Canada’s Problems Are More Severe Than You Realize

house-of-cardsOn December 10th, the Bank of Canada released it’s Financial System Review for 2014. It outlined numerous problems that continue to grow and potentially undermine the Canadian economy. Globally this report attracted a great deal of attention, not something the BoC is used too, but with a rising concern that the Canadian housing market is overvalued, an official document like the FSR gets noticed.

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 10.56.42 AMTo understand why Canada is growing in focus among financial analysts around the world you need to turn the clock back to 2008. While major banks and some countries went bankrupt, Canada and its banking system was relatively unscathed. And while the economy has suffered due to the general economic slowdown across the planet, the relative health of our financial system made us the envy of many.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 10.39.42 AMBut the problems we’d sidestepped now seem to be hounding us. Low interest rates have helped spur our housing market to new highs, while Canadians in general have continued to amass debt at record levels. Attempts to slow the growth of both house prices and improve the standard of debt for borrowers by the government have only moved loan growth into subprime territory.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been talking about it for sometime, and sadly the BoC hasn’t been able to add much in the way of clarity to this story. While we all agree that house prices are overvalued, no one is sure quite how much. According to the report the range is between 10% to 30%. Just keep in mind that if you own a million dollar home and the market corrects, it would move the price from $900,000 to as low as $700,000. That can make a considerable dent to your home equity and its too big a swing to plan around.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 10.39.06 AMOn top of this is the growth of the subprime sector in the market. Stiff competition between financial institutions and an already tapped out market has encouraged “certain federally regulated financial institutions” to increase “their activities in riskier segments of household lending.” This is true not just in houses but also in auto loans, where growth as been equally strong.

The Financial System Review also goes on to talk about problems growing in both cybersecurity and in ETFs (both subjects we have written about). It also talks about some of the positive outlooks for the economy, from improving economic conditions globally and support for continued economic activity. But its quite obvious that the problem Canadians are facing now is significant underlying risk in our housing and debt markets. These problems could manifest for any number of reasons (like a sudden drop in the price of oil, a significant slowdown in China, or a fresh set of problems from Europe), or they may lay dormant for months and years to come.

For Canadians the big issues should be getting over our sense of economic specialness. As I heard one economist put  it “Canadians feel that they will be sparred an economic calamity because they are Canadian.” This isn’t useful thinking for investors and as Canadians we are going to have separate our feelings about our home from the realities of the market, something that few of us are naturally good at. But long term investor success will depend on remaining diversified (I know, I link to that article a lot), and showing patience in the face of market panic.

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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.

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

&

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.

Ninjutsu Economics – Watch the Empty Hand

First, an apology that we have been on a break from our website. Over the last month we’ve had lots going on that has distracted us from doing our regular writing, but we’re back now for the rest of the summer!

Since 2008 there has been two great themes in investing. One, is the search for yield, or income, from safer investments. The second has been the imminent arrival of a rising interest rate environment which threatens to gobble up everyone’s money. If you aren’t too familiar with monetary policy or even how low interest rates work on the economy, don’t worry. What you need to know is this:

In really bad economic times Keynsian theory states that the government should help the economy by creating inflation through stimulus spending and keeping borrowing rates low. This is often done by printing large amounts of money. The availability of cheap money has an inflationary effect on the market, and the economy is believed to rebound more quickly than it would have if it had simply let businesses fail and people be laid off work.

The flip side is that many believe printing money can lead to serious and even extreme hyper-inflation (not entirely unfounded) that in the long term can be extremely detrimental to the financial health of people. This is the fundamental tension in modern economics that is nicely summed up in the below parody video of John Maynard Keynes vs F.A. Hayek. Should markets be steered or set free? Or put more bleakly, should economies be allowed to collapse or should they be saved in the midst of an enormous financial meltdown?

In the past few years there has been an enormous amount of money printing going on (Keynsian) but at the same time governments have been trying to reduce their debts and deficits (Hayek). But the money printing has many people worried. The printing of billions of dollars globally has many inflation hawks declaring that the end of America is nigh, that the currency will soon be worth nothing and that the older traditional economies are doomed to fail. This concern has seeped into the general consciousness to a great degree and it’s not uncommon for me to get questions about whether the United States is on the verge of some new financial collapse.

I tend towards the contrarian angle however, and encourage you to do the same. So much energy and time has been focused on the threat of inflation, few seem to be watching the encroaching danger from deflation.

What’s deflation? It’s like inflation only much worse, since no one knows how to fix it. Deflation is a self fulfilling prophecy where a decreasing supply of circulating money leads to a drop in general prices for everything (this includes labour and products). On the surface that doesn’t sound too bad, but since people tend to earn less in a deflationary environment your existing debt tends to become ever more burdensome. In the same way that the collapse of the American housing market made many homes less valuable than the mortgages on them, deflation just does it to the whole economy. Japan has been in a deflationary situation for nearly 20 years, with little sign of relief. Even last year’s introduction of the unprecedented Abenomics has yet to produce the kind of inflationary turnaround that Japan is in such desperate need of.

When I look to Canada (and more specifically Toronto) I tend to see many of the signs that deflation looms in the shadows. Borrowing rates are incredibly low, largely to encourage spending. Many small retail spaces sit empty, squeezed out by  rising lease costs. Manufacturing sectors in Ontario continue to suffer, while wages remain stagnant. Canadians are currently sitting with record amount of debt and most growth in Canadian net worth have come through housing appreciation, not through greater wealth preservation. In other words, the things that contribute to a healthy economy like rising incomes and a growing industry base are largely absent from our economy. The lesson here is that when it comes to markets, we should worry more about the issues we ignore than the ones we constantly fret over. It’s the hand you don’t watch that deals the surprising blow!

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.

 

Economists Worry About Canadian Housing Bubble, Canada Politely Disagrees

real-estate-investingThis week the Financial Times reported that “Canada’s housing market exhibits many of the symptoms that preceded disruptive housing downturns in other developed economies, namely overbuilding, overvaluation and excessive household debt.”

These comments made by economist David Madani have been repeated and echoed by a number of other groups, all of whom cite Canada’s low interest rates and large household debt (now 163% of disposable income according to Statistics Canada) as a source of significant danger to the Canadian economy.

This is not a view shared by Robert Kavic of BMO Nesbitt Burns who believes that the Canadian housing market has long legs, saying “Cue the bubble mongers!”

Since 2008 predicting the fall of housing markets has become a popular spectator sport. Canada seems to have sidestepped most of the downturn, which has only made calls for the failing of Canada’s housing markets greater. But the reality is that our housing markets are very hot, and we do have lots of debt.

So is Canada’s housing market heading for a crash? Maybe. And even if it was its hard to know what to do. Fundamentals in Canada’s housing sector remain strong (and have improved). People also want to live in Canadian cities, with 100,000 people moving annually to Toronto alone. In other words, there is lots of demand. In addition regulations in the Canadian financial sector prevent similar scenarios that were seen in the United States, Spain and Ireland from occurring.

But housing prices can’t go up forever, and the more burdensome Canadian debt becomes the more sensitive the Canadian economy will become to interest rate changes. Meanwhile I have grown far more weary of over confident economists assuring the general public that “nothing can go wrong.” 

The big lesson here is probably that your house is a bad financial investment, but a great place to live. Unless you own your home, a house tends to be the bank’s asset and not yours. In addition your home, like your car, needs constant maintenance to retain its value. So if you wanted to buy a house to live in, good for you. If you want to buy a house as an investment my question to you is, “Is this really expensive investment the best investment in a world of financial opportunities?”