of concerned investors wondering what they should do, whether they should leave the markets and what was going to happen to their investments. As it turns out, when times are bad people just want to talk to people.

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The Age of Breakable Things

With Brexit around the corner, the potential for a Donald Trump presidency and a host of other global problems (big problems), it’s hard not to talk about all the chaos and what it might mean to investors even when there is lots of other things to go over. For now, this will be our last article on the subject of Brexit until next week following the vote. I will take a look at some other issues later in the week.

One thing that jumps out at me about “Brexit” is how fragile much of our world is. Progress is most often thought of as making things stronger or better, but that is only true to a point. Progress also has the unfortunate downside of making things much more fragile. The more progress allows us to do, the more fragile each step makes us.

Freedom Tower

Beautiful tall buildings like this remain a testament to our progress and how profoundly fragile it all is.

Historically that fragility can frequently be seen during times of war. Britain, undoubtedly the world’s most powerful empire at the outset of the first and second world war, saw how quickly its strengths could be overcome by the weaknesses of a far flung empire. The supply lines, the distant resources and the broad reach of the war all exposed the underlying frailty of the British Empire. Two World Wars was all it took to end an empire that had been 500 years in the making.

What we hold in common with the British Empire is the causal assumption that things are the way they are naturally, that we cannot change the inherent status quo in our lives. Canada, the United States and Europe are rich nations because they are naturally rich nations, and not the result of a combination luck, science, philosophy and culture that have conspired to land us where we are today.

We live in a breakable society, one that doesn’t realize how fragile it is. In the past few years it has been tested in a multitude of ways, and this year is no exception. Brexit isn’t even the worst of how it can be. Syria has been reduced to rubble, Turkey has essentially lapsed into a dictatorship, with Russia having gone the same way. Venezuela, which I wrote about earlier, has moved from breadlines to mob violence.

Progress isn’t just uneven, it also isn’t guaranteed. Nations, empires and great civilizations have all come and gone, each of them burning brightly, however briefly, before being extinguished. The speed of a decline in Venezuela isn’t just a result of bad management, it is a reflection to just how much support our civilization needs. The rise of the new introverted nationalism doesn’t see this, and has sought an imagined self sufficiency as a way to relieve temporary difficulties. If people thought that the EU was difficult to deal with when you were a part fo it, wait until you aren’t.

Capture

Brexit is a choice that is both scary and appealing because it is scary. For an entire generation there may never be a choice like this again, a chance to permanently alter the geopolitical landscape, even with little understanding of what those changes can mean or do. Whether Britain will be poorer or richer over the next decade may ultimately hinge on the vote this Friday. Far more frightening is whether our ability to build something lasting, powerful but fragile will be permanently undone in the European sphere.

Notes from the Edge

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The June 18th cover for The Spectator

 

With the BREXIT vote now only days away its worth taking a moment to consider the dramatic political shift that seems to be happening around the globe. Where once left/right politics dominated, or pro-capitalism vs. pro-socialist forces clashed, today the challenge is far more frightening. Today we sit on the brink of the end of the new internationalism and face the rise of old nationalism.

In Jon Ronson’s funny and insightful book THEM: Adventures with Extremists, the author describes his final meeting with a founding member of the Bilderberg Group (yes, that Bilderberg Group) Lord Healy, who explains that at the end of the Second World War a real effort was made to encourage trade and economic growth as a way of deferring future wars. The Bilderberg Group is but one of many, slightly shadowy and often undemocratic, organizations that exist to further those goals, encouraging powerful people to air out their issues and discuss ways to make that vision of the world more likely.

But for millions of people the new internationalism that has been fostered through trade agreements, globalization and corporatism has made the world more hostile to millions of “left behind” voters. It has seemingly given power to cigarette manufactures in Africa, or created unfair and uncompetitive “tax free zones” in South Pacific nations. It has fostered sweatshops in Sri Lanka, dangerous factories in Bangladesh, all at the expense of industrial workers in Western developed nations. In Europe this internationalism is blamed for feckless leadership on humanitarian, fiscal and bureaucratic issues. In America it is blamed for the rust belt through the mid-west.

The response to the growing frustration on all these issues has been a resurgence of nationalism and political “strong-men”. Putin’s Crimea grab was as much about returning pride to Russia as it was about diverting attention from his own domestic issues, reestablishing  Russia’s place as a significant regional power. Across Europe there are rumblings, both of renewed regional nationalism from within countries, as well as growing concern that a “leave vote” in Brexit could destabilize the entire EU experiment. In the United States these issues have given power to the Donald Trump populism, but have also fired the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Energy to these issues have undoubtedly been fueled as a result of 2008, a disaster so wide reaching and so disruptive to the Internationalist narrative about the skill set of the political and corporate classes that it shouldn’t be surprising that millions of people seem ready to do irreparable harm to the status quo. The subsequent inability to provide a strong and sustained economic recovery like some recessions of the past has only made matters worse. Every ill, every short coming, every poor decision and every injustice inherent within the structure that we inhabit is now expected to be resolved by setting the whole thing on fire and assuming that the problem is solved.

I am constantly surprised by how little people actually want to see changed by referendums like these. During the Scottish Referendum, the expectation was that Scotland would continue on exactly as it does, but without any association to London. The Leave campaign in Britain is quite sure that while Britain will no longer be part of the common market, a deal can be worked out that will allow free trade to continue unabated and for British people who live in places like Spain and Italy to continue to do so without visas or travel restrictions. Donald Trump is quite convinced that he can have a trade war with China without upsetting American business interests there, and the host of smaller countries like Venezuela or Turkey can slide into despotism without adverse impacts to their international reputation.

We’re at the edge, with the mob pushing for change (any change) with little real understanding of the consequences. It is little surprise that the technocrats and political establishment are so unlikable and so uninspiring in the face of the radicals and revolutionaries that want to see a sizable change that can’t be brought about until everything is torn down. And while it is true that the status quo can’t remain, it is equally unlikely that the end of the EU, or a British exit will stem the tide of migrants from Eritrea, or that tearing up NAFTA will return factories to Michigan, or that Marine Le Pen can turn the clock back on France and bring back the beret.

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I expect market volatility over the next while as investors and deal makers try and figure out the correct response to either a leave or remain vote. If Britain does leave, the next 100 days will be telling as pronouncements will be made to try and smooth the troubled waters. But the real work will come in the next 2 years, as negotiations will begin to do all the hard work that the referendum creates. You can’t just burn it all down, you have to build something in its place. How successful the reformers are at the latter will be the real test of the new nationalism.

 

This House Kills the Middle Class

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This house sold for $1,000,000 in Vancouver. Is it houses that are in demand, or land?

In the mountains of articles written about Toronto’s exuberant housing market, one aspect of it continues to be overlooked, and surprisingly it may be the most important and devastating outcome of an unchecked housing bubble. Typically journalistic investigation into Toronto’s (or Vancouver’s) rampant real estate catalogues both the madness of the prices and the injustice of a generation that is increasingly finding itself excluded from home ownership, finally concluding with some villain that is likely driving the prices into the stratosphere. The most recent villain du-jour has been “foreign buyers”, prompting news articles for whether their should be a foreign buyer tax or not.

What frequently goes missing in these stories are the much more mundane reasons for a housing market to continue climbing. That is that in the 21st century cities, like Toronto, now command an enormous importance in a modern economy while the more rural or suburban locations have ceased to be manufacturing centres and are now commuter towns. Combined with a growing interest in the benefits of urban living and the appeal of cities like Toronto its no surprise that Toronto is the primary recipient of new immigrants and wayward Canadians looking for new opportunities.

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Toronto itself, however, has mixed feelings about it’s own growth. City planners have made their best efforts to blend both the traditional idea of Toronto; green spaces, family homes and quiet neighbourhoods, with the increasing need of a vertical city. Toronto has laid out its plans to increase density up major corridors while attempting to leave residential neighbourhoods intact. Despite that, lots of neighbourhood associations continue to fight any attempt at “density creep”. Many homeowners feel threatened by the increasing density and fear the loss of their local character and safety within their neighbourhoods, at times outlandishly so. Sometimes this comically backfires, but more often than not developers find themselves in front of the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) fighting to get a ruling that will allow them to go ahead with some plan, much to the anger of local residents and partisan city councillors.

The result is that Toronto seems to be growing too fast and not fast enough simultaneously, and in the process it is  setting up the middle class to be the ultimate victims of its own schizophrenic behaviour.

High house prices go hand in hand with big mortgages. The bigger home prices get the more average Canadians must borrow for a house. Much of the frightening numbers about debt to income ratios for Canadians is exclusively the result of mortgage debt, while another large chunk is HELOCs (home equity lines of credit). Those two categories of debt easily dwarf credit cards or in store financing. This suits banks and the BoC not simply because houses are considered more stable, but because banks have very little at risk in the financial relationship.

To illustrate why banks have so little at risk, you only need to look at a typical mortgage arrangement. Say you buy a $1 million home with a 20% down payment, the bank would lend you $800,000 for the rest of the purchase. But assume for a second that housing prices then suddenly collapse, wiping out 20% of home values, how much have you lost? Well its a great deal more than 20%. Because the bank has the senior claim on the debt, the 20% of equity wiped out translates into a 100% loss for you, the buyer. The bank on the other hand still has an $800,000 investment in your home that must be paid back.

Bank vs you

By itself this isn’t a problem, but financial stability and comfort is built around having a set of diversified resources to fall back on. In 2008, in the United States, home owners in the poorest 20% of the population saw not just their home prices collapse, but also all of their financial resources. On average if you were part of the bottom 20% you only had $1 in other assets for every $4 in home equity. By comparison the richest 20% had $4 in other assets for every $1 in home equity. The richest Americans weren’t just better off because they had more money, but because they had a diversified pool of assets that could spread the risk around. Since the stock market bounced back so quickly while much of the housing market lagged the result was a widening of wealth inequality following 2008.

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The impact of 2008 on household net worth by quintile. From House of Debt by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi

In Toronto the situation is a little different. Exorbitant house prices means lots of people have the bulk of their assets tied up in home equity. Funding the enormous debt of a house may preclude investing outside the home or building up retirement reserves in RRSPs and TFSAs. A change in interest rates, or a general correction in the housing market would have the effect of both wiping out savings while simultaneously raising the burden that debt places on families.

The issue of debt is one that the  government and the BoC take seriously, yet despite the potential impact of high debt levels on Canadians and the looming threat it poses to the economy the mood has remained largely indifferent. The BoC, under the governorship of Stephen Poloz, has said that it isn’t worried too much about Canada’s housing market. This isn’t because there isn’t a huge risk that it could implode, but because even if it does it is unlikely to start a run on the banks. By comparison the view of Stephen Poloz on the debt levels of Canadians is that its your problem. A curious stance given that the BoC’s position has been to try and stimulate the economy with low borrowing rates.

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There will probably never be as full throated a reason for my job than the burden the Toronto housing market places on Canadians. From experience we know that concentrating wealth inside a home contributes to economic fragility, potentially robbing home owners of longer term goals and squeezing out smart financial options. But far more important now is that city councillors and home owners come to realize that the housing market is more prison than home, shackling the city to ever more tenuous tax sources and weakening the finances of the middle class. Until then, smart financial planning alongside home ownership is still in the best interests of Canadian families.

The Robot Revolution Will Cost $15/hour

The future is already here – It’s just not very evenly distributed

William Gibson

Back in August of 2015 McDonald’s started rolling out self serve kiosks into it’s “restaurants”. McDonald’s was quick to point out that the arrival of the touch screen ordering stations would not endanger jobs, and that McDonald’s as you know it will continue on; producing sub-par food that you will regret eating 20 minutes after you’ve finished.

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This is patently false (not the food bit, but the employment bit), but that doesn’t mean McDonald’s is lying. They too may think that speeding up ordering won’t impact jobs. But this is what the robot revolution looks like. Not a mass movement to unemployment, but a gradual reduction in the number of jobs available.

Typically when people think about job loss they tend to think of blue collar, formerly middle class factory work that has been outsourced to overseas production. That makes sense because it is one of the most visible forms of improved productivity. But people didn’t move factories to China because they had the most advanced robotics. They moved to China because they (initially) had the cheapest labour. The productivity increase was not one of improved output through advanced manufacturing, but a much older standard of fundamentally cheap human labour.

Factories that have stayed in North America and Europe have largely been the beneficiary of more robotic improvements. But these robots, despite improving consistency, wiped out thousands of jobs. In towns like Flint Michigan, where GM once employed 80,000 people in 1980, they employed fewer than 8000 by 2010. But the scars left by yanking thousands of jobs from a community are hard to shake and they may have sculpted our modern thoughts on what the robot revolution will look like. But it is wrong.

If you want to see what the revolution will actually look like, look no further than the airline industry. Around the same time that General Motors was starting to outsource suppliers or introduce new robotics to the factory floor a subtle shift in technology effectively began to eliminate 1/3 of the jobs from airlines. Because starting in the 1980s airplanes no longer needed a flight engineer.

People don’t often think of a flight engineer, but as once the third person in a cockpit on most commercial jets his job was made obsolete by better computers. Today, out of fleets and fleets of aircrafts there are no flight engineers, but nobody is launching into long winded speeches in congress about it, no protests have been scheduled and Michael Moore has yet to make a movie about their job loss. The reason for this it is obvious, flight engineers were phased out as new technology was brought in, not let go on mass. Over time there were simply fewer jobs until there were none. Students didn’t study to become them because they knew the job was unlikely to exist, and pilots, while the loss of the flight engineer might have been initially unnerving, became attuned to more computers handling stuff in the cockpit. While new pilots didn’t miss what had never been there.

How many flight engineers do we not have? That’s a hard number to come up with, but assuming that an FE was necessary person in all airplanes means that American Airlines employs roughly 7000 fewer people than it would have needed to otherwise. If you are looking at the number of flights per day globally, including all the cargo and travel flights, that’s 100,000 flights. Assuming that a crew only does one flight a day (shut-up, I know that’s not accurate) that’s 100,000 fewer people who don’t hold a job because it doesn’t exist.

In the retail space then, we won’t see people laid-off, so much as we will simply see fewer people hired. As minimum wages continue to creep up in a vain effort to try and improve living standards (and yes it is in vain and I don’t have time to explain why in this article) the value in adding a robot that can fold t-shirts becomes far more appealing. It won’t mean firing every person who works in the GAP, but it will likely mean that each GAP store employs fewer people over the long term.

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This is the abandoned Packard factory in Detroit, at its peak employed 6 times as many people as the future Tesla factory 

 

That’s what the robot revolution looks like. A gradual, but persistent reduction in the needed number of people to fulfill a set job. It’s why when Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump talk about unfair trade practices they really can’t undo what has already been done. Even as “good paying factory jobs” return to the United States, fewer and fewer of them reach the shore. Tesla’s Gigafactory 1, the largest building by area on the planet, will only employ 6500 people. By comparison, the Packard Factory in Detroit (the world’s largest abandoned factory) employed 40,000 people at it’s peak. The robot revolution promises to do this to every job, over time as more and more menial aspects of work can be reliably handed over to more complex bots.

So when McDonald’s says that it’s new self-serving terminals won’t threaten jobs, they may mean it but we should know that they are wrong. McDonald’s pioneered standardization in the food industry. They made people into robots long before robots were common. They should know above all, that new cheaper and versatile robotics will in the long term reduce their number of employees, a reality that will speed up as minimum wages continue to rise.

What a Real Economic Collapse Looks Like – The Slow Death of Venezuela

Hey, millennials, which socialist nation is about to implode? Did you guess Venezuela? Because its Venezuela.

Food Line

This is what a bread line looks like in the 21st Century.

For those less in the know about what is happening to Venezuela, the country is nearing a total economic collapse, brought about by a decade and a half of total mismanagement by an old-school socialist dictator entirely in keeping with the historical context of South America.

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The author of this book is completely serious. I mean it.

Once hailed as a hero by such famous radicals as author Tariq Ali and professional curmudgeon Naom Chomsky, Hugo Chavez was the ideal socialist leader for a number of people who would never have to live under his dictatorial reign. Chavez nationalized oil companies and provided extensive programs for Venezuela’s extensive poor. But more than a decade on, and three years following his death Venezuela’s luck has seemingly run out.

Chavez’s hand picked replacement, President Nicolás Maduro, has kept on with Chavez’s well established tradition of blaming all of his nation’s problems on the United States since he took office in 2013. But the reality is that Venezuela has been a victim of it’s own poor planning and it’s outcome entirely predictable.

Having made the cornerstone of it’s economy the export of oil, the nation has suffered greatly for three reasons. First, Dutch Disease, or the result of a rising value of a domestic currency as a result of selling an extensive natural resource. Put simply, nations that sell a lot of oil tend to have a petro-currency, which makes domestic manufacturing less competitive on the global stage.

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On Hugo Chavez, Chomsky said that “for the first time, the country is using…energy resources for its development…in construction and health.”

Second, cronyism; Chavez was old school in his commitment to creating a personality cult around him. Positioning himself as the savior of the poor he did many things to try and improve the lives (and earn the love) of Venezuela’s many impoverished people. But in the course of that he also removed anyone who might be his opposition. From the standpoint of the management of Venezuela’s oil reserves it has meant poor production and no new investment. Oil production fell 25% in the time Chavez ran the country.

Bloomber Venezuela

The last reason is of course the price of oil. As oil prices fell the fragility of the economic system made itself obvious. Today Venezuela is broke and the look of total economic collapse is depressing and scary. Inflation is out of control. Some estimates say inflation will hit 189% this year, while the IMF thinks it will be 720%. To fight the growing poverty, which is now 76% and up from 55% in 1998, the government has hiked the minimum wage by 30%; the twelfth such hike since President Nicolás Maduro took office. Real wages fell last year by 35% and their currency has lost over 90% of its value in two years.

Bolivar vs Dollar

The people of Venezuela now face a frightening prospect that any economic recovery will be decades away, and that the policies followed by their socialist government have made them an outlier from the largely positive trends that have been improving life across many developing nations. But this is not about hypothetical future problems, but current issues. There is no food in Venezuela, no toilet paper, no basic necessities and no prospect for reversing course. In January this year the government told people they would have to begin producing their own food, a follow-up from governments telling farmers that they would have to sell their food to the government at pre-determined prices.

Global Poverty

Global rates of poverty have collapsed and now sit at under 10%. Sadly this isn’t the case for Venezuela. (Read the article here)

Unsurprisingly, none of this bodes well for Venezuela’s population. Violence is a real potential and people are wondering when (or if) Maduro will step down, and whether a government change can occur without violence. So far he has resisted and despite the recent loss of congressional elections he still holds sway over the judiciary and economic appointments. In fact his current economic czar doesn’t believe in inflation. No really.

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All this leads to some disquieting truths, most important of which is that economic realities catch up to everyone. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the so called “End of History” there has been a growing warmness to socialism by a generation who has never experienced it. Venezuela is a good reminder that bad economic policies are always bad, and the economic challenges we all face, be it poverty, damaging wealth inequliaty, globalised manufacturing or predatory banking do not resolve themselves magically with a flip of the switch and friendly socialist rhetoric. Instead those problems must be solved within the system, not by destroying it.

Burning It All Down – The Rise of Trump’s Conservatism

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Last August I wrote that Donald Trump was my pick for the Republican nominee, despite his incessant self-aggrandizing style and boorish behavior. I wrote that article because I saw something in Trump that reminded me of Rob Ford, a call back to an angry populism that favours the loud and obnoxious precisely because they are loud and obnoxious. Trump’s style of bombast is a snub to a political elite that adopt a façade of manners that suggest cordial rivalry, even while private donations and Super PACs flood the airways with crude, misleading and sometimes plain false advertising.

Despite a continued and coordinated assault on Trump by the core Republican establishment, Trump went from an outside contender to the leader of the pack. In fact the more that it seemed like the establishment was aligned against him the more support coalesced around him. And last night it seemed that enough of that support had come together to make him the presumptive nominee.

With Ted Cruz and John Kaisch now mathematically eliminated from any chance of a first round win, and the likelihood of a contested convention becoming more dubious as Trump narrows in on his needed delegates, it might be time for people to move past the look of Trump’s rhetoric and into what he’s actually saying. Because this election doesn’t bode well for anyone, but it is very much in keeping with the times.

The times, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock, are not being kind to the neoliberal world that has defined much of the 1990s and early 2000s. America’s foreign influence is waning, the middle class is shrinking, economies are floundering and the European Union is struggling to hold it all together. From a resurgent Russia to a migrant crises and angry middle class voters, this year is testing the resolve of political organizations and global partnerships to continue to do what they do; knock down borders, free up trade and move people across the planet. Citizens across much of the West now doubt many of the promises that have been made to them, notably that more free trade would make us all rich and that people from far flung lands are just like us with similar values.

That doubt about the modern world has been fueling the campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and a close look at their platforms shows some important overlap. But with Bernie Sanders also likely eliminated from any chance of the nomination the general election may come down to an establishment candidate in Hillary Clinton and the now (kind of) anti-establishment Donald Trump.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric is decidedly conservative in an old-school kind of way. His commitment to building a wall across the border with Mexico, to ignoring much of the Middle East and backing away from trade deals with China is reminiscent of a 1940s style conservativism and is a direct challenge to the current establishment view on all of these issues. I’m not convinced that Hillary Clinton, dragging her own varied and damning baggage with her, will be up to the challenge of convincing the voting public to continue to support the neoliberalism that she is so closely tied with. It seems even more unlikely that she could become the credible liberal standard bearer for an anti neoliberal platform at all.

I had initially said that Trump was my pick for nominee because the Republicans had become a tired shell of their former selves, squandering elections by ostracizing women, minorities and urban voters in favour of curmudgeonly racists, the science skeptics and the frighteningly devout. The election cycle, spent pandering to this shrinking group of largely social conservatives, was handing the democrats election after election. As I said in the summer, one party shouldn’t be electable and the other crazy. This election may indeed offer some real alternatives about the kind of world that Americans may want to live in.

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You don’t understand Picard! Trump became president in my timeline! Mars is overrun with casinos, and not the nice ones from Vegas, the kind from Atlantic City.

 

So rather than wring our hands at a Trump election has the end of all things, let’s cast this election to something akin to Brexit, another insurgency by an increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied middle class that has come to suspect that their leaders no longer work for them, but for larger more self-interested groups that tend to congregate in Swiss towns and busy themselves with networking and back patting. If Trump is successful in his Whitehouse bid we may be surprised at the kind of world that is ushered in to being; one that is increasingly isolated, protectionist and introverted. If that isn’t a wakeup call to TED Talk speaker’s circuit, I don’t know what will be.

 

*** I’ve taken some time off of writing our articles to focus on work and family, but I’m feeling rejuvenated now and will be back with our weekly outlook on the world. Sorry if you’ve missed us!***

The Blind Men & The Elephant

1280px-Blind_monks_examining_an_elephantMarkets have reached six or seven week highs, (HIGHS I say!) and questions are arising as to whether this represents a sustained recovery.

The crystal ball is decidedly opaque on that question, not simply because there is an abundance of conflicting data, but because more of it is produced everyday. Add to that the fact that the “mood” often dictates much of the day’s trading, plus the often counter-intuitive reality that sometimes sufficiently bad news is considered good news in its own right.

Take for example China’s financial woes. China’s economy is definitely slowing, and the tools used in the past to spur Chinese growth are no longer useful in the same way. To summarize, the Chinese economy got big by building big things; cities, ports, factories, and other big infrastructure to facilitate its role as a manufacturer to the world. In turn the world sold China many of the resources needed to do that. Now the Chinese are up their eyeballs in highways and empty cities they must “transition” to a service economy, essentially an economy that now serves its people rather than the rest of the planet.

Such a transition is no easy thing, and to the best of my knowledge there is no law that says the Chinese government is somehow more adept at managing such a transition. But every bit of bad news may either make investors nervous, or give them hope that the Chinese government may be encouraged to do more economic stimulus. Moody’s, the ratings agency, recently downgraded their outlook on Chinese debt from stable to negative, and downgraded their credit rating. The market’s response?

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That big jump is after they received the downgrade! We see similar patterns out of Europe and the United States. Raising US interest rates has been widely decried by various financial types and talking heads, urging the Federal reserve chairman Janet Yellen to either reverse, stop or even consider negative rates to help the economy. Why such panicked response? Because it has become a common thought that raising rates is now more damaging that the requirement of lowering them!

This has less to do though with distortions in the market and more to do with people trying to accurately read and project from various data points, even when many of those reports conflict. In the short term the abundance of conflicting news creates a blind men and the elephant relationship between investors and economies. Everybody is feeling their way around but all coming back with wildly different descriptions of what is happening.

Janet Yellen

Janet Yellen has raised interest rates and has said she expects to raise rates four more times this year. She has met serious opposition on this matter from many within the financial sector.

What we do know is that there are some big problems in the markets and economies, and the threat of a global recession is very real. What day traders and analysts are looking for is confirmation on whether this threat is easing or not. So, if we suddenly read that managers see a contraction in oil production we might see a sudden rise in the value of crude oil. That news has to be weighed against that fact that global oil supply is still growing, and whether it still makes sense to price oil by its available supply, or against its expected future reduced production.

And that is the challenge. Big problems take time to sort out, and in the intervening period as they are addressed the blind men of the markets make lots of little moves trying to bet on early outcomes, attempting to assess the correct value of a thing often before a clear picture is actually there. For investors the message is to be cautious, both in making large bets or by trying to avoid risk all together. It is a mantra here in our office on the benefits of diversification and risk management, precisely because it reminds us to hold positions even when the mood has soured greatly, and shy away from investments that have become too popular. The goal of investors should to not be one of the blind men, guessing about what they touch, but to make irrelevant that shape of the markets altogether.