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.

If I Tell You This is Just a Correction, Will You Feel Better?

19_6_origA correction is typically defined as a drop of roughly 10% in the markets over a very short period of time. It’s often “welcomed” by investment professionals because it creates opportunities for new investments into liked companies that were previously trading above valuations considered appealing. Corrections are talked about as being necessary, beneficial and part of a normal and healthy market cycle, which all makes it sound somewhat medical. But in medical terms it falls under the category of being told your are about to receive 5 injections in short order and they are all going to hurt.

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S&P TSX From Bloomberg – October 2, 2014

For investors the past couple of weeks in the market has felt like many such injections. The US markets have had a significant sell off, as have the global, emerging, and Canadian markets. All of it very quickly. The sudden drop has erased many of the gains in an already slow year and eaten dramatically into the TSX’s return which had been one of the best.

From Bloomberg - October 2, 2014
Dow Jones Industrial From Bloomberg – October 2, 2014

For many investors any sudden change in the direction of the markets can immediately give the sense that we are heading into another 2008. As Canadian (and American) investors are now 6 years older and closer to retirement the stakes also seem much higher. So here are some reasons why you shouldn’t be concerned about the most recent market volatility, and what you can do to make them work to your advantage.

1. Everyone is nervous.

For several months people have been calling for a correction. Investor sentiment is neutral and consumer confidence has dipped, meaning that overall atmosphere is somewhat negative for the markets. But that can be a good thing. Market crashes and bust cycles typically show up when people are exuberant and feel euphoric about markets. Bad news is swept aside and the four most dangerous words in investing “This time it’s different” become the hallmark of the new bubble. It’s rare that negativity breeds an over exuberant market.

2. The Economy isn’t running on all cylinders.

There certainly have been encouraging numbers in the United States, and even recently Canada has had some improved economic numbers, but by and large there hasn’t been a big expansion yet in the economy. Unemployment is still high, especially in Europe and the labour force has shrunk (which can skew the unemployment numbers) while corporations continue to sit on enormous piles of cash, to their detriment. A market crash usually follows an overheated economy that begins to over-produce based on faulty views about future growth potential. That isn’t where we are yet.

3.  Corporations are really healthy, and so are investors.

Canadians may still have bundles of debt, but the US is a different story. American corporations and households have been heavily deleveraging since 2008. In fact corporations in the US look to be some of the healthiest in decades, showing better earnings to debt ratios than previously thought. Crashes have as much to do with over-production as they do with out-of-control borrowing. The two go hand in hand and both factors are currently missing from the existing economic landscape.

4. Energy is cheap. Like, really cheap. 

Remember when oil was more than $100 a barrel? High energy prices, and the expectation of future high energy prices can really put the kibosh on future returns and throw cold water all over the market. As we’ve previously said, energy is the lifeblood of civilizations and a steady supply of affordable energy is what separates great economies from poor ones. (Look, we tweeted this earlier! See, twitter is useful. Follow us @Walker_Report)

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/517604263493894145

West Texas Crude Oil Price over the last 3 months - from NASDAQ - October 2, 2014
West Texas Crude Oil Price over the last 3 months – from NASDAQ – October 2, 2014

The arrival and growth of American gas production combined with changing technologies and increasing efficiencies on existing energy use means that global demand is slowing, while global supply is increasing. In fact in March of last year, the head analyst for energy at Citigroup published a paper describing exactly this trend of improved efficiency with new sources as a mix for lower energy prices in the long term. Whether this proves true over the next two decades is hard to say, but what is true is that cheap energy helps economies while expensive energy hinders it. Since economies have already adjusted to the higher price over the last few years, a declining price is a tailwind for growth.

Does this mean that there aren’t any risks in the market? Absolutely not. Europe is having a terrible year as a result of persistent economic problems and Russian intransience, and many Emerging Markets are showing the strain of continued growth, either through corruption or exceeding optimism about the future. Those pose real risks, but taken in the grand scheme of things our outlook remains positive for the markets.

How can I make this all work for me?

So what can you do as an investor to make a correction benefit you? The first piece of advice is always the same. Sit tight. Dramatic changes to your investments when they are down tends to lead to permanent losses. Secondly, rebalance your account periodically as the market declines. On the whole equity funds will lose a greater proportion of their value than fixed income, leaving a balanced portfolio heavier in conservative than growth investments. Rebalancing gives you a chance to buy more units of growth funds at a lower price while adding greater potential for upside as the market recovers. Lastly, if you have money sitting on the sidelines, down markets are great opportunities to begin Dollar-Cost-Averaging. For nervous investors this is a great way to ease into the markets even as markets look unstable. You can read about it here, but I recommend watching the movie below for a nice visual explanation. Now, take your medicine.