Walking the Tightrope

Tightrope-Graph_181538393_crop02As we bring this year to a close, markets continue to frustrate. The US markets, along with most global markets and especially Canada, are all negative. Over the past few weeks Canada has dipped as low as -13% on it’s year-to-date (YTD) return. In speaking with some people within my industry, expectations to finish flat for the year will be sufficient for a pat on the back and considered solid performance.

Years are ultimately an arbitrary way of organizing time. January 1st will simply be another day from the standpoint of the earth and the sun. Neither China’s nor Canada’s problems will have solved themselves when markets reopen in 2016, but from the perspective of investors a new year gives us a chance to reframe and contextualize opportunities and risks in the markets. The surprises of 2015 will now be part of the fabric of 2016, new stories will come to dominate investor news and new narratives will popup to explain the terrain for Canadians.

So when we do get to our first trades in January, what kind of world will we be looking at? What opportunities and risks will we be considering?

The risks are very real. After a steep sell off in Canada we may be tempted to think that the Canadian market is cheap and ideal for investment. I’ve had more than one conversation with market analysts that suggests that things could change very quickly. Cheap oil, a cheap dollar and rising consumer spending to the south could all spell big opportunities for Canada.

S&P TSX Index
Though it has recovered substantially since the lows of early 2009, the TSX is a real underperformer. It’s last high was August of 2014, and since then has simply lost ground. It is also hovering now around its 2011 value.

But this argument has another side. Since 2007, despite lots of volatility, the TSX has barely moved. In February of 2007 the TSX was at 13083, and at close on Friday last week the market was 13024. The engines of Canada’s economic growth from the past few years have largely stalled. Commodity prices have fallen and may be depressed for some time, with exports of everything from timber to copper and iron being reduced significantly. Oil too, as we have previously said, is unlikely to bounce back quickly. Even if oil recovers to around $60, the growth of cheap shale energy will likely eclipse Canadian tar sands, and will not be enough to restart some previously canceled projects.

 

MSCI EM Chart
MSCI EM: The MSCI Emerging Markets index has shown solid losses this year, but has yet to regained it’s last high at the beginning of 2011, and has been sideways and volatile for the past few years.  

Similarly, the Emerging Markets have been badly beaten this year, driving down the MSCI EM Index to levels well below the early year highs. But those levels also reflect the ongoing and worrying trend. The MSCI EM Index (a useful tool to look at Emerging Markets) isn’t just lower than it’s previous year’s high, it’s lower than it was back in 2011, and in 2007. In other words we’ve yet to surpass any previous highs, and when faced with the reality that the United States will likely be raising rates for the next few years, the EM will likely continue to lose investments to safer and higher yielding returns in the United States.

 

MSCI EAFE
MSCI EAFE: The EAFE has faired better than some others, but closing in on the end of the year we look to be at roughly where we were at the beginning of 2011. The MSCI EAFE Index is a benchmark to measure international equity while excluding the United States and Canada.

In an ideal world a new year would be a chance to wipe the slate clean, mark the previous year’s failings as in the past and move forward. But what drives markets (in between bouts of panic selling and fevered buying) are the fundamentals of economies and the companies within them. So as celebrations of December 31st give way to a return of regular business hours, investors should temper any excitement they have about last year’s losers becoming the new year’s winners. The ground has shifted for the Canadian economy, as it has for much of the Emerging Markets. Weaknesses abound as debt levels are at some of their highest and global markets have largely slowed.

It is a core belief that investors should seek “discounts”. The old adage is buy low and sell high. That advice holds, but investors should be wary as they walk the tightrope between discounted opportunities, and realistic market danger. Faced with a world filled with worrying trends and negative news an even handed and traditional approach to investments should be at the top of every investor’s agenda for 2016.

Why It Matters If The Fed Raises Rates

628x471This summer might prove to be quite rocky for the American and global economies. The smart money is on the Federal Reserve raising its borrowing rate from a paltry 0.25% to something…marginally less paltry. But in a world where borrowing rates are already incredibly low even a modest increase has some investors shaking in their boots.

Why is this? And why do interest rates matter so much? And why should a small increase in the government borrowing rate matter so greatly? The answer has everything to do with that financial black hole 2008.

I asked NASA to use the Hubble telescope to take a photo of the 2008 financial crash. This is what it looks like from space.
I asked NASA to use the Hubble telescope to take a photo of the 2008 financial crash. This is what it looks like from space.

No matter how much time passes we still seem to orbit that particular mess. In this instance it is America’s relative success in returning economic strength that is the source of the woes. Following the crash their was a great deal of “slack” in the economy. Essentially factories that didn’t run, houses that sat empty and office space that was unused. The problem in a recession is convincing 1. Banks to lend to people to start or expand businesses, and 2. to convince people to borrow. During the great depression the double hit of banks raising lending rates and people being unable to borrow created a protracted problem, and it was the mission of the Federal Reserve in 2008 to not let that happen again.
US GDP Growth 2012-2015 source: tradingeconomics.com

To do that the American government stepped in, first with bailouts to pick up the bad debt (cleaning the slate so to speak) and then with a two pronged attack, by lowering the overnight lending rate (the rate that banks can borrow at) and then promising to buy bonds indefinitely, (called Quantitative Easing). The effect is to print mountains of money, but in ways that should hopefully stimulate banks and corporations to lend and spend on new projects. But such a program can’t go on for ever. Backing this enormous expansions of the treasury requires borrowing from other people (primarily China) and the very reasonable fear is that if this goes on too long either a new financial bubble will be created, or the dollar will become worthless (or both!).

Today the Fed is trying to determine whether that time has come. And yet that answer seems far from clear. Investors are wary that the economy can survive without the crutch of cheap credit. Analysts and economists are nervous that raising rates will push the US dollar higher, making it less competitive globally. Meanwhile other countries are dropping interest rates. Germany issued a negative bond. Canada’s own key lending rates was cut earlier this year. People are rightly worried that a move to tighten lending is going in the exact opposite direction of global trends of deflation. If anything, some argue the US needs more credit.

The question of raising rates reveals just how little we really know about the financial seas that we are sailing. I often like to point to Japan, whose own economic problems are both vast and mysterious. Lots of research has gone into trying to both account for Japan’s economic malaise; it’s high debt, non-existent inflation, and how to resolve it. Currently the Japanese government is making a serious and prolonged attempt to change the country’s twenty year funk, but it is meeting both high resistance and has no guarantee of success.

Similarly we have some guesses about what might happen if the Fed raises its rates in the summer or fall. Most of the predictions are temporary instability, but generally the trend is good, raising rates usually correlates to a stronger and more profitable market.

But that’s the key word. Usually. Usually European countries aren’t issuing negative interest rates on their debt. Usually we aren’t in quite a pronounced deflationary cycle. Usually we aren’t buying billions of dollars of bonds every month. Usually.

The answer isn’t to ignore the bad predictions, or obsess over them. The best idea is to review your portfolio and make sure it’s anti-fragile. That means incorporating traditional investment techniques and keeping a steadfast watch over the markets through what are often considered the quiet months of the year.

What Your RRSP Should Have In Common With The CPP

rrsp-eggTo many Canadians the CPP is something that you simply receive when you turn 65, (or 70, or 60, depending on when you want or need it) with little consideration for how the program works or is run. That’s too bad because the CPP is successful, enlightening and puts its American counterpart, Social Security, to shame.

You’ve probably heard American politicians decrying the state of Social Security, claiming that it is broken and will one day run out of money. That’s a frightening prospect for those who will depend on it in the future. Social Security is a trust that buys US debt, and its use of US Treasuries (low risk debt issued by the US government) is crippling that program and even puts it at odds with attempts to improve government financial health (it’s more complicated than this, but it’s a useful guide). In comparison the CPP isn’t bound by the same restrictions, and operates as a sovereign wealth fund.

A sovereign wealth fund is simply a fancy way to describe a program that can buy assets, which is exactly what the CPP does. The Canada Pension Plan may be larger and more elaborate than your RRSP, but it can look very similar. The CPP has exposure to Canadian, American, European and Emerging Market equity. It invests in fixed income both domestically and abroad, and while it may also participate in private equity deals (like when the CPP bought Neiman Marcus) in essence the investments in the CPP are aiming to do exactly what your RRSP does.

CPP Breakdown

The big lesson here is really about risk though. The CPP is one of the 10 largest pension plans in the world. It’s wildly successful and is run in such a way as to be sustainable for the next 75 years. The same cannot be said for Social Security. But by taking the “safest” option Social Security is failing in its job and will run out of money by 2033. But by buying real assets and investing sensibly the CPP is far more likely to survive and continue to thrive through all of our lifetimes.

What’s also notable is what the CPP isn’t trying to do. It isn’t concentrated in Canada. It doesn’t need to get a substantial rate of return, and it doesn’t need every sector to outperform. It needs consistent returns to realize its goals, and that’s how it’s positioned. By being diversified and not trying to time the market, the CPP finds success for all Canadian investors.

I’ve said in conversation that if there was an opportunity to invest directly in the CPP I would take it. However until then the best thing investors can do is take the CPPs lessons to heart!

Canada Has Always Been a Weak Economy

real-estate-investingIt may come as a real surprise to many Canadians but we have never been a strong economy. From the standpoint of most of the world we barely even register as an economic force. Yet a combination of global events have conspired to make Canadians far more comfortable with a greater sense of complacency about the tenuous position of Canada’s economic might.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that Canada and Canadians aren’t wealthy. We are. But having a high standard of living is largely a result of forces that have been as much beyond our control as any particular economic decisions we’ve made.

Consider for a second the size of Canada’s economy in relation to the rest of the world. While we may be one of the G8 nations, the Canadian economy only accounts for about 2-3% of the global GDP, and has (according to the IMF) never been higher than the world’s 8th largest economy. Even with the growth in the oil fields Canada hasn’t contributed more than 2.8% to global growth between 2000 and 2010.

nortel-21
The Rise and Fall of Nortel Stock.

It’s not just that Canada isn’t a big economy, we’re also a narrow one. In the past we’ve looked at how the TSX is dominated by only a few sectors, but the investable market can play even crueler tricks than that. If you can remember the tech boom and the once great titan Nortel, you might only remember their fall from grace, wiping out 60,000 Canadian jobs and huge gains in the stock market. What you should know is that as companies get bigger in the TSX they end up accounting for an ever greater proportion of the index. At its peak Nortel accounted for 33% of the S&P/TSX, creating a dangerous weighting in the index that adversely affected everyone else and skewed performance.

Similarly much of Canada’s success through the 90s and early 2000s had as much to do with a declining dollar. While it may be the scourge of every Canadian tourist, it is an enormous benefit to Canadian industry and exports. Starting in 2007 the Canadian dollar began to gain significantly against the US dollar. This sudden gain in the dollar contributed to Canada’s relative outperformance against every global market. The dollar’s rise was also closely connected to the rise in the value of oil and the strong growth in the Alberta oil sands.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 12.21.52 PM

This mix of currency fluctuations, oil revenue and narrow investable market has created an illusion for Canadian investors. It has created the appearance of a place to invest with greater strength and security than is actually provided.

Some studies have shown that the average Canadian investor will have up to 65% of their portfolio housed in Canadian equities. This is insane for all kinds of obvious reasons. Obvious except for the average Canadian. This preference for investing heavily into your local economy has been coined “home bias” and there is lots of work out there for you to read if you are interested. But while Canadians may be blind to the dangers of over contributing to their own markets, it becomes obvious if you recommend that you place 65% of your money in the Belgium or the Swedish stock market. However long Canada’s relative market strength lasts investors should remember that all things revert to the mean. That’s a danger that investors should account for.

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

140617strangelove
The look of a nervous investor who needs more diversification

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

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

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

In short, it’s a confusing mess.

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

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

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

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

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