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?

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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

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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”.

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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.

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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…

 

Swiming With Rocks in Your Pockets

drowningSince 2008 governments the world over have tried to fight the biggest banking collapse since the great depression with modest success. Eight years on and you would be loath to say that the world has turned a corner, ushering in a return of unrestrained economic growth.

Why this is the case is a question not just unanswered by the average layman, but by experts as well. Huge amounts of money have been printed, financial institutions have been patched and repaired, interest rates are at all time lows, what more can be done to fix the underlying problems?

It turns out that nobody is really sure, but as we begin 2016 global markets are reeling on the news that the Chinese economy has even greater problems than previously thought. Only a few days into the week and most markets are down in excess of 2-3%, giving rise to concerns that a Chinese led global recession could be on it’s way.

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The S&P/TSX over the past week.

The difference between now and 2008 is that much of the resources used to try and stem the problems from nearly a decade ago have already been deployed, and there is little left in the tank for another round. Central bakers have been trying to get enough inflation into the system to raise interest rates up from “emergency” levels to something more “normal” but outside of the US this seems to have largely failed.

One of the saving graces after 2008 was that the Emerging Markets were seemingly unaffected. In fact, since 2008 the developing world has become more than 50% of global GDP but in that time the rot that often accompanies success has also set in. EM debt is now considerable, putting many countries that had once extremely healthy balance sheets heavily into the red. Borrowing by these nations has increasingly moved away from constructive economic development and more into topping up civil servants and passing on treats to voters.

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For some, myself included, it has been encouraging that the Chinese have not proven to be the economic übermensch that some had feared. The rise of the state directed economy with boundless growth had many people concerned that China might represent an economic nadir for the planet. To see it every bit as bloated, foolish and corrupt may not be good for markets, but at least takes the bloom off the rose about Chinese economic supremacy.

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Still, this all of this leads to a couple of frightening conclusions. One is that we have yet to come across any rapid comprehensive solution to a global financial crisis like 2008 that can undo the damage and return us to an expected economic prosperity. The second is that we may have been going down the wrong path to resolve the economic problems we face.

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If debt was the driving force behind 2008, you couldn’t argue we’ve done much to alleviate the problem. At best we have merely shifted who holds it. In the United States, the US government took on billions of dollars of debt to stabilize the system. In Europe, despite attempts to reduce balance sheets across the continent, every country has taken on more debt as a result, regardless of whether they are having a strong market recovery, or a weak one. In Canada, arguably one of the worst offenders, private debt and public debt have ballooned at a frightening pace with little to show for it. Rate cuts and government spending are no match it seems for a plummeting oil price and a lack lustre manufacturing sector.

Interest Rates Globally

Having faced the problem of restrictive debt, putting much of the world’s financial markets in grave danger, our response has been to simply acquire more. Greece owes more, Canada owes more, and now the Emerging markets owe more. It was as though while trying to right the economic ship we forgot that we should keep bailing out the water.

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These charts come from an excellent report by McKinsey & Company called Debt and (not much) Deleveraging. You can download it HERE.

 

None of this is to say that every decision since 2008 has been wrong. Following Keynesian policy saved countless jobs and businesses. But at some point we should have also expected to tighten our belts and dispose of some of the debt weighing us down. Instead central banks attempted to stimulate inflation by juicing the consumer economy with incredibly low interest rates. But as we have seen there is only so much that can be done. A combination of persistent deflation, an aging population and extensive debt have largely upended the best efforts to restart the economy on all cylinders.

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This shouldn’t be a surprise. Debt makes us financially fragile. It is an obligation and burden on our future selves. But if we found ourselves drowning in debt eight years ago, it is curious we thought the solution would be to add rocks to our pockets and expect to make the swimming easier.

 

Russia’s Entire Stock Market is Worth Less Than Apple Computers

Let's just call this what it is. Awkward.
Let’s just call this what it is. Awkward.

A few days ago a bizarre inversion took place. A single company was suddenly worth more than the entire investable market size of a major economy. While I like Apple a lot and applaud the incredible profitability of the company, this is more a story about how badly the Russian economy is doing.

Back when Russia was first inciting dissent inside the Ukraine following the ouster of the quasi-dictator running the country, it had banked on the idea that it’s continued escalation inside the borders of a sovereign nation would go unchallenged as few countries would wish to risk a military skirmish over a single, marginal country in Europe.

Vladimir Putin miscalculated however when he didn’t realize how precarious the Russian economy was. Sanctions were implemented and what followed was a largely hollow trade war that did more to identify Russia’s weakness than strength. But the most recent blow to Russia has been the change in the price of oil.

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 12.31.04 PMNow that the price of oil is under $80, Russia is suffering severely. Like many oil rich nations, oil exports substitute for taxes. This frees autocratic rulers to both pursue generous social programs while not having to answer to citizen complaints about high taxes. It’s how countries like Saudi Arabia  and Iran get by with little democratic input and a relatively passive population with little to no public disobedience about democratic rights (mostly).

This relationship though means that there are actually two prices for oil. First the breakeven price for extracting oil from the ground, and second break breakeven social price of oil. Those prices are different in every country. In Alberta for instance, tar sand oil is usually quoted at $70 a barrel for breakeven. But to cover the costs of running the government the price is much higher. For Russia the slide in price from $109 a barrel to $80 has meant wiping out it’s current account surplus.

Combined with the falling rouble (now 30% lower than the beginning of the year) and the growth of corporate debt sector, Russia is now in a very precarious situation. I’m of the opinion that energy, and energy companies have been oversold and a rise in price would not be unexpected. But whether the price of energy will bounce back up to its earlier highs from this year seems remote.

This is a stock photo of a guy thinking. Could he be thinking about where to invest his money? He could be. It's hard to tell because he was actually paid to stand there and look like this and we can't ask him.
This is a stock photo of a guy thinking. Could he be thinking about where to invest his money? He could be. It’s hard to tell because he was actually paid to stand there and look like this and we can’t ask him.

Over the last few months I’ve been moving away from the Emerging Markets, and while the reasons are not specifically for those listed above, Russia’s problems are a good example of the choices investors face as other markets continue to improve their health. If you had a dollar today that could be invested in the either the United States or Russia, who would you choose? The adventurous might say Russia, believing they could outlast the risk. But with more Canadians approaching retirement the more sensible option is in markets like the US, where corporate health is improved, debt levels are lower and markets are not subject to the same kind of political, economic and social instability that plagues many emerging economies.

 

Be the Most Interesting Person at Christmas Dinner

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

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

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

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

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