Forever In Search of Greener Pastures

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Fun for the family, not for your RRSP…

Over the past few years, the growing chorus from the media about Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and their necessity within a portfolio has approached a near deafeining volume. In case you’ve forgotten, ETFs are the low cost investment strategy – frequently referred to as passive investments – that mimic indices, providing both the maximum up- and down-sides of the market.

I continue to harbour my doubts about the attractiveness of such investments, though I do use them from time-to-time when the situation calls for it. On the whole, though, I find it interesting that Canadian investors have been reluctant to walk away from their mutual funds, despite the assurance by talking heads that costs are too high and that ETFs are more attractive.

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This isn’t the first time that Canadians have been encouraged to broaden their investment horizons and adopt “better” vehicles for their money. Hedge funds were once an investment option for only the most wealthy, but eventually they found their way into the mainstream of investment solutions. The result was a flood of new money, which made some star managers household names, extensively broadened their investment reach and lined their pockets. The industry, once a niche, became far more commonplace. And why wouldn’t Canadians want a slice of an investment strategy that promised to be able to make money regardless of the market conditions? There has been a regular supply of managers promising to short stocks, juggle derivatives, and leverage cash to deliver positive returns regardless what was transpiring in the world. All of them (or almost; I will assume that there were some lucky ones) have fallen decidedly short. Canadians were largely let down by the last “big thing”.

The appeal of investments that are not mutual funds is understandable. Mutual funds are boring, and ubiquitous. Canadians have a lot of them, and almost without exception they make up the majority of any average portfolio. The workaday nature of these investments gives people the nagging feeling that the wealthiest among us very likely have something different, something better than what can be bought at any bank or offered by any financial advisor.

In some respects, this is true: more money does, in fact, open doors to different investment opportunities. However, people might be surprised at how small a percentage they make of any portfolio, even those that belong to the wealthiest 0.01% of Canadians, and before seeking to participate in these, we should be mindful of the lessons associated with the broadening hedge fund market. For the last three years, hedge funds have been badly underperforming in Canada, well out of line with either mutual funds or indexes. The reasons for this are not immediately obvious, as hedge fund managers offer many explanations as to their lacking performance while giving a mix of investment bombast and optimistic views about “next year.” 

One idea, floated back in 2013, was that hedge funds were good because they were smaller, when money was limited but opportunities seemed abundant. As more money has poured into the hedge fund world, that balance has shifted. Now there is too much money and the opportunities are too sparse. This is an explanation that I think has merit, but will unlikely be echoed by the proprietors of such products.

ETFs, of course, are a different animal altogether and are therefore unlikely to befall the same existing fate of hedge funds and their rock star managers. But the ease and cost effectiveness of these funds has inspired a slew of new products that either invest in smaller, more volatile markets, or are so complicated that they cannot be properly understood, and thereby expose investors to risk they may not be prepared for.

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A colleague of mine described the coverage in the press as being one of “getting all the facts right and still drawing the wrong conclusion”. Canadians don’t continue to stick with Mutual funds because they are oblivious to higher costs, but because volatility and the fear of loss is of much greater concern and poses a bigger set of risks for investors than the cost of their holdings. And while it is true that, over time, ETFs may perform slightly better than actively managed funds, most of us cannot afford to be approaching our investments on a decade-by-decade level. In bad markets people are loath to sit back and simply “wait it out” as their portfolio value continues to drop without alternative. As a result, this “passive investment” strategy, while seemingly attractive, is not realistically an appropriate alternative to the traditional “active management” strategy of mutual funds, which provide an opportunity to deal with risk and keep people invested – which, to my mind, is what truly counts for long term success.

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.

Correlation: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Market and Love Diversification

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The look of a nervous investor who needs more diversification

This year has seen further gains in the stock market both in Canada and the United States. But after five straight years of gains (the US is having its third longest period without a 10% drop) many are calling for an end to the party.

Calling for a correction in the markets isn’t unheard of, especially after such a long run of good performance. The question is what should investors do about it? Most financial advisors and responsible journalists will tell you to hold tight until it 1. happens, and 2. passes. But for investors, especially post 2008, such advice seems difficult to follow. Most Canadians with any significant savings aren’t just five years closer to retiring than they were in 2008, they are also likely considering retirement within the next 10 years. Another significant correction in the market could drastically change their retirement plans.

Complicating matters is that the investing world has yet to return to “normal”. Interest rates are at all time lows, reducing the returns from holding fixed income and creating a long term threat to bond values. The economy is still quite sluggish, and while labour numbers are still slack, labour participation will likely never return to previous highs as more and more people start retiring. Meanwhile corporations are still sitting on mountains of cash and haven’t really done much in the way of revenue growth, but share prices continue to rise making market watchers nervous about unsustainable valuations.

In short, it’s a confusing mess.

My answer to this is to stay true to principles of diversification. Diversification has to be the most boring and un-fun elements of being invested and it runs counter to our natural instincts to maximize our returns by holding investments that may not perform consistently. Diversification is like driving in a race with your brakes on. And yet it’s still the single most effective way to minimize the impacts of a market correction. It’s the insurance of the investing world.

This is not you, please do not use him as your investing inspiration.
This is not you, please do not use him as your investing inspiration.

The challenge for Canadians when it comes to diversifying is to understand the difference between problems that are systemic and those that are unique. The idea is explained well by Joseph Heath in his book Filthy Lucre. Using hunters trying to avoid starvation he notes that “10 hunters agree to share with one another, so that those who were lucky had a good day give some of their catch to those who were unlucky and had a bad day…the result will be a decrease in variance.” This type of risk pooling is premised off the idea “that one hunter’s chances of coming home empty handed must be unrelated to any other hunter’s chances of coming home empty handed.”  Systemic risk is when “something happens that simultaneously reduces everyone’s chances of catching some game.” This is why it is unhelpful to have more than one Canadian equity mutual fund in a portfolio, and to be cognizant of high correlation between funds.

The question investors should be asking is about the correlation between their investments. That information isn’t usually available except to people (like myself) who pay for services to provide that kind of data. But a financial advisor should be able to give you insight into not just the historic volatility of your investments, but also how closely they correlate with the rest of the portfolio.

Sadly I have no insights as to whether the market might have a correction this year, nor what the magnitude of such a correction could be. For my portfolio, and all the portfolios I manage the goal will be to continue to seek returns from the markets while at the same time finding protection through a diversified set of holdings.

 

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.