It Doesn’t Matter if There Isn’t A Real Estate Bubble

Last week I published a piece on the dangers of the housing bubble in Canada. It caused a stir with a number of clients and followed many articles over the past two years about our concerns with the Canadian economy.

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But on Wednesday I was at an industry lunch with another group of advisors talking about the Canadian housing market and was met with a curious objection over whether there was any real danger at all. Another advisor happily pointed out to me that while the indebtedness of Canadians may be high, it is still affordable, and we should be mindful of the famous investors you have been hoisted by their own doom saying petards.

While it’s true that many doom saying predictions don’t come to pass and we should be careful before signing on to one particular points of view, arguing that lots of debt is affordable and therefore no threat is similar to a drug addict arguing everything is under control because they still hold down a job. The job is irrelevant to the problem, although it’s absence is likely to make matters worse.

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This is why it is somewhat irrelevant to worry about the Canadian housing market. Whether you believe there will be a soft landing, a hard landing or no landing at all, what Canadians have is a debt problem. Only it’s not a problem because it’s affordable. Also it’s a problem.

If that last sentence is confusing, don’t worry. It sounds worse coming from the Bank of Canada, who in their December Financial Systems Review pointed out that debt levels continue to climb but the relative affordability of the debt remains consistent. And while an economic shock to the system could make much of that debt unserviceable, for now that seems unlikely. They concluded this section of the report identifying the risk to Canadians as “elevated”.

This is non-committal nonsense. In economic terms there is a bomb in the room that needs to be diffused, has no timer but will go off at some indeterminate future point. The problem is that Canadians can’t seem to help by adding more debt to the pile. In January Canadians added another $80 billion of debt through mortgages, lines of credit and credit cards, a jump of 4.6%. Our private debt is now over $1.8 Trillion, larger than our GDP. Household saving’s rates are at a five year low, 3.6%. But in 1982 the savings rate was 19.9%. In other words we’ve had a dramatic shift away from savings and towards debt.

Savings rate

While 30% of Canadian households have no debt, almost every demographic is susceptible to the growing debt burden. Even seniors have a growing debt issue. Canada is now unique in the world for having debt levels in excess of the peak of the American debt bubble in 2008, and is currently only surpassed by Greece. Traditionally I am highly cautious about grand pronouncements about market doom and gloom, but in this instance I am of the opinion that ignoring Canada’s debt problem is willful blindness.

How to best handle this problem will have to be left to others. There is no simple solution that will not trigger the bomb, and the goal of any government is to slowly reduce the average debt burden without hurting the economy or deflating the bubble. For my part I tend to advise people to pay their debts down, shy away from things they cannot afford and encourage saving rather than debt spending to limit risk. When it comes to saving for the future there is no reason to make many people’s problems your problems.

The Next Debt Bubble or The Last War?

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Illustration by Mike Faille/National Post

I recall hearing from my mother once that my grandparents had been deeply scarred by the great depression. In a multitude of ways it had affected the financial decisions they made for years after it was all over. It would probably be fair to say that investors have been similarly scarred by the 2008 financial collapse, and that no matter how far into the past it recedes, for a generation there will likely always be a nagging doubt about investing as they recall the days when the very future of currencies, countries and their savings seemed in very real danger.

This guy right here would like to give you a car loan even if you can't afford one! Isn't that nice?  Don't read the fine print.
This guy right here would like to give you a car loan even if you can’t afford one! Isn’t that nice?
Don’t read the fine print.

That concern has made us all highly suspect of debt and the cavalier attitudes of Wall Street financiers who remain unfazed by the dramatic peril they engineered through the early 2000s. So it should not go unnoticed when sentences with the words “subprime”, “growth” and “asset backed loans” seem to be on the rise, and recently that has been exactly the case.

Back in the early summer of 2014, Yahoo Finance ran a story about the growth of subprime auto loans and high interest leveraged loans. The short story was that banks had begun to take on more risk to counteract the weak economy and lack of decent yielding products in the market (themselves a product of trying to stimulate the economy).

In September The Economist also published a story called “Bad Carma” detailing some frightening statistics about borrowing rates, riskier assets and ample credit, all dog whistle terms to any investor who took the time to read anything following 2008.

That was followed by a report from CNBC in October regarding concerns of a new subprime lending bubble on the backs of auto loans. Again citing the same looming threat of a growth in the loan market of riskier quality, primarily driven by the desire to boost short term profits.

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Finally, in the beginning of this year we have begun to see some of the expected fallout of these subprime loans going bad. While default rates are still low, delinquency rates have started to creep up. Again, the culprits were car buyers with weak credit scores that had been offered subprime rates (like 22% or more) to buy cars. In fact according to the Wall Street Journal 8.4% of borrowers with weak credit scores who took out loans in the first quarter of 2014 had missed payments by November.

It’s easy to be suckered into an early freak-out with these reports, but details matter and in this instance the details, while troubling, are not the cause for concern it would be easy to let ourselves get into. According to The Economist, while the blueprint may look similar to the lead up to 2008, the fundamentals don’t match. First the total car borrowing market is $905 billion, or less than a tenth of total mortgage debt. Secondly subprime lending in the auto sector is a more established practice and accounts for about 20% of auto loans since 2000. But most importantly no one is under an illusion about the value of a car after it is driven off the lot. In the housing crisis borrowers and lenders convinced themselves that they would never lose value on a home, but in the auto sector cars are always a depreciating asset.

So should we be worried? I believe this is more a case of fighting the last war. We are so hyper aware now of what created the last bubble that we are watching for it with super vigilance. That’s not to say there isn’t risk. Wells Fargo recently announced that they would be capping the total percentage of subprime auto loans they make, and in Canada subprime auto loans are part of our dangerous growth of consumer debt. So it pays to e vigilant, but imagine if we were equally wary of tulip bulb prices and technology stocks? Wouldn’t that be ridiculous? It is good to be wary of known dangers, but it’s what we don’t know, or worse, what we choose to ignore that invariably wounds us most deeply.

Don’t Be Surprised That No One Knows Why The Market Is Down

Money CanLast Friday I watched the TSX start to take a precipitous fall. The one stock market that seemed immune to any bad news and had easily outperformed almost every other index this year had suddenly shed 200 points in a day.

Big sell-offs are common in investing. They happen periodically and can be triggered by anything, or nothing. A large company can release some disappointing news and it makes investors nervous about similar companies that they hold, and suddenly we have a cascade effect as “tourist” investors begin fleeing their investments in droves.

This past week has seen a broad sell-off across all sectors of the market in Canada, with Financials (Read: Banks), Materials (Read: Mining) and Energy (Read: Oil) all down several percentage points. In the course of 5 days the TSX lost 5% of its YTD growth. That’s considerable movement, but if you were looking to find out why the TSX had dropped so much so quickly you would be hard pressed to find any useful information. What had changed about the Canadian banks that RBC (RY) was down 2% in September? Or that TD Bank (TD) was down nearly 5% in a month? Oil and gas were similarly effected, many energy stocks and pipeline providers found themselves looking at steep drops over the last month. Enbridge (ENB) saw significant losses in their stock value, as did other energy companies, big and small, like Crew Energy (CR).

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The S&P TSX over the last five days

All this begs the question, what changed? The answer is nothing. Markets can be distorted by momentum investors looking to pile on to the next hot stock or industry, and we can quibble about whether or not we think the TSX is over valued by some measure. But if you were looking for some specific reason that would suggest that there was something fundamentally flawed about these companies you aren’t going to have any luck finding it. Sometimes markets are down because investors are nervous, and that’s all there is to it.

Market panic can be good for investors if you stick to a strong investment discipline, namely keeping your wits about you. Down markets means buying opportunities and only temporary losses. It help separates the real investors from the tourists, and can be a useful reminder about market risk.

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So was last Friday the start of a big correction for Canada? My gut says no. The global recovery, while slow and subject to international turmoil, is real. Markets are going to continue to recover, and we’ve yet to see a big expansion in the economy as companies deploy the enormous cash reserves they have been hoarding since 2009. In addition, the general trend in financial news in the United States is still very positive, and much of that news has yet to be reflected in the market. There have even been tentative signs of easing tensions between Russia and the Ukraine, which bodes well for Europe. In fact, as I write this the TSX is up just over 100 points, and while that may not mean a return to its previous highs for the year I wouldn’t be surprised if we see substantial recoveries from the high quality companies whose growth is dependent on global markets.

Forget Scotland, Canada is Playing Its Own Dangerous Economic Game

house-of-cardsIn a few hours we will begin finding out the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom, and we may be witness to one of the most incredible social and economic experiments  in the history of the Western World.

But while many suspect that a yes vote for Scottish independence may cast an uncertain economic future, it shouldn’t be forgotten that as Canadians we are also going through our own uncertain economic experiment. According to a survey conducted by Canadian Payroll Association and released this month, 25% of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque, with nothing left in their accounts once their bills have been paid for.

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In addition, the majority of Canadians have less than $10,000 set aside for emergencies and these numbers get (unsurprisingly) worse as you look at various age groups. Young Canadians are the worst off, with 63% saying they are living paycheque to paycheque between the ages 18 to 29.

But when it comes to planning for retirement, the numbers are significantly more dire. More and more Canadians are expecting to delay their retirement, citing insufficient funds for their retirement nest egg. Even as people (correctly) assume that they will need more money to last them through retirement, 75% of those surveyed said they had put away less than a quarter of what they will need, and for those Canadians getting closer to retirement (north of 50), 47% had yet to get to even a quarter of their needed savings.

None of this is good news, and it undercuts much of the success of any economic growth that is being reported. While the survey found that people were trying to save more than they had last year it also highlights that many people felt that their debt was overwhelming, that their debt was greater than last year and that mortgages and credit cards by far accounted for the debt that was eating into potential savings.

The report has a few other important points to make and you can read the who thing HERE. But what stands out to me is how economies and markets can look superficially healthy even when the financial health of the population is being eroded. This is a subject we routinely come back to, partly because its so important, and partly because no one seems to be talking about it past the periodic news piece. Our elections focus on jobs, taxes and transit, but often fail to begin addressing the long term financial health of those voting.

Why it’s so hard to see a financial correction when its staring you in the face

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll have noticed how I am regularly concerned about the state of the Canadian economy. And while I maintain that I have good reason for this; including fears about high personal debt, an expensive housing market and weakening manufacturing numbers, the sentiment of the market isn’t with me. As of writing this article the TSX is up just over 14% YTD, spurred on by strong numbers in the small cap, energy and banking sectors.

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All this illustrates is the incredible difficulty of understanding and seeing the truth in an economy. Is an economy healthy or unhealthy? How do we know, and which data is most important? Economies produce all kinds of information and it’s frequently hard to see the forest for the trees. But even with all the secrecy around the bank’s and regulators financial misdeeds prior to 2008, the writing was on the wall that the US housing market was over inflated and that savings rates were too low and debt rates too high. And while you could be forgiven for not really understanding the fine points of bundled derivates and just how far “toxic debt” had spread, it wasn’t as though the banks had hidden the size of their balance sheets or the number of outstanding loans. It was all there for anyone to see. And people did see it and then shrugged.

One of the big fallouts of the financial meltdown was extensive criticism directed at the professional class of economist and business reporters who give regular market commentary and missed the total implosion of the financial and housing sectors. After all, how good could these “professionals” be if they can’t see the financial freight train like the one that just came through? . But I would chalk that up to overly positive market sentiment. It’s not that they didn’t see the bad news, they just assumed that other better news was more important.

Look at these two articles from yesterday’s (August 20th, 2014) Globe and Mail:

Canada losing steam in its push for an export boom

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Bump in shipping a boon to Canada

While these two articles aren’t exactly equal, (one is talking about Canada right now, the other is talking about prolonged growth of Canadian shipping over the coming decades) it’s interesting to note that they sit side by side on the same day in the same newspaper. For investors (professional and individual alike) it is an ongoing challenge to make sense of the abundant information about the markets without resorting to our “gut feelings”. Do we tend to feel good about the market or bad? Which headline should be more important? Here is a third article from the same day: (Click the image to see the full size article).

photoIts plain to see how I feel about the state of the Canadian market (and which news I place value on), but its also possible that I’m the crazy one. Lots of Canadians disagree with me quite strongly and it is shown everyday the TSX reaches some new high. Which brings us back to investor, or market sentiment. Described as the “tone” of the market, it might be better thought as human irrationality in assessing odds and errors in estimating value. Investor sentiment plays a significant role in valuing the market over the short-term, far in excess of hard financial data. And it isn’t until that sentiment turns sour that we begin to see corrections. Coincidentally, holding an opinion contrary to the popular sentiment is quite lonely, and many portfolio managers have been criticized for their steadfast market view only to be proven right after they had acquiesced to investor complaints about poor performance.

Following a correction, once the positive market sentiment has been washed away, it seems obvious to us which information we should have been paying attention to. But that doesn’t mean being a contrarian is automatically a recipe for investment success. I may be wrong about the Canadian market space altogether (it wouldn’t be that shocking), and in time I will regret not placing more value on different financial news. What is far more valuable to investors is to have a market discipline that tempers positive (and negative) sentiment. An investing discipline will reign in enthusiasm over certain hot stocks, and keep you invested when markets are bad and the temptation is to run away. Sometimes that means being the loser in hot markets, but that may also mean better protection in down markets.

By the Numbers, What Canadian Investors Should Know About Canada

I thought I had more saved!I am regularly quite vocal about my concern over the Canadian economy. But like anyone who may be too early in their predictions, the universe continues to thwart my best efforts to make my point. If you’ve been paying attention to the market at all this year it is Canada that has been pulling ahead. The United States, and many global indices have been underwater or simply lagging compared to the apparent strength of our market.

But fundamentals matter. For instance, the current driver in the Canadian market is materials and energy (translation, oil). But it’s unclear why this is, or more specifically, why the price of oil is so high. With the growing supply of oil from the US, costly Canadian oil seems to be the last thing anyone needs, but a high oil price and a weak Canadian dollar have conspired to give life to Canadian energy company stocks.

YTD Performance of Global Indices as of April 25th, 2014
YTD Performance of Global Indices as of April 25th, 2014

Similarly the Canadian job market has been quite weak. Many Canadian corporations have failed to hire, instead sitting on mountains of cash resulting in inaction in the jobs market. Meanwhile the weak dollar, typically a jump start to our industrial sector, has failed to do any such thing. But at the core of our woes is the disturbing trend of burdensome debt and the high cost of homeownership.

I know what you want to say. “Adrian, you are always complaining about burdensome debt and high costs of homeownership! Tell me something I don’t know!” Well, I imagine you don’t know just how burdensome that debt is. According to Maclean’s Magazine the total Canadian consumer and mortgage debt is now close to $1.7 Trillion, 1 trillion more than it was in 2003. That’s right, in a decade we have added a trillion dollars of new debt. And while there is some evidence that the net worth of Canadian families has gone up, once adjusted for inflation that increase is really the result of growing house prices and recovering pensions.

Today Canadians carry more personal credit card debt than ever before. We spend more money on luxury goods, travel and on home renovations than ever before. Our consumer spending is now 56% of GDP, and it is almost all being driven by debt.

Canadians have made a big deal about how well we faired through the economic meltdown of 2008, and were quick to wag our fingers at the free spending ways of our neighbours to the South, but the reality is we are every bit as cavalier about our financial well being as they were at the height of the economic malfeasance. While it is unlikely we will see a crash like that in the US, the Canadian market is highly interconnected, and drops in the price of oil will have a ripple effect on borrowing rates, defaults, bank profits and unemployment, all of which is be exasperated by our high debt levels.

Canada’s Economy Still Ticking Along, But Don’t be Fooled

Money CanThis year the Canadian markets have been doing exceptionally well. Where as last year the S&P/TSX had been struggling to get above 2% at this time, this year the markets have soared ahead of most of their global counterparts. In fact the Canadian market triumph is only half of this story, matched equally by the disappointing performance of almost every significant global market. Concerns over China have hurt Emerging Markets. The Ukrainian crisis has hindered Europe, and a difficult winter combined with weaker economic data has put the brakes on the US as well.

YTD TSX Performance

But this sudden return to form should not fool Canadians. It is a common trope of investing that people over estimate the value of their local economies, and a home bias can prove to be dangerous to a portfolio. Taking a peak under the hood of Canada’s market performance and we see it is largely from the volatile sectors of the economy. In the current year the costs of Oil, Natural Gas and Gold are all up. Utilities have also driven some of the returns, but with the Materials and Energy sector being a full third of the TSX its easy to see what’s really driving market performance. Combined with a declining dollar and improving global economy and Canada looks like an ideal place to invest.

TSX Market Sectors

But the underlying truth of the Canadian market is that it remains unhealthy. Manufacturing is down, although recovering slowly. Jobs growth exists, but its highly anemic. The core dangers to the vast number of Canadians continue to be high debt, expensive real-estate and cheap credit. In short, Canada is beginning to look more like pre-2008 United States rather than the picture of financial health we continue to project. Cheap borrowing rates are keeping the economy afloat, and it isn’t at all clear what the government can do to slow it down without upsetting the apple cart.

For Canadian investors the pull will be to increase exposure to the Canadian market, but they should be wary that even when news reports seem favourable about how well the Canadian economy might do, they are not making a comment about how healthy the economy really is. Instead they are making a prediction about what might happen if trends continue in a certain direction. There are many threats to Canada, both global and domestic, and it should weigh heavily on the minds of investors when they choose where to invest.

 

Be the Most Interesting Person at Christmas Dinner

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! We’ve been busy over here for the last couple of weeks and unfortunately I haven’t been able to update our blog as often as I would like. However lots of interesting and important things have been happening over the past two weeks and they are worth mentioning. Check them out below!

Bitcoin is maybe not going to survive. Maybe: There is an ongoing fight about whether Bitcoin, the digital currency, is in fact a real currency. Bitcoin has been criticized for being a tool of the criminal underworld, and praised for its inventiveness. But like all fiat currencies there is a lot of speculation about whether it is worth anything. After all, who is backing Bitcoin? There is no government that will guarantee it and not every government is happy with it, and its value fluctuates wildly. And yet Bitcoin persists, at least until today. China has just banned Bitcoin and its largest exchange will not accept any more deposits, sending the value of Bitcoin tumbling.

What’s good for the investor maybe bad for the economy: There is a demographic shift going on in the Western Developed nations. People are getting older. Not just older, but retirement older, and as a result the economy is feeling pressured to respond to needs arising out of this aging baby boomer trend. One of those shifts is towards dividends. Dividends are traditionally issued by companies to their shareholders when the companies have extra money lying around and can’t use it productively. However many companies, especially large ones that generate more cash flow than they can reasonably use issue regular dividends, such as banks and many utilities. This is useful to investors that are looking to retire or are retired already. Regular dividends help provide retirees with regular and predictable income. However dividends may be bad for the economy. CEOs are often rewarded for market performance, and markets tend to like companies that increase their dividends (Microsoft increased its dividend in September). But companies can be far more useful to the economy generally when they invest in growth rather than give money back to shareholders. That would mean hiring new people, building new factories and generally moving money through the economy. But as much of the population ages and looks for dividends this might undermine the both growth in economic terms and affect choices that CEOs make about the future of their companies.

Canadians are at record debt levels, again: This may not come as much of a surprise, but Canadians have record debt levels and nothing seems to be correcting it! This story began regularly occurring in 20102011, 2012, and of course 2013. What is more important about how high the debt of Canadians continues to rise, but what’s driving it. Not surprisingly it’s mortgages. The high cost of Canadian housing has worried the federal government, and many global organizations. But far worse would be a deflationary cycle on Canadian homes, driving down the price while saddling home owners with debts far in excess the value of their houses. Despite a number of efforts to limit the amounts that Canadians are borrowing, the very low interest rate set by the Bank of Canada is keeping Canadian’s interested in buying ever more expensive homes. The reality is that no one is really sure what is to be done, or what the potential fallout might be. What is clear is that this can’t continue forever.

We’re going to be taking next week off, but will be back in January!