What “The Big Short” Can Tell Us About Market Risk

I81wBzBcSclL‘ve just had a chance to watch the movie The Big Short, based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis has made a name for himself as a writer for being able to explain complex issues, often involving sophisticated math that befuddles the general population but is responsible for much of the financial chaos that has defined the last decade.

The principle of our story is Dr. Michael Burry, a shrewd investor whose unique personal qualities gives him the patience to tear apart one of the most complicated financial structures in modern finance. Having done that he creates a new market for a few people who had the foresight to see the US housing bubble and how far the crash might reach. The story is captivating and the tension builds to what we know is the inevitable conclusion of the worlds biggest crash, but there is a problem with the story.

No matter what they do in the movie, we know how it all ends. That hindsight undercuts the real tension in the film, the risk that these few traders and hedge fund managers took with other people’s money to bet against what were largely considered to be safe investments. In some ways, the US housing crash is unique because of how much institutionalized corruption had seeped into the system. The ratings agencies who sold their AAA ratings for the business, the mortgage brokers who pushed through unfit candidates into subprime adjustable rate mortgages, the analysts and financial specialists that repackaged low grade mortgages into AAA rated bonds; it took all of them and more to create the biggest market bubble since the South Sea.

Their smart move seems like lock, but if you look past the drama the heroic brokers of our story were taking a huge gamble with other people’s money. From Dr. Michael Burry down through the rest of the characters, hundreds of millions, billions even, were tied up in investments that few understood but carried incredible potential for losses. The confidence that our heroes show in demanding “half a billion more” as they come to understand the scope of the problem seem smart in hindsight, but they were making big bets. Bets that could have easily ruined people’s lives and finances.

This is the true nature of risk. Things are only certain in hindsight. At the moment we need to make decisions rarely do we possess the kind of clarity that we believe we should have when dealing with markets. If we look to current markets what can we honestly say we know about tomorrow? Markets are chaotic, oil prices are in the tank, central bankers are talking about negative interest rates (while some have gone and done it), and then we will have 2 or 3 days of market rallies. What picture should we draw from this? What certainty do we have about tomorrow’s performance?

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From Bloomberg

Our problem is that when we are inclined towards certainty we are also inclined towards fantastic risk. In fact we won’t even believe there is risk if we are certain of an outcome. And we are prone to lionizing people who risk it all and are proved to be right, while forgetting all those people who made similar gambles and lost everything, leading us to repeat a mistake that has undone many.

The story we need isn’t the one about the people who bet big and won. We need the story about the people who bet smart and navigated confusing and risky markets and came out fine. That story sadly won’t have the kind of impact or drama that we long for in a movie, but it’s the story that each and every investor should want to be part of.

The Secret Meaning Of Numbers

Money Can

This week a curious thing happened. A bank said that Canadians were hoarding too much cash.

Being chastised for having too much money on the sidelines and not invested is one of those things that raises suspicions about whether the financial talking heads really do have our best interests at heart. After all, hasn’t this been the worst beginning to a market in memory? Aren’t there countless problems across multiple markets right now? Are we not worried about the global economy? Have we not just ended a dismal 2015?

In fairness to CIBC and it’s chief economist, it is understandable why they are concerned about the reported $75 billion sitting on the sidelines. Cash doesn’t grown and historically market timing works out badly for most practicing it. People sell when the market is down and neglect to get back in as it goes up, crystallizing losses and missing out on the gains. Smart investing means riding through the markets, rebalancing and being patient. That’s the Warren Buffet way.

Except..

Except people aren’t Warren Buffet. RRSPs and TFSAs and other investment accounts are not here to fulfill the larger ambitions of Berkshire Hathaway. They are here to facilitate people’s retirement, a date the looms much larger for more people than ever before. Just consider that if you were 37 in 1990, you were 48 when the market had its first big drop in the early 2000s. You were 55 in 2008, and today you’d be 63. You’re tolerance for risk has decreased significantly in that time as you hurdle towards the date that you will have earned the last dollar you’ll ever make. Under those circumstances taking money to the sidelines may be as much an act of self preservation as it is investment heresy.

I could end this article here, but what is so interesting about the $75 billion number is who is actually hoarding that money and what it may actually be telling us about Canadian finances, because it’s not what you think.

Excess Cash

Above is the cash position compared with the historic trend line dating back to 1992. In keeping with both the aging population and the ongoing volatility in the markets growth in the cash positions is understandable, if not always desirable. But look what happens when we look at who is hoarding cash.

Who has the excess cash

Bizarrely it is people under the age of 35 who have the largest percentage of wealth in cash, close to 35% of their available money. Now, if you are over the age of 45 the average cash position is 15% (roughly) which would account for the vast bulk of the derided $75 billion. But even if the under 35 set have less money, why are they holding onto so much of it?

The answer I suspect is both disheartening and concerning, a blend of uncertain finances, savings for down payments on property and the result of bad financial advice. The first two are well documented, both the challenges of making ends meet and the unfavourable housing market towards first time buyers. But the last issue should make us all perk up our heads, for it represents a failure of the financial community to help young investors get good advice.

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I do everything on my phone!

How does the millennial generation do things? On their phones mostly. Cue the eye roll from anyone under 30 at this gross simplification, but it holds up. The rise of smart phones as a staple of doing things has provided a veneer of knowledge on numerous issues, while encouraging a culture of DIY so long as there is an app to facilitate it. This shift is so profound that back in 2011 Rogers Media applied to start its own bank (which came to fruition in 2013). Why? Well what else do you do in an age where everyone is looking for the cheapest credit cards and the best loyalty program when you control just over 30% of the wireless market in Canada?  If you can pay for things with your phones, why couldn’t you also manage your retirement with your smart phone too?

Young people also don’t have that much money, which has created an indifference from much of the financial community. Rather than cultivate young investors they have been relegated to the sidelines, encouraged to do business with one of the rotating in-store financial advisors, or have been asked at the counter to make a spur of the moment investment decision. Some may have given tried to use the “robot-advisor”, while some will try and do it themselves and many more will do nothing at all.

Profitability drives much of the indifference from the business community, while societally there hasn’t been much for young people to look forward to in the investing world. Far from the heady days of the 1980s and 1990s, the 2000s have been tumultuous and filled with cynicism. The crash of 2008 may have left many investors shaken but it’s also likely put off a number of young people who see no value in it and assume (if the popularity of Bernie Sanders is proof of anything) that the game is rigged against them.

I’m already of the opinion that much of our society is too geared towards helping out the “senior” demographic, but this isn’t a competition between generations. Instead it’s about making sure that we aren’t just looking to satisfying immediate needs but managing to the needs of the future as well. The lessons for a younger generation if they are ignored by financial professionals will not be the ones we want. The help and hands on guidance that has been a cornerstone of sound management for the past thirty years in Canada is not some natural order set in stone. It is the product of outreach and continued effort to develop good habits in both saving and investing. Ignoring a generation will be at our peril and theirs.

You don’t need lots of money to begin saving to have lots of money. We’re taking on young investors. Give us a call and benefit from our personalized and dedicated approach that has defined us for 22 years!

Are Economists Incompetent or Just Unhelpful?

 

 

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When economists get things wrong their missteps are practically jaw dropping. Despite making themselves the presumed source of useful information about economies, interest rates and economic management, often it seems that the economists are learning with the rest of us, testing ideas under the guise of sage and knowledgable advice. Their bias is almost always positive and the choices they make can be confounding.

As an example, let us consider the case of the Bank of Canada (BoC).

If there are perennial optimists in this world they must be employed at the BoC, for no one else has ever stared more danger in the face and assumed that everything will be fine.

For those not in the know, the BoC publishes a regular document called the Financial System Review, a bi-annual breakdown of the largest threats that could undo the Canadian economy and destabilize our financial system. Because they are the biggest problems we tend to live with them over a long time and thanks to the Financial System Review we can see how these dangers are presumed to ebb and flow over time.

For instance, two years ago the four biggest dangers according to the BoC were:

  1. A sharp correction in house prices
  2. A sharp increase in long-term interest rates.
  3. Stress emanating from China and other Emerging Markets
  4. Financial stress from the euro area.

Helpfully the BoC doesn’t just list these problems but also provides the presumed severity and likelihood of them coming to pass and places them in a useful chart.

Here is what that chart looked like in June of 2014:

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The worst risk? A Canadian housing price correction. The likelihood of that happening? very low. Meanwhile stress from the Euro area and China rate higher in terms of possibility but lower in terms of impact.

By the end of 2014 the chart looked like this:

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Unchanged.

Interestingly the view from the BoC was that there was no perceivable difference in the risks to the Canadian market. Despite a Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the sudden collapse in the price of oil and the continued growth of Canadian debt, the primary threats to Canada’s economy remained unmoved.

So what changed by the time we got to mid 2015?

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The June 2105 FSR helpfully let Canadians know that, presumably, threats to Canada’s economy had actually decreased, at least with regards to problems from the euro area. This is curious because at that particular moment Greece was engaged in a game of brinkmanship with Germany, the IMF and the European Bank. Though Greece would go on to technically default and then get another bailout only further kicking the can down the road, the view from the BoC was that things were better.

Interestingly the price of oil had also continued to decline in that period, and the BoC had been forced to make a surprise rate cut at the beginning of the year. Debt levels were still piling up, and there was a worrying uptick in the use of non-regulated private lenders to help get mortgages.

None of that, according to the analysts at the Bank of Canada, apparently mattered. At least not enough to move the needle.

The December 2015 FSR is now out, and if we are to take a retrospective on the year we might point to a few significant events. To begin, the economy was doing so poorly in the summer that the BoC did a second rate cut, which was followed by further news that the country had technically entered a recession (but nobody cared). Europe’s migrant crisis reached a tipping point, costing money and the risking the stability of the EU. Germany’s largest auto maker is under investigation for a serious breach in ethics and falsifying test results. China’s stock market began falling in July, and the Chinese government was forced to cut interest rates 5 times in the past year. The United States did their first rate hike, a paltry 25 bps, but even that has helped spur a big jump in the value of the US dollar. Meanwhile the Canadian dollar fell by nearly 20% by the end of 2015.

And the Bank of Canada says:

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Things are better? Or not as severe?

In two years of producing these charts, despite continued worsening of the financial pictures for Canada, China, the EU and even the United States, the BoC’s view is still pretty rosy. What would it take to change any of this?

Whether they are right or not isn’t at issue. It’s the future and it is unknowable. What is at issue is how we perceive risk and how ideas about risk are communicated by the people and institutions who we trust to provide that guidance. This information is meaningless if we can’t understand its parameters and confusing if a worsening situation seems to change nothing about underlying risk.

As you read this I expect the Chinese and global markets to be performing better this morning on reassuring news about Chinese GDP. But I would ask you, has the risk dissipated or is it still there, just buried under positive news and investor relief? It’s a good question and exactly the kind that could use an honest answer from an economist.

 

The Difference Between Mostly Dead, and Dead

8463430_origThe first (and so far only) good day in the markets for 2016 shouldn’t go by without instilling some hope in us investors. The latter half of 2015 and the first weeks of 2016 have many convinced that the market bull is thoroughly dead, having exited stage left pursued by a bear (appropriate for January). The toll taken by worsening news out of China, falling oil, and the rising US dollar have left markets totally exhausted and despondent. But is the bull dead, or just mostly dead? Because there’s a big difference between all dead and mostly dead. In other words, is there a case to be made for a resurgence?

I am, by nature, a contrarian. I have an aversion to large groups of people sharing the same opinion. It strikes me as lazy, and inevitably many of the adherents don’t ultimately know why they hold the views that they do. They’ve just gotten swept up in the zeitgeist and now swear their intellectual loyalty to some idea because everyone else has. And when I look at the market today, I do think there is a contrarian case for a market recovery. Not yet, it’s too early, but there are reasons to be hopeful.

Letters_to_a_Young_Contrarian

This book had a big impact on me growing up.

First, let’s consider the reasons we have for driving down the value of most shares. Oil prices. The price of oil has come to seemingly dictate much of the mood. Oil’s continued weakness speaks to deflation concerns, and stands in for China. It’s price is undermining the economies of many countries, not least of which is Canada. It’s eating into the profits of some of the biggest companies around. It’s precipitous fall has lent credence to otherwise outlandish predictions about the future value. Yet this laser like focus on oil has eclipsed anything else that could turn the tide in the market. Other news no longer matters, as the oil price comes to speak for wider concerns about China and growth prospects for the rest of the world. In the price of oil people now see the fate of the world.

That’s foolish, and precisely the kind of narrow mindset that leads to indiscriminate overselling. The very definition of babies and bathwater. And negativity begets more negativity. The more investors fear the worse the sentiment gets, leading to ever greater sell-offs. Better than expected news out of China, continued employment growth from the US, and the fundamental global benefit of cheap energy are being discounted by markets today, but still represent fundamental truths about economies that will bring life to our mostly dead bull tomorrow.

Don’t mistake me, I’m not trying to downplay the fundamental challenges that markets and economies are facing. Canada has real financial issues. They are not driven by sentiment, they are tangible and measurable. But they are also fixable, and they do not and will not affect every company equally. The same is true for China, just as it is true for the various oil producers the world over. What we should be wary of is letting the negative sentiment in the markets harden into an accepted wisdom that we hold too dear.

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Put another way, are the issues we are facing today as bad or worse than 2011, or even 2008? I’d argue not, and becoming too transfixed by the current market sentiment, the panicked selling and the ridiculous declarations by some market analysts only plays into bad financial management and will blind you to the opportunities the markets will present when a bottom is hit and numbers improve.

So is the bull dead? No. He is only mostly dead and there is a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. We will navigate this downturn, being mindful of both the bad news and the good news. Investors should seek appropriate financial advice from their financial advisors and remember that being too negative is just another form of complacency, a casual acceptance of the world as it currently appears, but may not actually be.

Remember, the bull is slightly alive and there’s still lots to live for.

For over 20 years we have been helping Canadians navigate difficult markets like this, by meeting in their homes and discussing their personal situations around the kitchen table. If you are looking for help, would like a complimentary review of your portfolio, or simply want to chat about your finances, please contact us today.

Hyperbole and a Half: Terrible Financial Advice

bear market

Walking into my office this morning I was bracing for yet another day of significant losses on global markets. It’s a tricky business being a financial advisor in good or bad markets. But seeking growth, balancing risk, and managing people towards a sustainable retirement (a deadline that looms nearer now with every passing year) only grows more challenging in terrible markets like the ones we are in.

In some ways it can seem like divining, working out which thread of thought is the most crucial in understanding the problems afflicting markets and panicking investors. Is the rising US dollar enough to throw off the (somewhat) resurgent American manufacturing sector? Has China actually successfully converted its economy, and is no longer requiring infrastructure projects to drive growth? Is oil oversold, and if so should we be buying it?

Aiding me in this endeavor is the seemingly boundless supply of news media. There is never a moment in my day where I do not have some new information coming my way providing “insight” into the markets. The Economist, the world’s only monthly magazine that comes weekly, begins my day with their “Economist Espresso” email I get every morning. No wake-up period is complete for me without glancing at the Financial Times quickly. My subscription to the Globe and Mail and the National Post never go unattended. Even facebook and Reddit can sometimes provide useful information from around the planet. After that is the independent data supplied by various financial institutions, including banks, mutual fund companies and analysts.

So what should you do when the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) screams across the internet “Sell Everything Before Market Crash”.

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The answer is probably nothing, or at least pause before you hit the big red button. It’s not that they can’t be right, just that they haven’t exactly earned our trust. RBS, if you may recall, was virtually nationalized following losses in 2008, having 83% of the bank sold to the government. In 2010 despite a £1.1 billion loss, paid out nearly £1 billion in bonuses, of which nearly 100 went to senior executives worth over a £1 million each. In 2011 it was fined £28 million for anti-competitive practices. In short, RBS is a hot mess and I suppose it is in keeping with it’s erratic behavior that it should try and insight panic selling the world over with a media grabbing headline like this.

I may be unfair to RBS. I didn’t speak to the analyst personally. The analyst was reported in the Guardian, a newspaper in the UK whose views on capitalism might be best described as ‘Marxist’, and inclined to hyperbole. It’s not as though I am not equally pessimistic about the markets this year, nor am I alone in such an assessment. But it should seem strange to me that an organization whose credibility should still be highly in question, who undid the financial stability of a major bank should also be trusted when calling for mass panic and reckless selling.

The analyst responsible for this startling statement is named Andrew Roberts, and he has since followed up his argument with an article over at the Spectator (I also read that), outlining in his own words the thoughts behind his “sell everything” call, essentially spelling out much of we have said over the past few months in this blog. I find myself agreeing with much of what he has written, and yet can’t bring myself to begin large scale negation of sound financial planning in favour of apoplectic pronouncements that are designed as much to generate headlines and attention as they are to impart financial wisdom.

Panic Selling

The point is not to be dismissive of calls for safety or warnings about dire circumstances. Instead we should be mindful in how we make sense of markets, and how investors should approach shocking headlines like “sell everything”. I am not a fan of passive investing, the somewhat in-vogue idea that you can simply choose your portfolio mix, lean back and check back in once every decade for a negligible cost. I advocate, and continue to advocate for ongoing maintenance in a portfolio. That investors must be vigilante and while they should not have to know all the details of global markets, they should understand how their portfolios seek downside protection. My advice, somewhat less shrill and brimstone-esque , is call your financial advisor, discuss your concerns and be clear on what worst case scenarios might mean to your portfolios and what options are available to you. If you don’t have a financial advisor, feel free to reach out to us too.

Concerned about the markets and need a second opinion? Please drop us a line and we will be in touch…

 

Swiming With Rocks in Your Pockets

drowningSince 2008 governments the world over have tried to fight the biggest banking collapse since the great depression with modest success. Eight years on and you would be loath to say that the world has turned a corner, ushering in a return of unrestrained economic growth.

Why this is the case is a question not just unanswered by the average layman, but by experts as well. Huge amounts of money have been printed, financial institutions have been patched and repaired, interest rates are at all time lows, what more can be done to fix the underlying problems?

It turns out that nobody is really sure, but as we begin 2016 global markets are reeling on the news that the Chinese economy has even greater problems than previously thought. Only a few days into the week and most markets are down in excess of 2-3%, giving rise to concerns that a Chinese led global recession could be on it’s way.

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The S&P/TSX over the past week.

The difference between now and 2008 is that much of the resources used to try and stem the problems from nearly a decade ago have already been deployed, and there is little left in the tank for another round. Central bakers have been trying to get enough inflation into the system to raise interest rates up from “emergency” levels to something more “normal” but outside of the US this seems to have largely failed.

One of the saving graces after 2008 was that the Emerging Markets were seemingly unaffected. In fact, since 2008 the developing world has become more than 50% of global GDP but in that time the rot that often accompanies success has also set in. EM debt is now considerable, putting many countries that had once extremely healthy balance sheets heavily into the red. Borrowing by these nations has increasingly moved away from constructive economic development and more into topping up civil servants and passing on treats to voters.

World GDP

For some, myself included, it has been encouraging that the Chinese have not proven to be the economic übermensch that some had feared. The rise of the state directed economy with boundless growth had many people concerned that China might represent an economic nadir for the planet. To see it every bit as bloated, foolish and corrupt may not be good for markets, but at least takes the bloom off the rose about Chinese economic supremacy.

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Still, this all of this leads to a couple of frightening conclusions. One is that we have yet to come across any rapid comprehensive solution to a global financial crisis like 2008 that can undo the damage and return us to an expected economic prosperity. The second is that we may have been going down the wrong path to resolve the economic problems we face.

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If debt was the driving force behind 2008, you couldn’t argue we’ve done much to alleviate the problem. At best we have merely shifted who holds it. In the United States, the US government took on billions of dollars of debt to stabilize the system. In Europe, despite attempts to reduce balance sheets across the continent, every country has taken on more debt as a result, regardless of whether they are having a strong market recovery, or a weak one. In Canada, arguably one of the worst offenders, private debt and public debt have ballooned at a frightening pace with little to show for it. Rate cuts and government spending are no match it seems for a plummeting oil price and a lack lustre manufacturing sector.

Interest Rates Globally

Having faced the problem of restrictive debt, putting much of the world’s financial markets in grave danger, our response has been to simply acquire more. Greece owes more, Canada owes more, and now the Emerging markets owe more. It was as though while trying to right the economic ship we forgot that we should keep bailing out the water.

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These charts come from an excellent report by McKinsey & Company called Debt and (not much) Deleveraging. You can download it HERE.

 

None of this is to say that every decision since 2008 has been wrong. Following Keynesian policy saved countless jobs and businesses. But at some point we should have also expected to tighten our belts and dispose of some of the debt weighing us down. Instead central banks attempted to stimulate inflation by juicing the consumer economy with incredibly low interest rates. But as we have seen there is only so much that can be done. A combination of persistent deflation, an aging population and extensive debt have largely upended the best efforts to restart the economy on all cylinders.

Economist cover

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Debt makes us financially fragile. It is an obligation and burden on our future selves. But if we found ourselves drowning in debt eight years ago, it is curious we thought the solution would be to add rocks to our pockets and expect to make the swimming easier.

 

Pessimism is in! You Can Keep Your 2016

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At the end of December we pointed out the themes of 2015 were unlikely to disappear into 2016. It’s just that in 2016 we would be more likely to think of those themes as established rather than new. And while that’s certainly the case I didn’t expect 2016 to so openly embraced that principle.

On our first day of business in 2016 the Chinese stock market had tumbled so steeply that market trading had to be shut down. Canadian manufacturing data also showed that Canada had hit its lowest manufacturing point in years and that manufacturing was continuing to decline. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia looks almost poised for war with Iran as tensions continue to heat up over flagrant human rights abuses that finally seemed to cross the line for someone. At the very least we might assume that oil prices would have risen on the growing tensions of the Middle East, but even that has yet to be the case. And while the Canadian dollar continues to tumble, even the United States is starting to show signs of wear on its economy.
So what to do? Eternal optimist might be excited by the prospect of discounted markets, but given the nature and severity of the problems that we currently face, it is difficult to endorse the idea of simply jumping into last year’s losers. Consider China as an example. There have been expectations that China would face serious economic consequences for its boundless growth for a long time. Optimists that predicted that China’s top-down economy was more clever and more sound than our own have clearly now been proven wrong. With so much to unravel does it make sense to invest in China right now? The answer is possibly, but not without taking on considerable risk.
FT China
The same can be said for Canada. Over the last six months the TSX has returned in excess of -12%. Are things cheaper than they were before? Certainly. Is the Canadian economy so healthy and discounted that it presents an irresistible opportunity to invest? Even the optimist would have to concede that’s unlikely. Falling oil, weakening banks, and declining manufacturing all speak for longer term problems that are yet to be resolved.
TSX last year highlight
In a past life when I worked for a mutual fund company I heard some smart advice about these types of situations. It involved corporate mergers, but is useful here. A particular fund would buy into companies that were merging but only after the merger was announced. Mergers are preceded by rumours which pump up share prices, and those gains can be huge. But it’s not until a merger has been announced and the plan outlined that the likelihood of the deal can be understood. The big jump in share prices represent opportunity but all the risk. They’d have missed the big money, but rather than gamble with money on the rumour of a merger that could be successful, they instead chose to bank the guaranteed gain between the time of the deal was announced and when it closed.
BRICs Trouble

There’s a lot of sadness underlying this photo…

This advice is good for investors generally as well, and is useful guidance when looking at distressed markets like we see today. Lots of markets have had significant sell offs. From the emerging markets to Europe and Canada returns over the past year have all been negative. But as people approach retirement it would make sense to not be to anticipatory of recoveries, and ensure that when we see market recoveries they are built on solid ground, that economic growth has secular reasons for occurring before running in and investing in discounted markets. It will not hurt investors to miss some of a gain in favour of a more certain perspective.
Let’s not squander this new year’s pessimism! Resist the temptation to chase last year’s losers, and be content to be a little pessimistic as our year takes shape.

Walking the Tightrope

Tightrope-Graph_181538393_crop02As we bring this year to a close, markets continue to frustrate. The US markets, along with most global markets and especially Canada, are all negative. Over the past few weeks Canada has dipped as low as -13% on it’s year-to-date (YTD) return. In speaking with some people within my industry, expectations to finish flat for the year will be sufficient for a pat on the back and considered solid performance.

Years are ultimately an arbitrary way of organizing time. January 1st will simply be another day from the standpoint of the earth and the sun. Neither China’s nor Canada’s problems will have solved themselves when markets reopen in 2016, but from the perspective of investors a new year gives us a chance to reframe and contextualize opportunities and risks in the markets. The surprises of 2015 will now be part of the fabric of 2016, new stories will come to dominate investor news and new narratives will popup to explain the terrain for Canadians.

So when we do get to our first trades in January, what kind of world will we be looking at? What opportunities and risks will we be considering?

The risks are very real. After a steep sell off in Canada we may be tempted to think that the Canadian market is cheap and ideal for investment. I’ve had more than one conversation with market analysts that suggests that things could change very quickly. Cheap oil, a cheap dollar and rising consumer spending to the south could all spell big opportunities for Canada.

S&P TSX Index

Though it has recovered substantially since the lows of early 2009, the TSX is a real underperformer. It’s last high was August of 2014, and since then has simply lost ground. It is also hovering now around its 2011 value.

But this argument has another side. Since 2007, despite lots of volatility, the TSX has barely moved. In February of 2007 the TSX was at 13083, and at close on Friday last week the market was 13024. The engines of Canada’s economic growth from the past few years have largely stalled. Commodity prices have fallen and may be depressed for some time, with exports of everything from timber to copper and iron being reduced significantly. Oil too, as we have previously said, is unlikely to bounce back quickly. Even if oil recovers to around $60, the growth of cheap shale energy will likely eclipse Canadian tar sands, and will not be enough to restart some previously canceled projects.

 

MSCI EM Chart

MSCI EM: The MSCI Emerging Markets index has shown solid losses this year, but has yet to regained it’s last high at the beginning of 2011, and has been sideways and volatile for the past few years.  

Similarly, the Emerging Markets have been badly beaten this year, driving down the MSCI EM Index to levels well below the early year highs. But those levels also reflect the ongoing and worrying trend. The MSCI EM Index (a useful tool to look at Emerging Markets) isn’t just lower than it’s previous year’s high, it’s lower than it was back in 2011, and in 2007. In other words we’ve yet to surpass any previous highs, and when faced with the reality that the United States will likely be raising rates for the next few years, the EM will likely continue to lose investments to safer and higher yielding returns in the United States.

 

MSCI EAFE

MSCI EAFE: The EAFE has faired better than some others, but closing in on the end of the year we look to be at roughly where we were at the beginning of 2011. The MSCI EAFE Index is a benchmark to measure international equity while excluding the United States and Canada.

In an ideal world a new year would be a chance to wipe the slate clean, mark the previous year’s failings as in the past and move forward. But what drives markets (in between bouts of panic selling and fevered buying) are the fundamentals of economies and the companies within them. So as celebrations of December 31st give way to a return of regular business hours, investors should temper any excitement they have about last year’s losers becoming the new year’s winners. The ground has shifted for the Canadian economy, as it has for much of the Emerging Markets. Weaknesses abound as debt levels are at some of their highest and global markets have largely slowed.

It is a core belief that investors should seek “discounts”. The old adage is buy low and sell high. That advice holds, but investors should be wary as they walk the tightrope between discounted opportunities, and realistic market danger. Faced with a world filled with worrying trends and negative news an even handed and traditional approach to investments should be at the top of every investor’s agenda for 2016.

The Interest Rate Awakens

Janet Yellen

Janet Yellen, of California, President Barack Obama’s nominee to become Federal Reserve Board chair, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday Nov. 14, 2013, before the Senate Banking Committee hearing on her nomination to succeed Ben Bernanke. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Today could be a big day. Today the Federal Reserve might finally raise interest rates.

If it does it will be the first time it has done so since 2006. Interest rates, which are precisely nobody’s preferred choice of water cooler conversation, are now the subject of such intense focus it’s hard to know whether we are making too big a deal of them, or not enough of a big deal.

To review, interest rates are used to either stimulate spending or increase savings. If rates are low, we argue that borrowing is cheap and it makes sense to spend money. If rates are high and it costs more to borrow, then people and businesses are likely to save. By this process we can increase or decrease the “cost” of money. Interest rates are therefore considered important in moderating an economy. If the economy is overheating and inflation is rising, raising interest rates should put a damper on it. If the economy is worsening or in recession, lowering rates could inspire companies to spend rather than save and encourage large purchases.

During 2008, in addition to bailouts and massive stimulus packages to the economy, the Federal Reserve in the United States heavily relied on the key interest rates to help stem the problems of the housing and banking crisis. Interest rates went from 5.25% in 2006 to 0.25% in 2008. And they’ve stayed there ever since.

US Fed Fund Rate

A short history of the Fed Fund Rate – since late 2008 the rate has been close to 0%

 

Officially the rate hasn’t moved up, although the Fed has “tightened” credit to the market. Slowing down its bond buying program and ending QE has helped nudge up long term borrowing costs. But eight years on the official interest rate is still near zero, effectively emergency levels, and the economy is (supposedly) vastly improved. So why hasn’t it moved before?

US unemployment

The US unemployment rate has dropped significantly. However there are lingering concerns that while there are fewer people now unemployed, many people are no longer looking for work and have dropped out of the labour force.

 

There is no simple answer to that question. Markets have been nervous, inflation expectations haven’t been met, the USD has risen too fast, unemployment has been too high, the global economy too weak; all of these reasons and more.

US GDP Growth

While it has fluctuated, US GDP growth has been reasonably strong, easily outpacing other global economies of the developed world.

 

But in the background has been a looming fear. That interest rates can’t stay at zero forever. That borrowing can’t be cheap forever. That if the market tumbles again we will have little room to maneuver. That eventually we will have to face significant inflation (and therefore significant interest rates). Those fears seem to have finally won over the largely dove-ish Federal Reserve.

But I want to posit a different thought with our readers. That maybe rates don’t matter as much as we like. Economies are large and complicated things. We only measure what we think is important and traditionally we’ve had to go back and reassess what makes economies work, especially in the face of serious recessions. Where once the Gold Standard was thought to underpin a strong economy, not a single country today relies on it. Where economies were thought to need to correct and businesses fail to right a recession, today we encourage large government spending. Where as we once thought that interest rates shouldn’t be factored into recessions, they are now our first line of defence.

Across the world interest rates are at historic lows to stimulate spending. The BoC recently suggested that interest rates could go negative, a startling and worrying sign for the Canadian economy, especially after two rate cuts this year. But behind this there must be some recognition that the use of interest rates to spur on an economy is at best logarithmic. Like slamming your foot on the gas pedal of a car the most power is delivered early on, not as the pedal reaches the floor.

Logs

Unlike exponential growth, logarithmic growth has a limit that it can not surpass.

 

And so it can be said that perhaps interest rates, currently at all time lows maybe don’t matter that much at all. Maybe you can’t trick people into spending money. Maybe there are limits to what we can do to help an economy. Maybe we have yet to truly identify what ails our economies.

I am of the opinion (in case you haven’t noticed) that the rise of big data may not foretell a future where we can know everything. Far from it, the abundance of data is at best showing that there is still much we don’t know. If the Fed hikes rates today, moving the rates up by 1/4 of a percent, I doubt that there will be any significant change to the economy. It will take years before we approach anything close to “normal” rates at around 2% or higher. In short, a rising rate today will likely mean more symbolically than it does tangibly to the economy.

Oil: Lower for Longer

We’ve done a little video to try and explain why analysts now expect the price of oil to stay much lower for much longer. It’s a different format than our previous videos, but we think it offers an opportunity to be more informative with a greater impact than some of our other videos.

We’ll be playing around with this idea for a while, experimenting with ways to make it interesting and quick, so please send us your thoughts and any topics you’d like us to cover.

In other news, the Canadian and global markets have been taking a beating over the last couple of weeks. Much of this is tied to an expected Federal Reserve rate hike for the end of December. The rate hike will be unbelievably small, but markets have been selling off in anticipation of it’s arrival.

The “normalising” of interest rates is a hot topic for many. Some American manufacturers worry that rising rates will inflate the USD further than it already has this year. In Emerging Markets the rising USD has meant a collapse in investment while funds flow back to American shores. Proponents of the rise have argued (persuasively I believe) that seven years after a major financial crisis it makes no sense to have interest rates at emergency levels. Long term cheap credit can’t be allowed to continue.

Canada is also getting badly beaten by the continuing falling price of oil and the end of the commodity super cycle. The slowing down of China has meant that there is simply less need for the huge amount of raw materials we have been selling. Prices on iron ore and copper have all been falling with the price of oil.

Canada is also saddled with other problems. Debt to income just hit a new high, while government debt is expected to grow substantially over the coming years while the economy looks to be doing worse.

We’ve been extremely busy in the second half of this year, which has kept us from writing as much as we have in the past. But we will try and be back later in the week with some more analysis on the markets and economy.