Only Time Gives Clarity to Investors

The reality of the 21st century is that finding clarity in world events for investors is almost impossible. Take the recent price drop in oil, which has been hailed as both a good and bad thing. And as the new lower price of energy slowly becomes the norm, everyday news reports come in about its respective benefits and unintended negative consequences.

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Those seeking to know what those events mean and what guidance headlines should give will only be frustrated by the almost endless supply of information that seeks to empower decisions but leaves many scratching their heads in wonder about the future.

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A big reason for this is the sheer volume of information that we can now rely on. Since the advent of computers and the more recent rise of high-speed communication and networking we have found that the core truth of an event still isn’t apparent until after something has happened. In other words it’s almost impossible to predict corrections before they happen despite an almost inconceivable amount of data and endless ability to process it.

This is true no matter where we look in the world of investing. Consider Black Friday, the end all and be all day in shopping in the United States. This year Black Friday seemed to fizzle. Sales were down 11% year-over-year and that got people nervous. Yet Cyber Monday, the electronic version of Black Friday, sales were up 17% and topped $2 billion for the first time. Combined with the longer sales period leading up to the weekend, many suspect that total sales were actually higher.

All of this data conflicts with each other, which for investors means sometimes you will be wrong. Small things sometimes prove to be big things, and what initially appears simple turns out to be surprisingly complex, and much of it you simply won’t predict. This points investors back to some dull but surprising truths about investing.

1. Not much has changed when it comes to determining what makes a company worthwhile to invest in. Corporate health, sound governance and healthy cash flow still tell us more than loud hype about potential new markets, new products and new trends.

2. Time is a better arbiter than you about investing. The old line is time in the market, not timing the market, and that still appears true. Many Canadians are likely wringing their hands about the sudden drop of oil and the impact it is having on their portfolios. But the best course of action maybe not to abandon their investments, but make sure they are still sensibly invested and well diversified. The market still tends to correct in the long run and immediate volatility (both up and down) are smoothed out over time.

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The S&P 500 over the last 50 years. From Yahoo Finance

Not every sensible investment will work out, but a portfolio of sensible investments over time will. For investors now wondering about the future and their investments in Canada, the best thing to do is understand the logic behind their investments before choosing a course of action.

 

America Is In Great Shape; Be Afraid!

markets_1980043cAll year people have been expecting a correction in the US Markets. For most of the year I have listened to portfolio managers discuss their “concern” about the high valuations of American companies. I have also listened to them point out that America remains the strongest economy and the most likely to see significant growth in the coming year.

Flash forward to late-September, early October and the markets have finally had their corrections. At the bottom every market was negative, including the TSX which had given up all of its YTD high of 15%. That was the bottom. The recovery was swift, money flowed back into the markets, and hedge fund managers managed to make a mockery of some otherwise nervous DIY investors. Now the markets look strong again, with the S&P 500 reaching new highs. Nobody is happy.

All of this comes on the news that US GDP was up 3.9% in the third quarter, a full .5% above analyst expectations (that sounds small, but it’s worth billions) while energy prices continue to decline, manufacturing is highly competitive and US consumers look poised for a significant Christmas bonanza. So what’s wrong with this picture? Why are both the Globe and Mail and the Financial Times worried about the US stock market?

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The answer is a combination of fear, data, and the insatiable need for stories to populate the media everyday. First is the fear. Stocks are at all time highs. The problem is that “all time high” isn’t some automatic death sentence for a stock market. The stock market always hits new highs all the time, and a by-product of that is that corrections can really only happen after a high is reached. Look at the history of the S&P 500 since 1960:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 11.02.50 AMAs you can probably tell, there are a lot of “new highs” that had occurred over the last 40 years, but each new high did not automatically translate into some automatic correction. There were legitimate reasons why the economy could continue to grow, and in the process make those companies in the stock market more valuable. That isn’t to say that the stock market can’t be “frothy” or that their aren’t problems in the stock market today. It merely means that setting a new market high isn’t proof of an impending collapse.

The second issue is data. We live in an age of Big Data. Data is everywhere and there is so much it can be hard to separate the useful data from the useless. Some of the data is concrete, but much of it takes time to understand or even become clear. The first analysis of the higher than expected GDP numbers seemed great (more economy, Yay!) but upon closer inspection, there are reasons to be cautious. While the GDP was higher than expected, it was largely due to growth in government spending, not consumer spending. In fact consumer spending was lower quarter over quarter. In addition there are a number of concerns about how corporations are spending their profits and whether that is sustainable. Many of these concerns, when taken in context, seem to be the same from earlier in the year.

The third factor is the insatiable need to write something. Content is king in the news world and providing insight (read: opinion) means that you must constantly produce new stories to publish. That means that there is a need to be constantly suggesting that things are about to go wrong (or more wrong than they already have) to create a compelling story. It isn’t that these stories are wrong, just that constantly saying the stock market is going to go down isn’t insightful, since at some point we can expect the stock market to correct for one of a number of reasons.

So is America frothy? Are we poised an some kind of financial collapse? I don’t know, and nobody else does either. We are no more likely to correctly know when the market might correct again than we are to guess the future price of gas. The best response is to diversify, and remember some core elements of investing. Buy low and sell high. With that in mind sturdy investors should probably start giving the beat-up and maligned Europe a second look…

The Failure Of Google Glass Is A Useful Warning To Investors

Google_Glass_with_frameLast week Google announced that it would not be proceeding with another round of Google Glass for 2015, meaning that the most ambitious experiment in wearable technology had come to an end. Google Glass has many failings, ranging from looking stupid to attracting angry mobs of people, but it did seem to be the vanguard of wearable technology. Wearable tech has attracted a great deal of attention, both from consumers and investors, but I have a feeling that it’s rise may be overstated.

For the most part wearable technology is a subset of the “internet of things“, the growth of cloud computing, mobile sensors and high speed communication between stuff. The most beneficial forms of this could be about smart city grids communicating with cars to smooth traffic flows and reduce congestion. In reality it is largely counting how many steps you take everyday.

Looking past the incredible number of terrifying elements about our privacy and data mining that go along with these devices, by and large most wearable technology hasn’t really taken off. Google Glass may be a high end flop, but the vast amount of wearable devices on the markets today have yet to win over big audiences. They remain largely niche devices with a high drop off rate. Where as people adopted smartphones on mass, many people have just shrugged their shoulders and moved on, while those that do buy into wearable tech often stop using it after a few months. This suggests that there is a disconnect between understanding what smartphones get right and wearables get wrong.

That gap is clearly frustrating tech companies, and it will be interesting to see whether Apple’s first wearable device, the Apple Watch, is able to change the pattern. But for investors the allure of the new as a reason to invest should be tempered, and excitement over the prospect of “the next big thing” and the importance of getting in on the ground floor may prove financially costly.

Take for instance TESLA Motors (TSLA: Nasdaq). Tesla may be a car company, but it is treated like a technology company on the stock market, meaning that it is currently trading with a ridiculous P/E ratio, close to 130x next years earnings. Put simply, if Tesla were to pay out all of its earnings to its shareholders it would take 130 years (given current earnings) for you to receive the equivalent value of what you paid for a share. That gives Tesla, a company that sells cars by the thousands a market cap similar to General Motors, a company that sells cars by the millions.

That’s crazy, but normal for the tech world. This has been exceptionally true social media sites like Twitter, Linkedin and Pinterest. All of them also trade well and above “normal” valuations, especially given that they don’t make anything.

The lesson for investors is to be cautious about technology companies. They come with a host of pitfalls and unique qualities that are frequently glossed over in the excitement of the new. Investors have been swept up before with the prospect of some great new device that can’t go wrong, but with some notable exceptions much technology often finds itself on the scrapheap of history. Or maybe we will all start carrying around smart glasses for every beverage

 

Russia’s Entire Stock Market is Worth Less Than Apple Computers

Let's just call this what it is. Awkward.
Let’s just call this what it is. Awkward.

A few days ago a bizarre inversion took place. A single company was suddenly worth more than the entire investable market size of a major economy. While I like Apple a lot and applaud the incredible profitability of the company, this is more a story about how badly the Russian economy is doing.

Back when Russia was first inciting dissent inside the Ukraine following the ouster of the quasi-dictator running the country, it had banked on the idea that it’s continued escalation inside the borders of a sovereign nation would go unchallenged as few countries would wish to risk a military skirmish over a single, marginal country in Europe.

Vladimir Putin miscalculated however when he didn’t realize how precarious the Russian economy was. Sanctions were implemented and what followed was a largely hollow trade war that did more to identify Russia’s weakness than strength. But the most recent blow to Russia has been the change in the price of oil.

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 12.31.04 PMNow that the price of oil is under $80, Russia is suffering severely. Like many oil rich nations, oil exports substitute for taxes. This frees autocratic rulers to both pursue generous social programs while not having to answer to citizen complaints about high taxes. It’s how countries like Saudi Arabia  and Iran get by with little democratic input and a relatively passive population with little to no public disobedience about democratic rights (mostly).

This relationship though means that there are actually two prices for oil. First the breakeven price for extracting oil from the ground, and second break breakeven social price of oil. Those prices are different in every country. In Alberta for instance, tar sand oil is usually quoted at $70 a barrel for breakeven. But to cover the costs of running the government the price is much higher. For Russia the slide in price from $109 a barrel to $80 has meant wiping out it’s current account surplus.

Combined with the falling rouble (now 30% lower than the beginning of the year) and the growth of corporate debt sector, Russia is now in a very precarious situation. I’m of the opinion that energy, and energy companies have been oversold and a rise in price would not be unexpected. But whether the price of energy will bounce back up to its earlier highs from this year seems remote.

This is a stock photo of a guy thinking. Could he be thinking about where to invest his money? He could be. It's hard to tell because he was actually paid to stand there and look like this and we can't ask him.
This is a stock photo of a guy thinking. Could he be thinking about where to invest his money? He could be. It’s hard to tell because he was actually paid to stand there and look like this and we can’t ask him.

Over the last few months I’ve been moving away from the Emerging Markets, and while the reasons are not specifically for those listed above, Russia’s problems are a good example of the choices investors face as other markets continue to improve their health. If you had a dollar today that could be invested in the either the United States or Russia, who would you choose? The adventurous might say Russia, believing they could outlast the risk. But with more Canadians approaching retirement the more sensible option is in markets like the US, where corporate health is improved, debt levels are lower and markets are not subject to the same kind of political, economic and social instability that plagues many emerging economies.

 

What Your RRSP Should Have In Common With The CPP

rrsp-eggTo many Canadians the CPP is something that you simply receive when you turn 65, (or 70, or 60, depending on when you want or need it) with little consideration for how the program works or is run. That’s too bad because the CPP is successful, enlightening and puts its American counterpart, Social Security, to shame.

You’ve probably heard American politicians decrying the state of Social Security, claiming that it is broken and will one day run out of money. That’s a frightening prospect for those who will depend on it in the future. Social Security is a trust that buys US debt, and its use of US Treasuries (low risk debt issued by the US government) is crippling that program and even puts it at odds with attempts to improve government financial health (it’s more complicated than this, but it’s a useful guide). In comparison the CPP isn’t bound by the same restrictions, and operates as a sovereign wealth fund.

A sovereign wealth fund is simply a fancy way to describe a program that can buy assets, which is exactly what the CPP does. The Canada Pension Plan may be larger and more elaborate than your RRSP, but it can look very similar. The CPP has exposure to Canadian, American, European and Emerging Market equity. It invests in fixed income both domestically and abroad, and while it may also participate in private equity deals (like when the CPP bought Neiman Marcus) in essence the investments in the CPP are aiming to do exactly what your RRSP does.

CPP Breakdown

The big lesson here is really about risk though. The CPP is one of the 10 largest pension plans in the world. It’s wildly successful and is run in such a way as to be sustainable for the next 75 years. The same cannot be said for Social Security. But by taking the “safest” option Social Security is failing in its job and will run out of money by 2033. But by buying real assets and investing sensibly the CPP is far more likely to survive and continue to thrive through all of our lifetimes.

What’s also notable is what the CPP isn’t trying to do. It isn’t concentrated in Canada. It doesn’t need to get a substantial rate of return, and it doesn’t need every sector to outperform. It needs consistent returns to realize its goals, and that’s how it’s positioned. By being diversified and not trying to time the market, the CPP finds success for all Canadian investors.

I’ve said in conversation that if there was an opportunity to invest directly in the CPP I would take it. However until then the best thing investors can do is take the CPPs lessons to heart!

Canada Has Always Been a Weak Economy

real-estate-investingIt may come as a real surprise to many Canadians but we have never been a strong economy. From the standpoint of most of the world we barely even register as an economic force. Yet a combination of global events have conspired to make Canadians far more comfortable with a greater sense of complacency about the tenuous position of Canada’s economic might.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that Canada and Canadians aren’t wealthy. We are. But having a high standard of living is largely a result of forces that have been as much beyond our control as any particular economic decisions we’ve made.

Consider for a second the size of Canada’s economy in relation to the rest of the world. While we may be one of the G8 nations, the Canadian economy only accounts for about 2-3% of the global GDP, and has (according to the IMF) never been higher than the world’s 8th largest economy. Even with the growth in the oil fields Canada hasn’t contributed more than 2.8% to global growth between 2000 and 2010.

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The Rise and Fall of Nortel Stock.

It’s not just that Canada isn’t a big economy, we’re also a narrow one. In the past we’ve looked at how the TSX is dominated by only a few sectors, but the investable market can play even crueler tricks than that. If you can remember the tech boom and the once great titan Nortel, you might only remember their fall from grace, wiping out 60,000 Canadian jobs and huge gains in the stock market. What you should know is that as companies get bigger in the TSX they end up accounting for an ever greater proportion of the index. At its peak Nortel accounted for 33% of the S&P/TSX, creating a dangerous weighting in the index that adversely affected everyone else and skewed performance.

Similarly much of Canada’s success through the 90s and early 2000s had as much to do with a declining dollar. While it may be the scourge of every Canadian tourist, it is an enormous benefit to Canadian industry and exports. Starting in 2007 the Canadian dollar began to gain significantly against the US dollar. This sudden gain in the dollar contributed to Canada’s relative outperformance against every global market. The dollar’s rise was also closely connected to the rise in the value of oil and the strong growth in the Alberta oil sands.

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This mix of currency fluctuations, oil revenue and narrow investable market has created an illusion for Canadian investors. It has created the appearance of a place to invest with greater strength and security than is actually provided.

Some studies have shown that the average Canadian investor will have up to 65% of their portfolio housed in Canadian equities. This is insane for all kinds of obvious reasons. Obvious except for the average Canadian. This preference for investing heavily into your local economy has been coined “home bias” and there is lots of work out there for you to read if you are interested. But while Canadians may be blind to the dangers of over contributing to their own markets, it becomes obvious if you recommend that you place 65% of your money in the Belgium or the Swedish stock market. However long Canada’s relative market strength lasts investors should remember that all things revert to the mean. That’s a danger that investors should account for.

What Investors Should Know After Europe’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Month

cartoon spin bull vs bearFalling inflation, terrible economic news and a general sense of dread for the future seems to have once again become the primary descriptive terms for Europe. Earlier this year things seemed to have improved dramatically for the continent. On the back of the German economic engine much of the concern about the EU had been receding. 2013 had been a good year for investors and confidence was returning to the markets. Lending rates were dropping for the “periphery nations” like Portugal, Greece and Ireland, giving them a fighting chance at borrowing at affordable rates. But first came the Ukrainian/Russia problem which caused a great deal of geo-political instability in the markets. Then came October.

I don’t know if Mario Draghi cries himself to sleep some nights, but I wouldn’t blame him. Despite the best efforts of the ECB, Europe looks closer to being in a liquidity trap then ever. Borrowing rates are not just low, they’re negative, with the ECB charging banks to now to deposit money with them. October also ushered in a string of bad news. For Germany, easily the biggest part of the Eurozone’s hopes for an economic recovery, sanctions against Russia have hurt the manufacturing sector. Germany began the month announcing a steep and unexpected decline in manufacturing of 5.7% in August, the biggest since 2009. This news was followed by criticisms of Germany’s government for not doing more infrastructure investment and being too obsessed with their strict budget discipline. Yesterday 25 banks in the Eurozone failed a stress test, a test that was meant to allay fears about the health of the financial sector.

For Europe then things look bad and even if the situation corrects itself over the next few months (sudden shifts in the economy may not always be permanent and can bounce back quickly) the concerns over Europe’s future will likely undermine any efforts by the ECB to properly stimulate the broad economy and encourage investment on a mass scale. By comparison it looks like the United States is having a party.

The US economy seems to be on track to grow, and as the world’s biggest economy (though there is some dispute) the country is fighting fit and especially lean. Cheap oil from shale drilling is helping the manufacturing sector, making the United States more competitive than South Korea, the UK, Germany and Canada, and the sudden drop in the price of oil is a boon to the US consumer to the tune of nearly 50 billion dollars. Consumer confidence is up, as is spending. Debt levels are down, both for companies and households. Most importantly the economy seems to be tipping over into an expansionary phase, with corporations finally starting to put some of their money to work.

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The coming months could be interesting for investors as we return to a time where once again focus is on the US as the world’s primary economy.Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 12.32.45 PM The concerns of 2008, that the American consumer was done, the country had seen its best days and its corporations would never recover seem far fetched now. Worries over hyper-inflation are as distant as a the never arriving (but inevitable) rate hike from the Federal reserve. Worries about Great Depression levels of unemployment are problems of other nations, not the US with its now enviable 5.9%, now encroaching on full employment. Old villains seem vanquished and even Emerging Markets, long thought to be entering their own golden era, are now taking a back seat to the growing opportunities coming out of the US.

Investors should sit up and take note. It’s possible that the best is still yet to come for the US markets, and if market conditions continue to improve this bull market could prove to be a long one.