Who Will We Hold Accountable?

June is here and the summer promises to be hot, sunny and inviting. Yet Canadians are still struggling with the pandemic, with daily numbers still in the 100s of new cases and the curve being bent slowly. Far from crushing the pandemic or setting up a robust testing and tracing system Canadians are being reprimanded for being to close to each other in parks and watching the mayor of Toronto walk around incapable of wearing a mask properly.

These results are not nationally representative, but regionally specific. Quebec is currently the worst affected province, with Montreal the country’s epicentre for the virus. Ontario fairs only a little better, while the rest of the country is beginning to move to reopening. In all, while Canada largely sidestepped an out of control spike, we have failed to bring the virus under control.

Fighting the pandemic has taken an enormous financial and emotional toll, to citizens, to cities, and to the economy. Economic lifeboats to offset the worst of the effects have cost in the hundreds of billions and will represent a sizeable financial burden for the foreseeable future. That cost has been born willingly, with people foregoing seeing relatives and friends, risking the survival of businesses, and saying goodbye to loved ones who died in hospital alone, all in an effort to smother a new and existential threat to our well being.

But Canadians will be right to wonder whether our governments maximized our response and put our consent to be governed to good use, or did they squander it in bizarre and foolish ways? I’m sorry to say that it’s probably the latter.

Cast your mind back to March (roughly 100 years ago) and recall that the minister of health, Patty Hajdu had insisted that the coronavirus posed a minimal risk to Canadians. Questions about whether we should be wearing masks were dismissed as misguided and the idea that closing borders to people travelling to places that had been Covid-19 hotspots was considered useless or potentially even discriminatory.

What an innocent time.

Today masks are recommended (sort of) albeit reluctantly, borders are largely closed and social distancing is not simply a recommendation, but mandatory and enforced by private businesses. Concerns about racism have been buried under a growing mountain of evidence that China actively misled the world about the severity of the new epidemic while simultaneously buying as much personal protective equipment as it could.

Given the conceivable difficulty with getting people to “socially distance” responsibly, something that people have never done in a society accustomed to largely doing what it likes with little fear from its government, the political opposition to masks has remained particularly puzzling. What has struck people as one of the most simple and straightforward ways to improve safety by embracing an obvious form of precaution has been regularly opposed by every public health official for all kinds of reasons right up to the moment that they decided that it was a good idea.

Other concerns about our government’s handling of the pandemic seem even worse. Though Ontario and Canada at large were meant to be better prepared as a result of the SARS outbreak, at every turn it seems that its quite the opposite. The national stockpile turns out to not have been much of a stockpile at all. Ontario’s own stockpile was largely destroyed in 2013 when it was supposed to expire and not replaced at the time (in a cruel twist of irony that expiry date was revealed to likely have been too early). In a recent interview, when Dr. Theresa Tam was asked whether concerns over pandemic preparedness had been presented to the cabinet she was cut off by the Minister of Health and reminded that all conversations with the cabinet are private.

The only thing that might have made up for all these missteps would have been an effective test and trace system that would have over-tested the population so that it could get out ahead of the virus and proactively isolated carriers. By comparison testing remains well below where it needs to be to accomplish this. In fact, to get a clear sense of just how far behind we are on the testing consider that in Ethiopia (ETHIOPIA!) the capital is testing people door-to-door! Meanwhile, here in Toronto it’s unclear whether you should even go in for testing or just stay home.

This isn’t a political rant. I’m under no illusions that another party or another leader might have made better or more decisive decisions. If anything multiple parties are to blame for the failed efforts to deal with the pandemic at every level of government. If I needed to find a single example that encapsulated the level of this failure, please consider that last week the Toronto Star reported that the TTC was trying to find out if they could legally enforce wearing masks on buses and subways! Months after a pandemic has ravaged people’s lives and eroded billions in wealth, only now does the TTC aim to see if it can enforce the most basic form of prevention for buses and subways. Even a cursory glance at where most of Toronto’s cases have been are aligned with poorer neighbourhoods that depend on more public transit.

These questions aren’t academic, and they aren’t partisan. The stakes are very real and the crisis will have a long reach into the future. Canadians have spent the last decade acquiring sizeable debt anchored by home values, with governments and banks happy to pretend that this debt was a form of wealth. Today the financial situation looks considerably worse, and one way to mitigate the damage to the economy would be to reopen the economy with confidence. Sadly, in the hands of our existing political class, such a thing remains out of reach.

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.

Watching the Crisis Unfold in Real Time

Housing Crisis 2

The economic fallout of the pandemic has garnered many shocking headlines, from concerns over how many restaurants may fail to the sheer number of people seeking unemployment insurance. Some of this is economic rubber necking, basking in the shocking and outlandish statistics generated by the lockdown and pandemic. The real test is still in front of us, determining what is temporary and what is permanent.

up-unemployment-claims-estimates-promo-1585760380714-superJumbo
From the New York Times

Concern that a number of restaurants may not reopen seems a reasonable fear, since lots of restaurants don’t survive normally. The impact to the airline industry will take years to work out, since you can’t just put all those planes back in the sky. It will take time to determine which routes should be brought back first, how many people want to fly and the planes themselves will need considerable maintenance before any of them roll down a runway.

But hope springs eternal. Eight weeks into the lockdown and efforts remain underway to gradually reopen the economy, and in time we will see which parts of our society (not economy, but society) need real help to get back on its feet.

I remain largely optimistic about the speed of the recovery once it’s safe to reopen, but remain cautious regarding existing problems within the Canadian economy that the pandemic will likely accelerate. Problems that were hidden just under the surface will find themselves in the cold light of day, and those problems will have repercussions, many of which will not be easy to predict.

As I wrote back in March (Will Covid-19 Make Real Estate Sick?)

“Problems rarely exist in isolation, and a problem’s ability to fester, grow and become malignant to the health of the wider body requires an interconnected set of resources to allow its most pernicious aspects to be deferred. In Canada the problem has been long known about, a high level of personal debt that has grown unabated since we missed the worst of 2008. What has allowed this problem to become wide ranging is a banking system more than happy to continue to finance home ownership, a real estate industry convinced that real estate can not fail, and a political class that has been prepared to look the other way on multiple issues including short term rental accommodation, in favour of rising property values to offset stagnant wages”

The issue of debt, real estate and short-term accommodations may be one issue undergoing a seismic shift in real time. The website MLS paints a surprisingly changed picture of the rental situation in downtown Toronto. Condominiums like the Ice Condos, located at the bottom of York Street were written about last year because so many of the units were being used for Airbnb. Today they offer hundreds of long-term rentals. The story is not limited to a few buildings either, much of the downtown condo scene, once reserved for Airbnb customers, has suddenly opened to long term accommodation.

Condo Rentals
A snapshot of available rental in May 2020 in downtown Toronto

For a city that only a few months ago was running perpetually short of rentals this change has been rapid, but its fair to assume that many of these landlords are hoping that the crisis will pass and that things will return to normal, with lucrative business in short term rentals resuming. The effect of all these new rentals is not happening in a vacuum. According to Rentals.ca in their May 2020 report, the price of condo rentals in locations like the Ice Condos have dropped by 10%.

Rental Change in TO
From Rentals.ca

The flip side of the real time change has been the sudden collapse in real estate sales. Reportedly year over year housing sales have dropped in Toronto by 67%, and new listing are down 64%. The selling and buying of houses has simply come to a grinding halt, and with it much of the city’s revenue from the land transfer tax, creating a secondary crisis within cities that have depended on the land transfer tax for revenue growth. In a cruel twist on a well-intentioned effort to get government finances under control, Toronto isn’t allowed to run a deficit, a constraint that has turned into a fatal weakness under the pandemic.

It is here that we should stop and consider a reality. In a few short weeks two major sectors of the Canadian economy within the city of Toronto (and Vancouver for that matter) have been radically altered. But this is also a period where we have seen the most government support and extensive economic intervention. Long term expectations have yet to shift. Airbnb hosts wish to remain Airbnb hosts. Homeowners hope to continue to use their houses to expand their financial footprint. But we should take a page from the city of Toronto reviewing its financial books, the real crisis has yet to truly unfold.

Our future contains, but has yet to have pass, the retreat of government financial support. It has yet to put people back to work, yet to reopen universities, yet to ramp up our manufacturing base, yet to know much of anything about moving past Covid-19. Clarity about what governments should or should not do are hindered by China’s resistance to openness and transparency, while other nations that have already faced the pandemic and seemed to recover are running into second waves. There is no clarity about the future.

iStock-518182156 (1) (1)Real estate remains at the heart of the Canadian economic story for the last 20 years. Appreciating housing prices are the chief source for growth in Canadian families’ net worth. Borrowing to buy houses and borrowing against home equity remain our chief sources of debt. Our politics revolves around the tension of needing more housing in certain highly desirable areas while preserving those areas from over development. That dynamic has revolved around a status quo that seemed to have no conceivable end. The pandemic may have radically altered the Canadian real estate landscape regardless of how people feel about it or what they want. Whether we can walk back changes of this magnitude remains very much unknowable. For now we can only watch the changes our society and economy are undergoing and hope that what we are witnessing will be for the best, those changes that have happened, and those yet to come.

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.

Journal of a Plague Year – In Defense of the Lockdown

Plague Year

While curves continue to be bent and geopolitics continues to become both more silly and more frightening than anyone ever thought possible, populations of countries remain unsure and troubled about whether they have made the correct choice of trying to beat COVID-19 through lockdowns and aggressive social distancing. Predictions of economic doom run rampant, ranging from serious recessions to the potential for a depression not unlike that of the 1930s.

With nothing to do but sit at home and twiddle our thumbs, either letting our house fall into total chaos or be cleaner than ever (a battle largely determined by how tired I am and how many cookies my kids have had) making predictions and considering alternative paths to beating this virus occupy considerable mental space. How will we know whether the unprecedented steps we have taken were the correct steps to take? What dark and strange future awaits us on the other side? I’m here to put your mind at ease, both because this situation is not unprecedented, and because we may not have had any other choice.

Let’s start with precedent. In an interview with Australian talk show host John Anderson, historian Niall Ferguson mused that future historians would regard our response to the pandemic as a mistake. This is an understandable position given the continued uncertainty around much of the virus. Is it very dangerous? Does it only affect the elderly? Do we even know how many people have it? Undoubtedly the biggest threat from the virus is what we don’t know about it.

But the assumption that it is the lockdown that is hindering the economy are belied by the available evidence. For instance, Sweden has been a focus through much of this since it hasn’t locked down its economy fully. Though schools have been closed and people have been advised to socially distance, restaurants and bars have been allowed to remain open. But estimates are that business has dropped off dramatically. In fact, despite having more of their economy not under lock and key does not seem to have materially changed the country’s fate, with early economic predictions of the contractions expected to be around 7% of GDP. That’s in line with other European neighbors.

In a similar story, the state of Georgia’s efforts to open early were met with disappointing results. People, worried about a virus that has a surprising amount of variability and high level of infection simply don’t want to go axe throwing, drink in crowded bars and go bowling. With the virus still being prevalent the thing restricting economic activity is not the lockdown, it is the virus.

Much is being made of the 1918 Spanish Influenza and this is an understandable place to jump to; the last memorable global pandemic that seriously interrupted the lives of people. Economists studying that event have concluded that “cities that implemented early and extensive non pharmaceutical interventions (like physical distancing and forbidding large gatherings) suffered no adverse economic effects over the medium term. On the contrary, cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experienced a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic subsided.” Other lessons drawn from the 1918 pandemic were not to give up too early on restrictions and that a multi-layered approach was what worked best.

But precedent exists much farther back. In Daniel Defoe’s work “Memories of a Plague Year”, a book once thought to be a work of fiction, but now believed to be based on the diaries of Defoe’s uncle who lived through the last great plague in London of 1665, all the hallmarks of our modern response can be found in that bygone era. Wealthier people escaping to their cottages? From Defoe: “It is true, a vast many people fled, as I have observed, yet they were chiefly from the West End of the Town; and from that we call the Heart of the City, that is to say, among the wealthiest of the people.”

220px-Great_plague_of_london-1665

How about our daily obsession to see if the curve is “being bent” and watching the infection rates? In 1665 concern over the spread of the plague (called the distemper) caused people to look “towards the east end of town; and the weekly Bills showing the Increase of Burials in St. Giles’s Parish…the usual number of burials in a week, in the parishes of St Giles’s in the fields, and St. Andrew’s Holborn, were from 12 to 17 or 19 each, few more or less; but from the time that the Plague first began in St. Giles’s parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number considerably.”

What of economic activity? It has been estimated that somewhere between 25%-30% of the economy has been restricted, but in 1665 “All Master Workmen in Manufactures; especially such as belonged to Ornament, and the less necessary parts of the people’s dress, cloths, and furniture for houses; such as Riband Weavers, and other Weavers; Gold and Silverlace-makers, and…Seemstresses, Milleners, Shoemakers, Hat-makers and Glove Makers: also Upholserers, Joiners, Cabinet-Makers, Looking Glass Makers; and innumerable trades which depend upon such as these; I say the Master Workmen in such , stopped their work, dismissed their journeymen and workmen, and all their dependents.” You get the idea. The economy shut down.

source

Worried that people believe lunatic conspiracies, burning 5G towers across the world? Conspiracies depend on context, and in 1665 there were plenty of people pushing nonsense ideas, including astrologers spinning stories, and a host of charlatans that were “a worse sort of deceivers…for these petty thieves only deluded them to pick their pockets, and get their money; in which their wickedness, whatever it was, lay chiefly on the side of the deceiver’s deceiving, not upon the deceived.” Amulets, charms and potions, signs of the zodiac and any number of other bogus ways to defend the person from the plague were sold widely to a gullible public desperate for protection.

Great LevelerBut what of the predictions we keep hearing about? That life will be forever changed by the events we’re living through? While I have a great deal more to say about the nature of prognostication, I’ll keep my comments here brief. In general history shows that humans don’t tend towards radical changes following big, but temporary upheavals. Instead, crises like the one we are living through emphasize existing weaknesses within the society.

In his book “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty First Century”, author Walter Scheidel points out that during the first big years of the plague, which came in the 1300s, the high death rates from plague changed the existing relationship between land and labour. For a society of feudal serfs this meant that serfs could demand wages from their lords, and the lords felt compelled to pay lest their lands remain fallow. Behaviours changed too, but only in as much that hedonism and charity increased to match the scale of the devastation people were living through. In response to our own situation charity, certainly that sanctioned by the government, has been widespread. Whether we might count the volume of baking as a form of hedonism will be left to others to decide.

Wages & Covid

But we should largely discount predictions of an economy collapsing and a society that will not wish to do anything ever again. Cruise ships, house sales, air traffic and eating out will return as confidence returns, though there will be losses along the way. But the real damage to the economy, and the people within it, will likely remain along lines that have already been established. As fewer Canadians work in good manufacturing jobs and more work in the service sector, earning marginal wages, they will continue to take the brunt of the economic hit of the lockdown. Just as likely will be that efforts to decouple production from China will lead to greater automation in manufacturing. In other words, more of the ingredients at the heart of the widening inequality gap.

The response to the coronavirus feels novel, to us. But in the scheme of history there doesn’t seem to be many other viable options. Life will return to normal not when the lockdowns are lifted, but when the virus is gone. But if we’re going to do something with our time it would be better spent figuring out how we’re going to address a worsening crisis of inequality, or brace ourselves for the next round of populist agitation.

Black Death 1

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 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 Future Filled With Seniors, A Risk Yet Considered

*From Adrian: I began writing this on the weekend when I first learned of the conditions of the retirement residence in Dorval. Since then it has been revealed that nearly 50% of COVID-19 deaths in Canada are in long term care facilities. You can read more about that here from The Globe And Mail: Outbreak at senior’s homes linked…

Senior's Risk

Canada’s demographic story is neither unique nor surprising. Like many other nations (most nations in fact) its largest demographic is rapidly aging and requiring an increasing number of services in both health care and assisted/retirement living. Like many other nations its only population growth is through immigration as people have largely stopped having enough kids to grow the next generation. It is a slow moving story, but also an inevitable one.

This is both well known and uncontroversial. Long before John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker had written Empty Planet, before Hans Rosling was using a clever moving chart at TED Talks to explain population trends, Canadian professor David K. Foot had written his book Boom Bust and Echo, detailing the future of the Canadian population. Finally those predictions are starting to be realised, and investors like myself are eagerly looking for ways to capitalize on an enormous demographic change.

One such way will be in Senior’s Residences, Assisted Living and Long Term Care Facilities. With Canadians living longer Statistics Canada points out that 7.1% of Canadians over 65 live in “collective dwellings” like retirement residences, a number that jumps to 31.1% for people 85 and older. That number holds true when we look at special care facilities, with 29.6% of people 85 and over.

Senior Demographics

The logic is appealing and direct. In 2016 16.9% of Canadian were 65 or older, and 2.2% were 85 or older. That was a 20% increase since 2011. With more Canadians approaching 65 and 85 than ever before the need for retirement residences, assisted living and long term care facilities will be greater than ever. Given the time it takes to secure and build new facilities, resistance at local levels to having them built and the high costs of creating and managing these businesses plus the government oversight, the business is as close to a sure thing that investors could hope to find. How could this go wrong?

I’ve been writing about demographics for a while. Here are some of the other things I’ve had to say:

The OHIP Gambit (October 23, 2015) – How an aging population will likely impact the province’s finances and imperil our health care.

The Demographic Deformation (October 9, 2015) – Lots of old people means an outsized impact on financial markets.

4 Reasons Why Planning for Retirement is Getting Harder (October 22, 2014) – People living longer means planning for longer with more uncertainty. Here’s four things impacting that planning.

Is It Time To End The “Senior” Citizen (April 27, 2015) – Being a senior comes with lots of perks, but increasingly meaningless when you’re likely to be a senior for two decades.

Enter 2020, a year that continues to feel like being slapped in the face by a large fish. Investors are accustomed to thinking very little about the business practices and oversight of the companies they invest in, but perhaps that should change, especially when they invest directly. Scandals, abuse and personal harm are matters for owners, and owners, even if removed from the daily running of a business should remain engaged. This remains especially true if the business deals in the wellness of people.

To my point, behold the unfolding scandal at a privately run senior’s residence in Montreal. I apologize at how graphic these details are and if you are at all squeamish please feel free to jump to the next paragraph. When health officials were finally called into the residence it was described as a “concentration camp”. Some residents had fallen on the floor and been left there. Others hadn’t been fed. Two people were found dead in their beds and hadn’t been recognized as such. Reportedly there were only two orderlies for the entire 134 bed facility. Some patients were so dehydrated they were unable to speak. Patients had been left in diapers, unchanged for several days. One in triple diapers with feces leaking out. These details are beyond horrific and have no place in a story about a Canadian senior’s residence. In total there had been 31 deaths over the previous few weeks.

As an investor, what should you think about such a discovery? Beyond its horror show details, more suited to a zombie apocalypse movie than real life, how should a lone investor think about their role in this?

One thing to consider is that due diligence should begin to increase the more certain an investment looks. Businesses with very high barriers to entry (the ease or difficulty of getting involved in a sector of the market), that are part of effective oligopolies or are essential services are not “set it and forget it” services. If anything the risk of abuse, neglect or corruption is higher the more essential and irreplaceable the businesses becomes. For the average person at home this may not be a feasible or realistic thing to do, and an individual investor may not be in a position to attend annual general meetings, or even be aware  of how to solicit and get answers from corporate boards.

This is one reason to consider using a mutual fund, or an investment that functions like a mutual fund that dedicates energy to analyzing and understanding businesses. It is also a reason for investors working with a financial advisor to ask questions about the nature of the investments they are buying, especially if they seem like “no lose” scenarios. If something makes intuitive sense to do, we should be clear as to why more aren’t doing it. Lastly, if you are investing in a private investment sold through an offering memorandum you should make sure someone is paying close attention to the details. There will always be blind corners in businesses, things you can not know, but you should have comfort that someone is providing verifiable oversight.

An aging population creates new investment opportunities, and senior’s living will be one of them. A business that’s cash rich and necessary, the appeal is obvious. But businesses that are responsible for providing care and looking after people’s well being also have the pull to maximize their profits, squeezing returns wherever they can. That push and pull should sit on everyone’s mind as they consider the new opportunities coming into focus.

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.

COVID-19 & Canadian Financial Health

The future for Canadians will not be one that is free of crises. Pandemics, financial collapses and acts of God continue to lurk around every corner. But the biggest danger is how Canadians have mismanaged their finances and how vulnerable that makes them when the unexpected happens. Today I’m ranting about what comes next, and how our physical health may be more closely tied to our financial health.

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.

A Broken Clock That’s Right Only Once

Dalio
Ray Dalio: ‘We’re disappointed because we should have made money rather than lost money in this move the way we did in 2008’ © Reuters

In 2009 I was working for a large mutual fund company in Western Canada. It was the peak of the financial crisis and I was given the opportunity to take a promotion but had to move to Alberta. I was eager to move up (I was only 28) and jumped at the chance though I had no great desire to live in Edmonton. It was a difficult time. It was lonely in Alberta, and people weren’t eager to speak to a wet behind the ear’s wholesaler right after the biggest rout in modern financial history.

One particularly vivid memory for me was back in 2009, walking into an office at the tail end of conference call being given by Christine Hughes, a portfolio manager of some note during the crisis. Hughes was at the top of her game. She had outperformed much of the market by holding 50% cash weighting and had correctly predicted the financial crash. In later appearances she would complain that the company she worked for had prevented her from holding more and would have had been allowed to. But at this moment, in 2009, it was late summer, and markets had been rebounding for several months, having hit bottom in early March. Hughes was adamant that “the other shoe was going to drop” and that’s when things would really go wrong.

For much of my time in 2009 Hughes, and her fund, was the story that challenged me. Having made the correct call in 2008, advisors were eager to listen to what she had to say and believed that her correct prediction in 2008 meant she knew what was coming next. Many people followed Hughes and her advice, which led primarily nowhere.

Hughes’ time subsequent to 2008 was not nearly as exciting or as successful as you might have guessed. She left AGF, where she had made it big, and went on to another firm before finally starting her own company, Otterwood Capital. The last time I saw Hughes it was in 2013 and she was giving a presentation about how close we were to a near and total collapse of the global financial system. Her message hadn’t changed in the preceding four years, and to my knowledge never did.

Hughes may not have prospered as much as she hoped following her winning year, but others who made similar predictions did. One such person is Ray Dalio, the founder and manager of Bridgewater Associates. Dalio is a different creature, one with a long history on Wall Street who had built a successful business long before 2008. But 2008 was a moment that launched Dalio into the stratosphere with his “Alpha Fund” largely sidestepping the worst of that market and by 2009 his hedge fund was named the largest in the US. Since then Dalio has grown a dedicated following beyond his institutional investors, with a well watched YouTube video (How the Economic Machine Works – 13 million views) and a series of books including one on his leadership principles and a study on navigating debt crises (I, of course, own a copy!). Yet when the corona virus rolled through Dalio’s funds faired no better than many other products (I’m sorry, this is behind a paywall, but I recommend everyone have a subscription to the Financial Times). Once again past success was no indication of future returns.

I’m not trying to compare myself to a hedge fund manager like Dalio, a person undoubtably smarter than myself. However its important to remember that being right in one instance, even extreme and unpredictable events, seems to offer little insight into when they will be right again.

If you’ve read many of these posts you may know that I am a fan of Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan and Antifragile. Early in the book Black Swan, Taleb makes the case that “Black Swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.” This is an important idea that I think can be extended to our portfolio mangers that gained notoriety for getting something right and then getting much else wrong.

A complaint I have long held about experts within the financial industry is both their desire to position themselves as outsiders while being likely to share many of the same views. Having a real contrarian opinion is more dangerous than being part of the herd, after all if things go wrong for you as a contrarian, they are likely to be going right for the herd. On the other hand, if things go wrong for the herd, the herd can use its size as a defense: “We were all wrong together.”

Some of this group think can be applied to the failure of governments to get a jump on the coronavirus situation. Far from not listening to experts, governments took the safest bet which was also the most conservative view, that the virus posed a low risk to the population of countries outside China. People who thought the virus was a large risk were taking a more extreme view; that the virus posed a serious risk and required extreme measures such as travel restrictions, aggressive testing, encouraging people to wear face masks and socially distance. As a politician which choice would you make?

The point for investors should be to treat the advice of financial experts who rise to prominence during outlier events as no more special than those that got big financial events wrong. This is not because their advice isn’t good, just that the thing they got right may not indicate wide ranging knowledge, but a moment when they understood something very well that other people did not. Investors should avoid personality cults and maintain a principle of uncertainty and scepticism to prophets of profit. The rise of COVID-19 and the global pandemic response, including the rapid change in the market, will produce a number of books and talking heads who will parlay their status as hedgehogs into that of a foxes! (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, please read this from 2016).

Dalio remains a very successful manager, but his correct reading of 2008 did not prepare him for 2020. In his own words: “We did not know how to navigate the virus and chose not to because we didn’t think we had an edge in trading it. So, we stayed in our positions and in retrospect we should have cut all risk.” Christine Hughes on the other hand seems to have disappeared, her fund gone and she in an early retirement. I know of no financial advisers eager to hear her views.

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.

Recapping Last Week’s Market

A quick video looking at the sudden rise in markets last week and what conclusions we can draw from it.

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.