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.

nortel-21
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.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 12.21.52 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 12.22.48 PM

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.

The Zombie Apocalypse and Investing

If 2008 was the financial apocalypse it is often written about, it is a zombie apocalypse for sure. It’s victims don’t die, they are merely resurrected as an infected horde threatening to infect the other survivors. And no matter how many times you think the enemy has been slain, it turns out there is always one more in a dark corner ready to jump out and bite you.

This past month has seen the return of the zombie of deflation, a menacing creature that has spread from the worst ravaged economies in Europe into the healthier economies of the Eurozone. Deflation is like the unspoken evil twin that lives in the attic. I’ve yet to meet an analyst, portfolio manager or other financial professional that wants to take the threat seriously and doesn’t insist that inflation, and with it higher interest rates are just around a corner.

The eagerness to shrug-off concerns about deflation may have more to do with the reality that few know what to do when deflation strikes. Keeping deflation away is challenging, but not impossible, and it has been the chief job of the central banks around the world for the last few years. But like any good zombie movie, eventually the defences are overrun and suddenly we are scrambling again against the zombie horde.

This. Except it’s an entire economy and it won’t go away.

In the late 1990s, Japan was hit with deflation, and it stayed in a deflationary funk until recently. That’s nearly 20 years in which the Japanese economy didn’t grow and little could be done to change its fate. The next victim could be Europe, whose official inflation numbers showed a five year low in September of 0.3%. That’s across the Eurozone as a whole. In reality countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal all have negative inflation rates and there is little that can be done about it. Pressure is mounting on Germany to “do more”, but while the German economy has slowed over the past few months it is still a long way from a recession and there is little appetite to boost government spending in Germany to help weaker economies in the EU.

Japanese GDP from 1994-2014
Japanese GDP from 1994-2014

Across the world we see the spectre of zombie deflation. Much has been made of China’s slowing growth numbers, but perhaps more attention should be paid to its official inflation numbers, which now sit below 2% and well below their target of 4%. The United States, the UK, the Eurozone and even Canada are all below their desired rates of inflation and things have gotten worse in this field over the summer.

What makes the parallel between this and a zombie apocalypse so much more convincing is that we have squandered some of our best options and now are left with fewer worse ones. Since 2008 the world hasn’t deleveraged. In fact governments have leveraged up to help indebted private sectors and fight off the effects of the global recession. Much of this come in the form of lower (from already low) interest rates to spur lending. But when the world last faced global deflation the cure ended up being broad based government spending that cumulated in a massive war effort. By comparison the debts of the government haven’t been transformed into lots of major public works initiatives, instead that money has sat in bank accounts and been used for share buybacks and increases in dividends.

For investors this is all very frustrating. The desire to return to normalcy (and fondly remembering the past) is both the hallmark of most zombie films and the wish of almost every person with money in the market. But as The Walking Dead has taught us, this is the new normal, and investing must take that into account. Deflation, which many have assumed just won’t happen, must be treated as a very likely possibility, and that will change the dynamics of opportunities for investment. It leads to lower costs for oil and different pressures for different economies. It will also mean different things for how people use their savings for retirement and how they will seek income in retirement. In short, the next zombie apocalypse can likely be defeated by paying attention and not keeping our fingers in our ears.

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If it were only this simple….

4 Reason Why Planning for Retirement is Getting Harder

How expensive is this Big Mac? More expensive than you might think...
How expensive is this Big Mac? More expensive than you might think…

For the enormous wave of Canadians that are on course to retire over the coming few decades, retiring and planning for retirement is getting harder.

Here are the four big reasons why!

1. Inflation

Inflation is the scary monster under the bed when it comes to one’s retirement. People living off of fixed pensions can be crippled by runaway costs of living, and naturally retirees dread the thought that their savings won’t keep pace with the cost of their groceries. But while historic inflation rates have been around 3.2% over the last hundred years, and have been around 2% (and less) over the past few years, inflation has been much higher in all the things that matter. Since the inflation rate is an aggregate number made up of a basket of goods that include big things like computers, fridges and televisions that have been dropping in price over time, those drops offset the rising price of gas, food and home costs. Since you buy food all the time and fridges almost never, the rate of inflation is skewed lower than your pocket book reflects.

You can show this in a simple way by comparing the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac over time. When the Big Mac was first introduced to Canada the price was .45¢, today that price is $5.25. Inflation has fluctuated a great deal since then, but let’s assume the historic rate of 3.2% was an accurate benchmark. If you apply that rate the price of a  Big Mac today would be $1.91, in reality the inflation rate on a Big Mac has been  much closer to 5.5%.

Canadian Inflation Rate from 2008 - 2014
Canadian Inflation Rate from 2008 – 2014

2. Interest Rates

The business of central bankers has gained greater attention since 2008, but for many making the connection between interest rates, the broader economy and their retirement is tenuous at best. The short story is that weak economies means low interest rates to spur borrowing. Borrowing, or fixed income products, have been the typical go-to engine for creating sustainable income in retirement, and low borrowing costs means low fixed income rates. The drying up of low risk investments that pay livable, regular income streams have left many retirees scratching their heads and wondering how they can keep market volatility at bay while still drawing an income. But as rates have stayed low, and will likely do into the future, bonds, GICs and annuities won’t be enough to cover most living costs, forcing retirees into higher risk sectors of the market.

Source: Bloomberg and FTSE TMX Global Debt Capital Markets, monthly data from July 31, 1989 to September 30, 2014, Courtesy of NEI Investments
Source: Bloomberg and FTSE TMX Global Debt Capital Markets, monthly data from July 31, 1989 to September 30, 2014, Courtesy of NEI Investments

3. Living Cost Creep

Guess what, the cost of living is going up, not just in real dollars, but because what we consider to be a “normal” number of things in our life keep expanding. Don’t believe me? When your parents retired they probably had a tv and an antenna for it. The cost of their tv was whatever they paid for it, and whatever it might be to replace it if it broke. By comparison most people today have moved into the realm of digital television, PVRs, and digital cable subscriptions. It’s almost unheard of today to not have a smartphone with a data plan and our homes are now filled with a wide assortment of goods and products that would have been inconceivable to a previous generation. The same is true for cars. While cars themselves cost less, prices are kept high by the growing feature creep that have slowly moved into the realm of necessity.

4. You Aren’t Dying Fast Enough

This appointment is wayyyy out in the future...
This appointment is wayyyy out in the future…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in a rush or anything; but the reality is that you are going to live a long time, and in good health. Where as retirement was once a brief respite before the angel of death swooped in to grab you maybe a year or two later, living into your 90s is going to be increasingly common, putting a beneficial, but very real strain on retirement plans.

In short, retirement is getting harder and harder to plan. You’re living longer, with higher costs and fewer low risk options to generate a steady income.

What Should You Do?

Currently the market itself has been responding to the low interest rate environment. A host of useful  products have been launched in the past few years that are addressing things like consistent and predictable income for those currently transitioning into retirement. Some of these products are able to reduce risk, while others explore non-traditional investments to generate income. But before you get hung up on what product you should have you should ensure that your retirement plan is meeting your needs and addressing the future. There is no product that can substitute for a comprehensive retirement and savings plan, so call your financial advisor today if you have questions (and yes, that includes us!)

Want to discuss your retirement? Send us an email and we’ll be in touch right away!