The Unravelling

In his book Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb says of hindsight bias “A mistake is not something to be determined after the fact, but in the light of the information until that point.”  With this guidance we can forgive some of the covid precautions and restrictions governments imposed on populations in 2020, a period of great uncertainty. 

But in mid-2022 assessing the course of action by governments and central banks as they attempt to tackle a number of non-pandemic related crises (as well as still managing a pandemic that is increasingly endemic) I think its fair to say that mistakes are being made. From political unrest, to cost of living nightmares and finally inflation dangers, the path being plotted for us should be inviting closer scrutiny by citizens before we find ourselves with ever worsening problems. 

Let’s start with the twin risks of inflation and interest rates. Inflation is high, higher than its been in decades, and central banks the world over are attempting to stamp this out with aggressive rate hiking. It is easy to point to Turkey, a country whose inflation rate is 70%, and see that their recent cutting of interest rates is a mistake in the face of such crippling inflation. But what are we to make of North American efforts to slow inflation, even at the risk of a recession? Inflation for much of the West has been tied to economic stimulus (in the form of government action through the pandemic), supply chain disruptions and low oil and gas inventories. The economy is running “hot”, with lots of businesses struggling to find employees. But inflation, measured as the CPI is a rear-view mirror way of understanding the economy, also known as a lagging indicator. But here is one that is not. The price of container freight rates, which have fallen substantially from the 2021 highs.

We can count other numbers here too. The stock market, which is having a bad year, has fallen close to pre-pandemic highs. A $10,000 investment in the TSX Composite Index would have a return of 6.1% over the past 28 months, or an annualized rate of 2.6%. In February of this year that annualized rate was 8.85%, a 70% decline in returns. The numbers are worse for US markets. While US markets have performed better through the pandemic, the decline in the S&P500 is roughly 75% from its pandemic high in annualized returns (these numbers were calculated at the end of June, offering a recent low point in performance).

For many who felt that the stock market was too difficult to navigate but the crypto market offered just the right mix of “can’t fail” and “new thing”, 2022 has wiped out $2 trillion (yes, with a “T”) of value. 

In fact speculative bubbles are themselves inflationary and their elimination will also help reduce inflation. Writes Charles Mackay in his famous book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) on the Mississippi Bubble in France, “[John] Law was now at the zenith of his prosperity, and the people were rapidly approaching the zenith of their infatuation. The highest and lowest classes were alike filled with a vision of boundless wealth…

It was remarkable at this time, that Paris had never before been so full of objects of elegance and luxury. Statues, pictures, and tapestries were imported in great quantities from foreign countries, and found a ready market. All those pretty trifles in the way of furniture and ornament which the French excel in manufacturing were no longer the exclusive play-things of the aristocracy, but were to be found in abundance in the houses of traders and the middle classes in general.

Evidence today indicates that supply chains are beginning to correct, an important component of taming inflation, while trillions of dollars have been wiped out of a speculative bubble. Even oil, which seems to be facing structural issues that would normally be inflationary has had a significant retreat, along with other commodities like copper, lumber and wheat. Some of these declines may only be temporary as markets react to recession threats, but these declines do not happen in a vacuum. They are disinflationary and should be treated as such.  

But central banks seem ready to trigger a recession in the name of defeating the beast of inflation even as it seems to be bleeding out on the ground. In June the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate by 0.75%, and the current view is that the Bank of Canada is likely to do the same in July. All this is sparking deep recession fears that seem to be driving markets lower. 

In the background remain genuine issues that seem to be addressed at best haphazardly. Inflation is a real issue making food prices go up, but its been crushing people in housing for years. Even as interest rise and house prices moderate lower, average rents in the GTA were up 18% over the last year. The Canadian government’s response to the mounting costs of living has been to propose a one time payment of $500 to low income renters. That is just a little more than the average increase in rent over the previous 12 months. 

In the face of such mounting housing pressure the city of Toronto has done the following things:

  1. Ban the feeding of birds.
  2. Consider the leashing of cats.
  3. Raised development fees 49%

For the record, Toronto is believed to have the second biggest property bubble globally. 

Globally Europe looks to be on the cusp of a serious recession. If North American central banks are looking too aggressive, Europe is struggling to chart a path for its shared currency. Rates have been at record lows but recently the ECB has said it will begin raising rates to tackle inflation. Across the continent the rate of inflation is over 8.1%, but it varies widely country to country, with Germany closer to the average, while Lithuania is at 22%. In the face of mounting inflation the ECB hasn’t raised rates once yet this year, though its expected to this month, even has the European economy and stock markets have been doing worse and worse. 

Coincidentally, Germany, who is now both the linchpin in NATO support for Ukraine while simultaneously its weakest link, has seen its economic health crumble due to decisions made years ago to pin Germany’s energy needs to Russian energy supplies. Will Germany today be able to make political decisions that support NATO and the EU even if it means further economic pain for a country that has grown accustomed to being the beneficiary of these arrangements?

It is not just Western or developed nations that are struggling. China is in the middle of some kind of debt bubble in its real estate market, whose impact is harder to know, but will likely be long lasting given its size. Numerous developing nations are on the cusp of debt defaults, the tip of the iceberg being Sri Lanka.

A small island nation off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka has been reasonably prosperous over the past few decades with an improving standard of living. Yet government mismanagement, graft and a haphazard experiment in organic farming have left the country destitute. Literally destitute. Out of money, gas and food. In the past few days protests have moved beyond general unrest into a full blown revolution, with the Sri Lankan people storming the government and the political leaders fleeing for their lives.

Behind them is El Salvador which has decided to embark on an experiment in making Bitcoin an official currency, a move designed to liberate the country from the tyranny of the World Bank and the US Government. It has instead likely led to a default, financial instability, and a more regressive and authoritarian government

This year stands out for the complex problems that have grown out of the pandemic, but if we’re serious about the kinds of big problems politicians regularly say that must be tackled, then it raises a question as to whether we are handling them properly, or whether we are making mistakes given what we know right now.

For the last few years I have written or touched on many of these topics; on housing, inflation, crypto currencies and the fragile nature of many of our institutions. And while I am cautious about making grand predictions, it remains worth asking whether we are making smart choices given what we know, and if we are not we should be making greater demands of our elected leaders. And if our elected officials continue to make poor decisions, we as investors should plan accordingly.

Walker Wealth Management is a trade name of Aligned Capital Partners Inc. (ACPI)*

ACPI is regulated by the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (www.iiroc.ca) and a Member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund (www.cipf.ca). (Advisor Name) is registered to advise in (securities and/or mutual funds) to clients residing in (List Provinces).

This publication is for informational purposes only and shall not be construed to constitute any form of investment advice. The views expressed are those of the author and may not necessarily be those of ACPI. Opinions expressed are as of the date of this publication and are subject to change without notice and information has been compiled from sources believed to be reliable. This publication has been prepared for general circulation and without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. You should not act or rely on the information without seeking the advice of the appropriate professional.

Investment products are provided by ACPI and include, but are not limited to, mutual funds, stocks, and bonds. Non-securities related business includes, without limitation, fee-based financial planning services; estate and tax planning; tax return preparation services; advising in or selling any type of insurance product; any type of mortgage service. Accordingly, ACPI is not providing and does not supervise any of the above noted activities and you should not rely on ACPI for any review of any non-securities services provided by Adrian Walker.

Any investment products and services referred to herein are only available to investors in certain jurisdictions where they may be legally offered and to certain investors who are qualified according to the laws of the applicable jurisdiction. The information contained does not constitute an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any product or service. 16 Past performance is not indicative of future performance, future returns are not guaranteed, and a loss of principal may occur. Content may not be reproduced or copied by any means without the prior consent of the author and ACPI.

Control Your Soul’s Thirst for Freedom

Since late February the bulk of global attention has been focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The invasion remains ongoing, and will likely last for months, potentially even years, and represents the most dangerous geopolitical situation we are likely to face until China tries to enforce control over the South China Seas or invades Taiwan.

But while our attention has been narrowly focused, interest is growing about how the world’s second largest economy is choosing to mange the late stages of the pandemic, a series of choices that have ramifications for much of the world.

China has had mixed luck with Covid. By the end of 2020 it looked as though China might be the only winner economically from the pandemic, but 2021 turned out to be a year for the West. First, Western vaccines, particularly the mRNA vaccines were highly effective, while the Chinese vaccine produced domestically had only a 50% success rate. The Chinese government also was hyper critical of the more effective Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, essentially precluding them from Chinese use. This has left the country in a difficult spot. Chinese mandated lockdowns have been brutal but effective, leading to uneven vaccine use. The low infection rates that the “Covid Zero” policy has delivered has also robbed the country of natural immunity. Today China, already struggling economically, is still locking down whole cities in the hopes of containing outbreaks.

Shanghai is the current major city to be shut down, but the lockdowns are spreading. Complaints about food shortages and people trapped in apartment buildings, offices, and closed off from their places of work have led to some fairly strange places, including protests and at least once the use of “speaking drones” urging citizens to comply with rules and reprimanding the citizens singing in protest one night to “Control your soul’s thirst for freedom. Do not open your windows and sing.”

This image came from early April

Chinese lockdowns are also worsening global inflation. The supply chain disruptions caused by the most recent lockdowns in Shanghai are dramatic to say the least. In the above picture each yellow dot represents one cargo ship waiting to be docked and unloaded. Supply chains were already deeply stressed when Shanghai went into lockdown last month, and the global impact of further supply disruptions is something we’re very likely to notice.

This image came from early May

Lastly, some months ago (October 2020) I had detailed how China’s foreign policy, which was heavy handed and often petulant, was angering nations all across the globe. China may not view the world the way its geopolitical rivals do, but its inability to grasp at least what might be considered fair or just by other nations is damaging its own ability to wield soft power, an essential part of being a global hegemon. China’s decision to back Russia in its invasion of Ukraine likely reflected China’s near-term goals of retaking Taiwan and its general contempt for the current world order. However, the global resistance to the Russian invasion, the support shown Ukraine and the barrage of negative publicity (as well as realizing that an untested military in countries with lots of corruption may not be able to score quick military victories) must serve as a wake-up call to China’s ruling class. As of 2022 China seems to have squandered much of its international good will and is unlikely to find many willing allies for its global ambitions.

China seems to be suffering on all fronts. 2021 was a bad year for China’s economy, cumulating in the public meltdown of one of its biggest developers in November. But everything, from its politics to its public health policies are working against it. The world’s second largest economy, one that is the largest trading partner to 130 countries, can’t seem get out of its own way, and as it falters it can’t help but impact us.

Walker Wealth Management is a trade name of Aligned Capital Partners Inc. (ACPI)*

ACPI is regulated by the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (www.iiroc.ca) and a Member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund (www.cipf.ca). (Advisor Name) is registered to advise in (securities and/or mutual funds) to clients residing in (List Provinces).

This publication is for informational purposes only and shall not be construed to constitute any form of investment advice. The views expressed are those of the author and may not necessarily be those of ACPI. Opinions expressed are as of the date of this publication and are subject to change without notice and information has been compiled from sources believed to be reliable. This publication has been prepared for general circulation and without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. You should not act or rely on the information without seeking the advice of the appropriate professional.

Investment products are provided by ACPI and include, but are not limited to, mutual funds, stocks, and bonds. Non-securities related business includes, without limitation, fee-based financial planning services; estate and tax planning; tax return preparation services; advising in or selling any type of insurance product; any type of mortgage service. Accordingly, ACPI is not providing and does not supervise any of the above noted activities and you should not rely on ACPI for any review of any non-securities services provided by Adrian Walker.

Any investment products and services referred to herein are only available to investors in certain jurisdictions where they may be legally offered and to certain investors who are qualified according to the laws of the applicable jurisdiction. The information contained does not constitute an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any product or service. 16 Past performance is not indicative of future performance, future returns are not guaranteed, and a loss of principal may occur. Content may not be reproduced or copied by any means without the prior consent of the author and ACPI.

What’s Happening With Markets?

Markets have been falling through the year, and despite some encouraging rallies the trend so far has been decidedly negative. The NASDAQ Composite, one of the three big indexes heavily tilted towards technology companies had a -23.86% YTD return as of Monday, May 16th, a minor recovery after it had reached a low of -27% on Thursday of the previous week. The Dow Jones and the S&P 500 have YTD returns of -10.31% and -14.82% respectively. The question for investors is “what to do?” in such markets, especially after some of the best years despite the pandemic.

A closer inspection of the markets however shows that while there have been some steep sell offs reflected in the broad market, the real market declines have been far more concentrated. And while there are many different market headwinds to choose from when it comes to reasons for the recent selling action; inflation, interest rates, geopolitical strife, COVID-19, maybe even Elon Musk, the sector that has been sending markets lower has been the tech sector.

Over the past couple of years the companies posting the biggest gains in the markets have been tech companies. Apple stock (AAPL) was up 88.97% in 2019, 82.31% in 2020, 34.65% in 2021, and is down -11.6% so far in 2022. Amazon (AMZN) was up 76.26% in 2020, and has fallen -30.18% this year. Facebook, now META Platforms (FB) gained 56.57% in 2019, 33.09% in 2020, 23.13% in 2021 and has lost -38.08% in 2022. Netflix was up 67.11% in 2020, and a further 11.41% in 2021 but is down -68.74% this year. Tesla, which had an astounding 743.4% gain in 2020 and another 49.76% return in 2021 is so far down -17.36% in 2022, how long can it resist gravity? (All prices and YTD performance were collected from ycharts.com on May 6th, 2022).

I predict that we may never fully understand how the pandemic changed thinking and why stock prices climbed so much, but the reality was that many tech companies benefited from people staying home, going online and the changing priorities that coincided with not having to be in offices and commuting. Tech companies that became huge like Shopify (SHOP), which allowed traditional retailers to become online retailers, benefitted immeasurably from the lockdowns. But it too has seen its stock decline this year by -69.59%, pushing the price back to where it was in December 2019.  

Because the tech sector has become so large, particularly in the NASDAQ, the retreat of these companies carries big implications for indexes and by extension the wider market as well. As markets fall, it encourages investors to panic sell, aided and abetted by the army of computers that help multiply the effects of momentum selling. This is especially true as investors have migrated to low-cost passive index ETFs, a trend so noticeable that experts worry it might be warping the market as investors worry less about the value of individual companies and instead pile money into broad indexes with no quality filters.

Markets are facing other risks too. Inflation, which seems to be running at about 8%, can threaten economies as people buy fewer items due to cost increases. Interest rate hikes, which are meant to ultimately curb inflation by restricting monetary supply and reduce lending/economic activity have hit bond markets particularly hard. Higher interest rates mean higher borrowing costs, and its here we might hypothesize about some of the unintended consequences of the incredibly accommodative monetary policy that the pandemic introduced. That might be that investors were able to borrow to invest, and the threat of both rising interest rates and stumbling returns will only hasten the exit of money from the market by some investors. Higher borrowing costs will also have another impact on markets, as a sizeable amount of stock market returns over the past decade have come from share buy backs, funded in part by low-cost borrowing.

Having said all that, economies are still looking very strong in the present. Earnings have remained high, jobless claims continue to fall, and while we’ve seen a spike in costs the ability to address those inflationary pressures may not be something that can be easily done through monetary restricting.

There are many different sources of inflation, but two significant issues are not connected to “cheap money”. Instead we have issues that are primarily structural and represent the failure of political foresight. The first among these has to do with oil. Since the price of oil fell in 2014, infrastructure development has stalled, heavily indebted producers have retreated, and now Russia has been closed off from much of the global market. This confluence of events has unfortunately arrived as economies are reopening, global use nears pre-pandemic levels, and global refined supply is at historic lows. There is no simple solution for this, as the only remedy is time (and development). In theory, Canadian and US oil could make up much of the global need, but for a multitude of reasons neither country is in a position to rapidly increase production.

Similarly, supply chain disruption and the heavy reliance on offshore manufacturing have meant that there is no simple solution to production problems occurring in other nations. China is the key issue here, with an enormous grip on much of global supply on many items and their current insistence on a “Covid Zero Policy” China is effectively shut to global business. This means ships can’t get into port, and with-it products cannot make it to market.

Higher borrowing costs seem unlikely to handle this problem. High gas prices and lack of supply may be inflationary, but high borrowing costs can’t target those issues. Instead, higher interest rates and the threat of more in the future are hitting the parts of the market that have been pushed higher by cheap credit. The stock market and the housing market.

If markets seem to be moving independently of economies, its possible that won’t stay that way for long. As previously mentioned, higher energy prices are not controllable by higher lending rates. But higher energy prices can introduce demand destruction, a fancy way of saying that economies shrink because prices get out of control. Oil is still in high use and its needs go far beyond powering cars. In fact internal combustion engines only account for 26% of global oil need, meaning those higher prices for crude, if they get too high, can have wide inflationary impacts to the entire economy.

Higher lending rates may also lead to a substantial economic reset, especially for Canadians who have much of their net worth tied up in their homes. With almost 50% of new mortgages in Canada variable rate mortgages, home prices having skyrocketed in the past few years and with most Canadian debt connected to homes, the risk to home owners is very real. Can the Bank of Canada tame inflation, orchestrate a soft landing for the housing market and keep the economy chugging along? Such a question invites highwire act comparisons.

So what’s happening with markets? Perhaps we are simply correcting a narrow subset of the market that got too hot through 2020-2021. Perhaps we are seeing the dangers of printing too much money. Perhaps we are seeing the realities of people buying too many index ETFs. Perhaps we are witnessing people being too fearful about the future. Perhaps we are too fearful of inflation or interest rates. Perhaps we are on the brink of a recession.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

But let me offer a slightly different take. Investing is frequently about connecting your needs as an investor with the realities of the world. As Warren Buffet famously said, in the short term the stock market is a voting machine, in the long term a weighing machine. If you can afford risk, you can be risky, and with that comes the potential for significant market swings. If you can not afford risk, then your portfolio should reflect that need. If you cannot stomach bad days, potentially weeks or even months of bad news, then you need to find a way to keep your investment goals aligned with your risk tolerance.

When I started this essay we had just completed one of the worst weeks of the year, which bled into the second week of May. As I finish this piece markets are in the process of rallying for a third day, posting modest gains against the backdrop of significant losses. It would be nice if I could end this with some confidence that we’ve turned a corner, that markets had bottomed and that the pessimism that has led to so much selling is evaporating as people come to recognize that stocks have been oversold. Yet such prognosticating is the exact wrong tack to take in these markets. Instead, this is a good time to review portfolios, ensuring that you are comfortable with your risk, that your financial goals remain in sight and that the portfolio remains positioned both for bad markets, and for good ones too.

If you have any concerns about how your portfolio is positioned and need to review, please don’t hesitate to contact us today.

Walker Wealth Management is a trade name of Aligned Capital Partners Inc. (ACPI)*

ACPI is regulated by the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (www.iiroc.ca) and a Member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund (www.cipf.ca). (Advisor Name) is registered to advise in (securities and/or mutual funds) to clients residing in (List Provinces).

This publication is for informational purposes only and shall not be construed to constitute any form of investment advice. The views expressed are those of the author and may not necessarily be those of ACPI. Opinions expressed are as of the date of this publication and are subject to change without notice and information has been compiled from sources believed to be reliable. This publication has been prepared for general circulation and without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. You should not act or rely on the information without seeking the advice of the appropriate professional.

Investment products are provided by ACPI and include, but are not limited to, mutual funds, stocks, and bonds. Non-securities related business includes, without limitation, fee-based financial planning services; estate and tax planning; tax return preparation services; advising in or selling any type of insurance product; any type of mortgage service. Accordingly, ACPI is not providing and does not supervise any of the above noted activities and you should not rely on ACPI for any review of any non-securities services provided by Adrian Walker.

Any investment products and services referred to herein are only available to investors in certain jurisdictions where they may be legally offered and to certain investors who are qualified according to the laws of the applicable jurisdiction. The information contained does not constitute an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any product or service. 16 Past performance is not indicative of future performance, future returns are not guaranteed, and a loss of principal may occur. Content may not be reproduced or copied by any means without the prior consent of the author and ACPI.

Looking Back on 2021

Its traditional that the end of a year should stimulate some reflection on the past and the future, and so in the spirit of tradition I thought I’d take some time to look over some of the stranger and more surprising aspects of 2021.

China

While 2021 brought the pandemic *closer* to an end through the distribution of vaccines, markets underwent some fairly dramatic reversals over the course of the year. For instance China looked to be the principal economy in January. Following its own strict enforcement of Covid restrictions and solid economic performance, China seemed to be an earlier winner by the beginning of 2021, and set to enjoy robust growth through the year.

By March the tide was shifting however. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, proved to be every bit committed to his past comments about protecting and strengthening the CCP over free market concerns. Several billionaires, notably Jack Ma the founder of Alibaba, disappeared for long periods before reemerging only to publicly announce that they would be stepping down from their roles.

However, even while China was shaking down its billionaires and upsetting foreign nations, a new economic threat appeared in the form of a housing bubble looking ready to burst. Evergrande, one of the country’s largest property developers announced that it could not finance its debt anymore and looked likely to default. This news was unwelcome for markets, but for China hawks it fit their long standing belief that China’s strength has been built on a mountain of unsustainable debt, with property one of the most vulnerable sectors of the economy.

The finer points of China’s housing market are too nuanced to get into here, but it’s enough to know that the property bubble in China is large, built on sizeable debt and could take some time to deflate (if it does) and no one is sure what the fallout might be. Combined with China’s ongoing policy of “Covid Zero” – an attempt to eradicate the virus as opposed to learning to live with and manage it, we head into 2022 with China now a major outlier in the Asian region.

Inflation

Inflation was probably the other most discussed and worrying trend of 2021. Initially inflation sceptics seemed to win the argument, as central banks rebuffed worries over rising prices and described inflation as transitory. That argument seemed to wane as we entered late Q3 and prices were indeed a great deal higher and didn’t seem to be that “transitory” anymore. Inflation hawks took a victory lap while news sites began to fill up with worrying stories about rising prices on household goods.

The inflation story remains probably the worst understood. Inflation in Canada, as in other Western nations has been going on for sometime, and its effects have been under reported due to the unique nature of the CPI. But some of the concern has also been overwrought. Much of the immediate inflation is tied to supply chains, the result of “Just-in-time” infrastructure that has left little fat for manufacturers in exchange for lower production costs. Bottlenecks in the system will not last forever and as those supply chains normalize that pressure will recede.

The other big pressure for inflation is in energy costs, but that too is likely to recede. Oil production isn’t constrained and prices, while higher than they were at the beginning of the pandemic are lower than they were in 2019. In short, many of the worries with inflation will not be indefinite, while the issues most worrying about inflation, specifically what it costs to go to the grocery store, were important but underreported issues before the pandemic. Whether they prove newsworthy into the future is yet to be seen.

*Update – at the time of writing this we were still waiting on more inflation news, and as of this morning the official inflation rate for the US over the past year was 7%. Much of this is still being chalked up to supply chains squeezed by consumer demand. An unanswered question which will have a big impact on the permanence of inflation is whether this spills into wages.

This political advertisement from the Conservatives ruffled many feathers in late November

Housing and Stocks – Two things that only go up!

If loose monetary policy didn’t make your groceries more expensive, does that mean that central bankers were right not to worry about inflation distorting the market? The answer is a categorical “No”. As we have all heard (endlessly and tediously) housing prices have skyrocketed across the country, particularly in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but also in other countries. The source of this rapid escalation in prices has undoubtedly been the historically low interest rates which has allowed people to borrow more and bid up prices.

In conjunction with housing, we’ve also seen a massive spike in stock prices, with even notable dips lasting only a few days to a couple of weeks. The explosion of new investors, low-cost trading apps, meme-stocks, crypto-currencies, and now NFTs has shown that when trapped at home for extended periods of time with the occasional stimulus cheque, many people once fearful of the market have become quasi “professional” day traders.

Market have been mercurial this past year. Broadly they’ve seemed to do very well, but indexes did not reveal the wide disparities in returns. Last year five stocks were responsible for half the gains in the S&P 500 since April, and for the total year’s return (24%), Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet Inc, Tesla and Nvidia Corp were responsible for about 1/3 of that total return. This means that returns have been far more varied for investors outside a tightly packed group of stocks, and also suggests markets remain far more fragile than they initially appear, while the index itself is far more concentrated due to the relative size of its largest companies.

Suspicious Investment Practices In addition to a stock market that seems bulletproof, houses so expensive entire generations worry they’ve been permanently priced out of the market, the rapid and explosive growth of more dubious financial vehicles has been a real cause for concern and will likely prompt governments to begin intervening in these still unregulated markets.

Crypto currencies remain the standout in this space. Even as Bitcoin and Etherium continue to edge their way towards being mainstream, new crypto currencies trading at fractions of the price, have gotten attention. Some have turned out to be jokes of jokes that inadvertently blew up. Others have been straight-up scams. But all have found a dedicated group of investors willing to risk substantial sums of money in the hope of striking it rich.

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens have also crept up in this space, making use of the blockchain, but instead of something interchangeable (like a bitcoin for a bitcoin, i.e. fungible) these tokens are unique and have captured tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for unique bits of digital art. Like cryptocurrencies, much of the value is the assumed future value and high demand for a scarce resource. However, history would show that this typically ends poorly, whether its housing, baseball cards or beanie babies.  

Lastly, there has been a number of new investment vehicles, the most unusual of which is “fractional ownership”. The online broker Wealth Simple was the first to offer this in Canada and it has been targeted to younger investors. The opportunity is that if your preferred stock is too expensive, you can own fractions of it. So if you wanted to invest in Amazon or Tesla, two stocks that are trading at (roughly) $3330 and $1156 respectively at the time of writing, those stocks might be out of reach if you’re just getting started.

This is a marketing idea, not a smart idea. The danger of having all your assets tied up in one investment is uncontroversial and well understood. The premise behind mutual funds and exchange traded funds was to give people a well-diversified investment solution without the necessity of large financial position. The introduction of fractional ownership ties back to the market fragility I mentioned above, with younger investors needlessly concentrating their risk in favour of trying to capture historic returns.

The End

For most investors this year was largely a positive one, though markets went through many phases. But while the pandemic has remained the central news story, the low market volatility and decent returns has kept much of us either distracted or comfortable with the state of things. And yet I can’t help but wonder whether the risks are all the greater as a result. Many of these events, the large returns in an ever tightening group of stocks, the growth of investors chasing gains, the sudden appearance of new asset bubbles and the continued strain on the housing market and household goods add up to a worrying mix as we look ahead.

Or maybe not. Market pessimists, housing bears, and bitcoin doubters have garnered a lot of attention but have a bad track record (I should know!) Many of the most pressing issues feel as though they should come to a head soon, but history also teaches us that real problems; big problems that take years to sort out and lead to substantial changes are often much longer in the making than the patience of their critics. The test for investors is whether they can stand by their convictions and miss out on potential windfalls, or will they become converts right as the market gives way?

Next week, we’ll examine some of the potential trends of 2022.   

The End of Globalization?

Globalization End

I’m not one to indulge in predicting radical transformations to the world order. As a rule, change remains slow and while its end can’t always be guessed, its direction is often telegraphed. So, while I’m reluctant to make any grand pronouncements about the future after the lockdowns and life resumes a more normal trajectory (like people no longer working in offices!), I think there is enough evidence today to say that the globalized world is under heavy threat.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has highlighted some strategic weaknesses that must be addressed, and that governments will be unlikely to tolerate into the future. Chief among them is the large dependence on China as a source of medical supplies, including 80% of global face mask supplies and (at least in the US) 30% of personal protective equipment.

We might assume that this is a problem with China, but it isn’t. This is actually a problem with globalization and how dependent it is on a global leadership structure. As supply chains have become global their operation depends on a strong global framework that keeps trade open and coordinates needs across borders. That means that there must also be leadership that can fight (more metaphorically than literally) to keep those chains open in a crisis. That role has been traditionally occupied by the United States, but under Trump’s management the country has taken a big step back from such a global leadership role with other nations making a similar retreat.

As the coronavirus was starting to make inroads in Europe and North America it became impossible to get masks from China, regardless of which factories made them (Medicom, a Canadian manufacturer has three factories in China but none of those masks ever made it back to our borders) as the Chinese government simply requisitioned all masks for their population. Other countries have also taken similar steps, restricting the transportation of some drugs and medical supplies. Finally, in a moment of clarity for Canadians regarding their relationship with the US, Trump invoked a Korean War era law to halt the sale of N95 masks to Canada. That was eventually rescinded, but the message was received loud and clear. Nations have no friends, only interests.

This is true with large international organizations as well. The World Health Organization is facing a lot of scrutiny over its early handling of the pandemic and for its perceived subservience towards China. The WHO, which can only operate in China with the government’s permission, had limited access to people on the ground in Wuhan, accepted the Chinese explanation of no “human to human” transmission, and in respecting the Chinese position on Taiwan can not engage or work with the Taiwanese government to understand how they have very successfully curbed the outbreak. All this has raised eyebrows about how useful this group is. In the past this might prompt more engagement from its largest backers, the United States, and fought for reforms to improve its responses. That’s not the case today, as instead Trump has opted to cease funding to the WHO as both a retaliatory act and a way to shift focus from his own administration.

For sometime globalization has been coming under increasing pressure as a result of the erosion of industrial domestic manufacturing, inequality, and populism. But the pandemic seems to be hastening that process as opposed to repairing it. At a time when a global coordinated effort is desperately needed, no nation is inclined to fill that role. This effect has been described by political scientist Ian Bremmer in his book Every Nation For Itself as a “G-Zero World”, a world with no global leader.

That role has traditionally fallen to the United States, which has seen its own prosperity connected to considerable soft power. But as domestic issues and populism have risen voters of wealthy Western nations have become increasingly inward turning. Some might think that China would fill that role, but China is too nakedly self-interested in its own ambitions, making it difficult for nations to embrace the country’s “help”. Meanwhile, as other nations continue to develop economically they are growing less willing to accept the terms of IMF and World Bank help, and more committed to their own national wants.

Whenever the world begins its return to normal we should expect countries to decouple some of their supply chains from China purely for the public good when it comes to health and medical supplies. But other businesses are taking note that during this crisis they have also been held hostage by China. Apple intends to have its new budget phone assembled in Brazil, and the ongoing trade war with China (now rapidly turning into a cold war) is unlikely to be eased when this is put behind us. Instead we should expect it to accelerate.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

A Case For the Best Case

A Case for the Best Case

*In an act of hubris I have written this before companies have begun releasing their earnings reports. I can only assume I will be punished by the animal spirits for such reckless predictions!

The news has been grim. The number of people seeking EI has spiked so much, so quickly that it reduces the previous unemployment numbers to a flat line (this is true in both Canada and the United States, US EI graph below). Countries remain in lockdown and some of the worst hit countries like Italy and Spain are starting to plateau, adding ONLY between 500 to 1000 deaths a day. In Canada the numbers continue to climb and the economy has been largely shut down, with governments rolling out unprecedented quantities of money to stem the worst of this. Talk of a deep economic depression has been making rounds, while the Prime Minister has reluctantly suggested that we may be in a restricted environment until July.

Us Jobless Claims - Q3 2017 - Feb Q1 2020
These two charts show the unemployment rate in the US just before the coronavirus, and after. From Refinitiv

US Jobless Claims Including April 2020
These two charts show the unemployment rate in the US just before the coronavirus, and after. From Refinitiv

And yet.

And yet.

And yet, I suspect we may be too negative in our outlook.

First, just how restricted is the economy? Despite the wide-ranging efforts to restrict the social interaction that daily economic activity produces, much of the economy continues to function. Office and white-collar jobs have quickly adapted to remote working. Few have been laid off in that respect. Industrial production is down, unless they are deemed essential, but the essential label has applied to a lot of businesses. Until the recent additional restrictions applied on Sunday April 5, 2020 in Ontario, Best Buy, Canadian Tire, Home Depot and a number of other stores remained open to the public. Those businesses have had to restrict access to their stores, but remain functioning through curb pick and online delivery.

Even the service economy is still largely functioning. Most restaurants remain open providing take out and delivery. Coffee shops, gas stations, grocery stores, convenience stores are all open, as are local grocery providers like butchers and bakers (and candle stick makers). Its’ true that large retail spaces like Yorkdale or the Eaton Centre are closed but this too tells us something.

The government has helped make it easier to get money since people have been laid off, and many of the people who have been let go will only be out of work for a short time. They are the waiters, union employees and airline pilots who will be rehired when the society begins to reopen. Even in the period I began writing this, Air Canada rehired 16,500 employees, West Jet will be rehiring 6,500 employees, and Canadians applying for the new CERB (Covid-19 Emergency Response Benefit) have reportedly already begun receiving it.

You might be reading this and thinking that I’m being callous or simply ignoring the scope of the problem that we are facing, but I want to stress that I am not. I recognize just how many people have found themselves out of work, how disruptive this has been, how scared people are and how this pandemic and its response has hit the lower income earners disproportionately more. But just as few people correctly saw the scale of the impact of the coronavirus, we should remain cautious about being too certain that we can now anticipate how long the economic malaise may last, or how permanent it will likely be, and what its lasting impacts will look like.

Labour work

The sectors of the economy worst hit will likely be those already suffering a negative trend line. The auto sector, for instance, is one that has been hemorrhaging money for a while, with global car sales in a serious slump. Some retail businesses, already on the ropes from Amazon’s “retail apocalypse” may find they no longer can hold on, though government aid may give them a limited second life. Hotels and travel will likely also suffer for a period as they carry a high overhead and have been entirely shut down through this process (sort of).

Longer term economic problems may come about from mortgage holders who have struggled to fulfill their financial obligations to banks, and it may take several months to see the full economic fallout from the efforts to fight the pandemic, so some of the effects may be staggered over the year.

Economist image

But even if that’s the case, the current thinking is that the market must retest lows for a considerable period, with few people calling for a rapid recovery and many more calling for a “W” shape (initial recovery then a second testing of previous market lows) and in the Economist this week “one pessimistic Wall Street banker talks of a future neither v-shaped, u-shaped or even w-shaped, but ‘more like a bathtub’”.

FT China Cinema

That pessimism is well warranted, and I count myself among those expecting markets to have a second dip. But I admit to having my doubts about the full scale of the impact to the real economy. There will no doubt be some fairly scary charts, like thre were from China, showing the drop off in cinema goers and people eating out. But the more certain, the more gloomy, the more despairing the outlooks get, the more I wonder if this is an over compensation for having overlooked the severity of the virus, or if it is the prevailing mood biasing these predictions? Only time will tell, but I am taking some comfort in knowing that there is still a case for the best possible case.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

All Eyes Are On China

People in China

China, the first hit by the coronavirus and the first to emerge from its enforced hibernation, is the global centre of attention as people watch to see how fast its economy can recover from the from the pandemic chaos unleashed in January. If China is able to bounce back quickly it will be good news for other countries and should raise spirits of investors, businesses, and governments that a global shut down may not lead to the worst of all worlds.

Early economic data is both more and less reassuring than one might expect. The impact of the lockdown in China took a sizeable bite out of the economy. The one year change in the value of exports is -15.9% (down already since the trade war began), industrial production was -13.5%, the fastest contraction in 30 years, while retail sales in China were down -20.5%.

China Data

But as things return to normal in the shadow of the pandemic, numbers may also be improving faster than we thought. Reported in the Financial Times on March 20, of the 80% of restaurants that had been closed in February, less than 40% are closed now. That’s good news for small businesses watching from across the Pacific. There is good news in manufacturing as well. The Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) has been officially reported at 52.0, which indicates that manufacturing is growing and not contracting. In February the PMI for China was 35.7, a record low for the country. That positive PMI result is helping extend gains today (March 31st) and giving hope to governments and markets that the worst of this pandemic may be shaken off faster than economists have predicted.

PMI China March

But economic activity is still well below 2019 levels and have a way to recover. In addition, China is one nation, the Western economy is made up of many, and the countries worst hit by the COVID-19 outbreaks have yet to peek and plateau. Italy, Spain and the United States are all fairing poorly, with Italy and Spain perhaps just finally reaching peak of cases now. The United States on the other hand now has more officially recorded cases than any other country, while New York, Catalonia, and Madrid are on track to pass Lombardia as the worst affected cities both in infections and mortalities.

Ft Capture Countries

The coronavirus remains the central unknown in this story. If tamed, can it be permanently subdued? If not, can new cases be dealt with on a case by case basis, or will we have to revert to aggressive forms of social distancing? Concerns remain about whether there will be a second wave of infections in Asia, while China has maintained that all new cases are being imported and can be dealt with proactive screening and testing.

FT Corona City Mortality

In Europe and North America the best news has been to see production of ventilators, masks and the deployment of field hospitals ramp up to deal with the threat. In the wider Asian region, wide testing and a willingness to follow government dictates and a focus on personal protection through the adoption of wide mask usage has had a direct impact on taming the virus in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan (the exception here might be Japan, which seems to have relaxed prematurely and now is considering shutting down Tokyo). But the best news may still be from China and a sudden and rapid improvement in their economy as restrictions are lifted. If prolonged the early rally than began last week, and has continued yesterday and through overnight trading may become the foundation for a more sustained recovery. If not markets may be thrown back into turmoil.*(Please note, markets seem to be in turmoil again.)

Covid-19 CHina Economy

Today, at the end of March, I think the potential for a slower recovery remains possible. Huge stimulus packages have been put in place by governments to help ease the worst of the economic fallout. Governments and their citizens seem to be facing the challenge head on, even if they have been late to the game. America’s enormous manufacturing capacity is being used usefully to deal with the pandemic (better late than never) and early economic news from China is encouraging, but should be treated with caution.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

When Only One Thing Matters

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In my head is the vague memory of some political talking head who predicted economic ruin under Obama. He had once worked for the US Government in the 80s and had predicted a recession using only three economic indicators. His call that a recession was imminent led to much derision and he was ultimately let go from his job, left presumably to wander the earth seeking out a second life as political commentator making outlandish claims. I forget his name and, so far, Google hasn’t been much help.

I bring this half-formed memory up because we live in a world that seems focused on ONE BIG THING. The ONE BIG THING is so big that it clouds out the wider picture, limiting conversation and making it hard to plan for the future. That ONE BIG THING is Trump’s trade war.

I get all kinds of financial reports sent to me, some better than others, and lately they’ve all started to share a common thread. In short, while they highlight the relative strength of the US markets, the softening of some global markets, and changes in monetary policy from various central banks they all conclude with the same caveat. That the trade war seems to matter more and things could get better or worse based on what actions Trump and Xi Jinping take in the immediate future.

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Now, I have a history of criticizing economists for making predictions that are rosier than they should be, that predictions tend towards being little more than guesses and that smart investors should be mindful of risks that they can’t afford. I think this situation is no different, and it is concerning how much one issue has become the “x-factor” in reading the markets, at the expense of literally everything else.

What this should mean for investors is two-fold. That analysts are increasingly making more useless predictions since “the x-factor” leaves analysts shrugging their shoulders, admitting that they can’t properly predict what’s coming because a tweet from the president could derail their models. The second is that as ONE BIG THING dominates the discussion investors increasingly feel threatened by it and myopic about it.

This may seem obvious, but being a smart investor is about distance and strategy. The more focused we become about a problem the more we can’t see anything but that problem. In the case of the trade war the conversation is increasingly one that dominates all conversation. And while the trade war represents a serious issue on the global stage, so too does Brexit, as does India’s occupation of Kashmir (more on that another day) , the imminent crackdown by the Chinese on Hong Kong (more on that another day), the declining number of liberal democracies and the fraying of the Liberal International order.

This may not feel like I’m painting a better picture here, but my point is that things are always going wrong. They are never not going wrong and that had we waited until there were only proverbial sunny days for our investing picnic, we’d never get out the door. What this means is not that you should ignore or be blasé about the various crises afflicting the world, but that they should be put into a better historical context: things are going wrong because things are always going wrong. If investing is a picnic, you shouldn’t ignore the rain, but bring an umbrella.

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The trade war represents an issue that people can easily grasp and is close to home. Trump’s own brand of semi-authoritarian populism controls news cycles and demands attention. Its hard to “look away”. It demands our attention, and demands we respond in a dynamic way. But its dominance makes people feel that we are on the cusp of another great crash. The potential for things to be wiped out, for savings to be obliterated, for Trump to be the worst possible version of what he is. And so I caution readers and investors that as much as we find Trump’s antics unsettling and worrying, we should not let his brash twitter feuds panic us nor guide us. He is but one of many issues swirling around and its incumbent on us to look at the big picture and act accordingly. That we live in a complex world, that things are frequently going wrong and the most successful strategy is one that resists letting ONE BIG THING decide our actions. Don’t be like my half-remembered man, myopic and predicting gloom.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

The Blind Men & The Elephant

1280px-Blind_monks_examining_an_elephantMarkets have reached six or seven week highs, (HIGHS I say!) and questions are arising as to whether this represents a sustained recovery.

The crystal ball is decidedly opaque on that question, not simply because there is an abundance of conflicting data, but because more of it is produced everyday. Add to that the fact that the “mood” often dictates much of the day’s trading, plus the often counter-intuitive reality that sometimes sufficiently bad news is considered good news in its own right.

Take for example China’s financial woes. China’s economy is definitely slowing, and the tools used in the past to spur Chinese growth are no longer useful in the same way. To summarize, the Chinese economy got big by building big things; cities, ports, factories, and other big infrastructure to facilitate its role as a manufacturer to the world. In turn the world sold China many of the resources needed to do that. Now the Chinese are up their eyeballs in highways and empty cities they must “transition” to a service economy, essentially an economy that now serves its people rather than the rest of the planet.

Such a transition is no easy thing, and to the best of my knowledge there is no law that says the Chinese government is somehow more adept at managing such a transition. But every bit of bad news may either make investors nervous, or give them hope that the Chinese government may be encouraged to do more economic stimulus. Moody’s, the ratings agency, recently downgraded their outlook on Chinese debt from stable to negative, and downgraded their credit rating. The market’s response?

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 10.33.51 AM

That big jump is after they received the downgrade! We see similar patterns out of Europe and the United States. Raising US interest rates has been widely decried by various financial types and talking heads, urging the Federal reserve chairman Janet Yellen to either reverse, stop or even consider negative rates to help the economy. Why such panicked response? Because it has become a common thought that raising rates is now more damaging that the requirement of lowering them!

This has less to do though with distortions in the market and more to do with people trying to accurately read and project from various data points, even when many of those reports conflict. In the short term the abundance of conflicting news creates a blind men and the elephant relationship between investors and economies. Everybody is feeling their way around but all coming back with wildly different descriptions of what is happening.

Janet Yellen
Janet Yellen has raised interest rates and has said she expects to raise rates four more times this year. She has met serious opposition on this matter from many within the financial sector.

What we do know is that there are some big problems in the markets and economies, and the threat of a global recession is very real. What day traders and analysts are looking for is confirmation on whether this threat is easing or not. So, if we suddenly read that managers see a contraction in oil production we might see a sudden rise in the value of crude oil. That news has to be weighed against that fact that global oil supply is still growing, and whether it still makes sense to price oil by its available supply, or against its expected future reduced production.

And that is the challenge. Big problems take time to sort out, and in the intervening period as they are addressed the blind men of the markets make lots of little moves trying to bet on early outcomes, attempting to assess the correct value of a thing often before a clear picture is actually there. For investors the message is to be cautious, both in making large bets or by trying to avoid risk all together. It is a mantra here in our office on the benefits of diversification and risk management, precisely because it reminds us to hold positions even when the mood has soured greatly, and shy away from investments that have become too popular. The goal of investors should to not be one of the blind men, guessing about what they touch, but to make irrelevant that shape of the markets altogether.

 

 

Hyperbole and a Half: Terrible Financial Advice

bear market

Walking into my office this morning I was bracing for yet another day of significant losses on global markets. It’s a tricky business being a financial advisor in good or bad markets. But seeking growth, balancing risk, and managing people towards a sustainable retirement (a deadline that looms nearer now with every passing year) only grows more challenging in terrible markets like the ones we are in.

In some ways it can seem like divining, working out which thread of thought is the most crucial in understanding the problems afflicting markets and panicking investors. Is the rising US dollar enough to throw off the (somewhat) resurgent American manufacturing sector? Has China actually successfully converted its economy, and is no longer requiring infrastructure projects to drive growth? Is oil oversold, and if so should we be buying it?

Aiding me in this endeavor is the seemingly boundless supply of news media. There is never a moment in my day where I do not have some new information coming my way providing “insight” into the markets. The Economist, the world’s only monthly magazine that comes weekly, begins my day with their “Economist Espresso” email I get every morning. No wake-up period is complete for me without glancing at the Financial Times quickly. My subscription to the Globe and Mail and the National Post never go unattended. Even facebook and Reddit can sometimes provide useful information from around the planet. After that is the independent data supplied by various financial institutions, including banks, mutual fund companies and analysts.

So what should you do when the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) screams across the internet “Sell Everything Before Market Crash”.

Panic%20button

The answer is probably nothing, or at least pause before you hit the big red button. It’s not that they can’t be right, just that they haven’t exactly earned our trust. RBS, if you may recall, was virtually nationalized following losses in 2008, having 83% of the bank sold to the government. In 2010 despite a £1.1 billion loss, paid out nearly £1 billion in bonuses, of which nearly 100 went to senior executives worth over a £1 million each. In 2011 it was fined £28 million for anti-competitive practices. In short, RBS is a hot mess and I suppose it is in keeping with it’s erratic behavior that it should try and insight panic selling the world over with a media grabbing headline like this.

I may be unfair to RBS. I didn’t speak to the analyst personally. The analyst was reported in the Guardian, a newspaper in the UK whose views on capitalism might be best described as ‘Marxist’, and inclined to hyperbole. It’s not as though I am not equally pessimistic about the markets this year, nor am I alone in such an assessment. But it should seem strange to me that an organization whose credibility should still be highly in question, who undid the financial stability of a major bank should also be trusted when calling for mass panic and reckless selling.

The analyst responsible for this startling statement is named Andrew Roberts, and he has since followed up his argument with an article over at the Spectator (I also read that), outlining in his own words the thoughts behind his “sell everything” call, essentially spelling out much of we have said over the past few months in this blog. I find myself agreeing with much of what he has written, and yet can’t bring myself to begin large scale negation of sound financial planning in favour of apoplectic pronouncements that are designed as much to generate headlines and attention as they are to impart financial wisdom.

Panic Selling

The point is not to be dismissive of calls for safety or warnings about dire circumstances. Instead we should be mindful in how we make sense of markets, and how investors should approach shocking headlines like “sell everything”. I am not a fan of passive investing, the somewhat in-vogue idea that you can simply choose your portfolio mix, lean back and check back in once every decade for a negligible cost. I advocate, and continue to advocate for ongoing maintenance in a portfolio. That investors must be vigilante and while they should not have to know all the details of global markets, they should understand how their portfolios seek downside protection. My advice, somewhat less shrill and brimstone-esque , is call your financial advisor, discuss your concerns and be clear on what worst case scenarios might mean to your portfolios and what options are available to you. If you don’t have a financial advisor, feel free to reach out to us too.

Concerned about the markets and need a second opinion? Please drop us a line and we will be in touch…