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.

Making Economics Meaningful – How Official Inflation Figures Obscure Reality

Since 2008 (that evergreen financial milestone) central banks have tried to stimulate economies by keeping borrowing rates extremely low. The idea was that people and corporations would be encouraged to borrow and spend money since the cost of that borrowing would be so cheap. This would eventually stimulate the economy through growth, help people get back to work and ultimately lead to inflation as shortages of workers began to demand more salary and there was less “slack” in the economy.

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Following the financial crisis lending rates dropped from historic norms of around 5% to historic lows and remained there for most of the next decade.

Such a policy only makes sense so long as you know when to turn it off, the sign of which has been an elusive 2% inflation target. Despite historically low borrowing rates inflation has remained subdued. Even with falling unemployment numbers and solid economic growth inflation has remained finicky. The reasons for this vary. In some instances statistics like low unemployment don’t capture people who have dropped out of the employment market, but decide to return after a prolonged absence. In other instances wage inflation has stayed low, with well-paying manufacturing jobs being replaced by full-time retail jobs. The economy grows, and people are employed, but earnings remain below their previous highs.

Recently this seems to have started to change. In 2017 the Federal Reserve in the United States (the Fed) and the Bank of Canada (BoC) both raised rates. And while at the beginning of this year the Fed didn’t raise rates, expectations are that a rate hike is still in the works. In fact the recent (and historic) market drops were prompted by fears that inflation numbers were rising faster than anticipated and that interest rates might have to rise much more quickly than previously thought. Raising rates is thought to slow the amount of money coursing through the economy and thus slow economic growth and subsequently inflation. But what is inflation? How is it measured?

One key metric for inflation is the CPI, or Consumer Price Index. That index tracks changes in the price or around 80,000 goods in a “basket”. The goods represent 180 categories and fall into 8 major groupings. CPI is complicated by Core CPI, which is like the CPI but excludes things like mortgage rates, food and gas prices. This is because those categories are subject to more short-term price fluctuation and can make the entire statistic seem more volatile than it really is.

CollegeInflationArmed with that info you might feel like the whole project makes sense. In reality, there are lots of questions about inflation that should concern every Canadian. Consider the associated chart from the American Enterprise Institute. Between 1996 – 2016 prices on things like TVs, Cellphones and household furniture all dropped in price. By comparison education, childcare, food, and housing all rose in price. In the case of education, the price was dramatic.

Canada’s much discussed but seemingly impervious housing bubble shows a similar story. The price of housing vs income and compared to rent has ballooned in Canada dramatically between 1990 to 2015, while the 2008 crash radically readjusted the US market in that space.

The chart below, from Scotiabank Economics, shows the rising cost of childcare and housekeeping services in just the past few years, with Ontario outpacing the rest of the country in terms of year over year change when it comes to such costs.

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My desktop is littered with charts such as these, charts that tell more precise stories about the nature of the broader statistics that we hear about. Overall one story repeatedly stands out, and that is that inflation rate may be low, but in all the ways you would count it, it continues to rise.

DIe6Fh2UMAEDmaIIn Ontario the price of food is more expensive, gas is more expensive and houses (and now rents) are also fantastically more expensive. To say that inflation has been low is to miss a larger point about the direction of prices that matter in our daily lives. The essentials have gotten a lot more expensive. TVs, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners are all cheaper. This represents a misalignment between how the economy functions and how we live. 

DJs5AdwXoAANcDTEconomic data should be meaningful if it is to be counted as useful. A survey done by BMO Global Asset Management found that more and more Canadians were dipping into their RRSPs. The number one reason was for home buying at 27%, but 64% of respondents had used their RRSPs to pay for emergencies, for living expenses or to pay off debt. These numbers dovetail nicely with the growth in household debt, primarily revolving around mortgages and HELOCs, that make Canadians some of the most indebted people on the planet.

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In the past few years, we have repeatedly looked at several stories whose glacial pace can sometimes obscure the reality of the situation. But people seem to know that costs are rising precisely in ways that make life harder in ways that we define as meaningful. When we look at healthcare, education, retirement, and housing it’s perhaps time that central banks and governments adopt a different lens when it comes understanding the economy.

Why The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Made Economic Sense

This week it seemed that much of the media hype around the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge died down as it gradually became eclipsed with other news. In case you somehow missed what this viral sensation was, it went something like this. What started as a youtube video of someone giving $100 to an ALS charity instead of having a bucket of cold water dumped on your head, spread quickly into having a bucket of cold water dumped on your head and also giving money to an ALS charity, followed by the donator/victim challenging several other people. These were filmed and placed on Facebook and youtube and people have been following it.

For the several charities that raise money for ALS research, the challenge has proved to be an enormous windfall, netting more than $100 million in donations in excess of their normal annual fund raising. But all of the cheering and success  brought in the professional cynical class of journalists. There must be a downside, and by god they would report it.

I’m not going to go into the details of the criticisms here, but here are some articles you can read if you are so inclined. Instead I want to show why the economics of which charities we give to makes more sense than critics often believe.

The standard argument goes something like this: We contribute far more money to diseases that won’t likely kill us than the ones that do. Humans are clearly illogical and if they had any sense we would direct all our money into charities that dealt with the things most likely to wipe us off the planet. This misalignment of money versus danger is similar to why we are so scared of terrorists than swimming pools, even though you are far more likely to drown in a swimming pool than be killed by terrorists.

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Except that it’s all wrong! People give money to the charities that matter most to them because they understand something about diseases that kill you better than people who just look at statistics.

For instance, Heart Disease is the number one killer in almost every western country, with (I believe) the exception of Portugal. So why aren’t we more scared of heart disease? Because it typically doesn’t kill you until you are already old. While your odds of getting and dying from heart disease start to rise significantly when you reach 60, since 1952 the cardiovascular death rate in Canada has dropped by 75% and nearly 40% in the last decade due to improvements in medicines, surgical procedures and prevention efforts according to Statistics Canada. In other words we’ve already made great strides in reducing unnecessary death from heart disease, and reducing the likelihood that heart disease will strike early is as easy as simply eating a healthier more balanced diet.

Cancer on the other hand isn’t fully understood. We don’t know why some people get it, and why some do not. We don’t know why some people have cancer go into remission and why some do not. If you have survived cancer you have likely been through a hell of an ordeal, as almost every known treatment is as bad as the disease you are fighting. If you’ve watched a loved one pass away from the disease you know how difficult it was and had to watch someone slip away, often in pain and great discomfort, losing control of their bodies and losing even their sense of self.

The mistake that the statistics cover up is this. You must die of something. People do not simply get old and die. They get old, weaker with time, and finally susceptible to something far more likely to kill them. Increasingly heart disease is something that you die of when you are old. Cancer by comparison can strike you down in the prime of your life. You can get cancer in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s. Its a difficult disease to overcome, survivors are acutely aware that they have a high chance of reoccurrence and people who have lost a loved one feel the pain of a prolonged illness. In that context we give money to charities that fight diseases that leave a strong emotional scar, like cancer or in this case ALS, and that does make economic sense.

We took a little time off this week following labour day. We’ll be back next week with regular postings!

California could be at a tipping point…

I’ve been quite vocal about how one day we will have to accept that things we get for free may not be free forever. Water is of particular concern for everyone not simply because it’s a necessity, but because almost none of us live with water scarcity anymore its often hard to connect the dots when it comes to facing real water shortages.

Take for instance California, whose three year drought has reached new and frightening proportions. There are some excellent articles about what impact the drought is having here and here, but take a look at these images of water reserves from 2011 and then the same locations from 2014. Running out of water is a frightening prospect, but 30 million people don’t just pack up and move because water has gotten a little scarce. What happens instead is you begin paying more for water while getting less back in economic benefits.

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I highly recommend Elizabeth Renzetti’s excellent piece in the Globe and Mail today, and I suggest everyone have a read of it. Its an excellent reminder that the biggest issue we face in managing serious economic and environmental problems is not a lack of skill, knowledge, or imagination, but a simple willingness to face the problem. The outcome of which is usually higher costs for everybody immediately, and possibly disastrous results in the future.

Why it’s so hard to see a financial correction when its staring you in the face

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll have noticed how I am regularly concerned about the state of the Canadian economy. And while I maintain that I have good reason for this; including fears about high personal debt, an expensive housing market and weakening manufacturing numbers, the sentiment of the market isn’t with me. As of writing this article the TSX is up just over 14% YTD, spurred on by strong numbers in the small cap, energy and banking sectors.

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All this illustrates is the incredible difficulty of understanding and seeing the truth in an economy. Is an economy healthy or unhealthy? How do we know, and which data is most important? Economies produce all kinds of information and it’s frequently hard to see the forest for the trees. But even with all the secrecy around the bank’s and regulators financial misdeeds prior to 2008, the writing was on the wall that the US housing market was over inflated and that savings rates were too low and debt rates too high. And while you could be forgiven for not really understanding the fine points of bundled derivates and just how far “toxic debt” had spread, it wasn’t as though the banks had hidden the size of their balance sheets or the number of outstanding loans. It was all there for anyone to see. And people did see it and then shrugged.

One of the big fallouts of the financial meltdown was extensive criticism directed at the professional class of economist and business reporters who give regular market commentary and missed the total implosion of the financial and housing sectors. After all, how good could these “professionals” be if they can’t see the financial freight train like the one that just came through? . But I would chalk that up to overly positive market sentiment. It’s not that they didn’t see the bad news, they just assumed that other better news was more important.

Look at these two articles from yesterday’s (August 20th, 2014) Globe and Mail:

Canada losing steam in its push for an export boom

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Bump in shipping a boon to Canada

While these two articles aren’t exactly equal, (one is talking about Canada right now, the other is talking about prolonged growth of Canadian shipping over the coming decades) it’s interesting to note that they sit side by side on the same day in the same newspaper. For investors (professional and individual alike) it is an ongoing challenge to make sense of the abundant information about the markets without resorting to our “gut feelings”. Do we tend to feel good about the market or bad? Which headline should be more important? Here is a third article from the same day: (Click the image to see the full size article).

photoIts plain to see how I feel about the state of the Canadian market (and which news I place value on), but its also possible that I’m the crazy one. Lots of Canadians disagree with me quite strongly and it is shown everyday the TSX reaches some new high. Which brings us back to investor, or market sentiment. Described as the “tone” of the market, it might be better thought as human irrationality in assessing odds and errors in estimating value. Investor sentiment plays a significant role in valuing the market over the short-term, far in excess of hard financial data. And it isn’t until that sentiment turns sour that we begin to see corrections. Coincidentally, holding an opinion contrary to the popular sentiment is quite lonely, and many portfolio managers have been criticized for their steadfast market view only to be proven right after they had acquiesced to investor complaints about poor performance.

Following a correction, once the positive market sentiment has been washed away, it seems obvious to us which information we should have been paying attention to. But that doesn’t mean being a contrarian is automatically a recipe for investment success. I may be wrong about the Canadian market space altogether (it wouldn’t be that shocking), and in time I will regret not placing more value on different financial news. What is far more valuable to investors is to have a market discipline that tempers positive (and negative) sentiment. An investing discipline will reign in enthusiasm over certain hot stocks, and keep you invested when markets are bad and the temptation is to run away. Sometimes that means being the loser in hot markets, but that may also mean better protection in down markets.

Russia’s Trade War Shows Europe to be The Better Economy

Putin-SmirkSince I first wrote about the Ukraine much has happened. Russia has been unmasked as a bizarre cartoon villain seemingly hellbent on destabilizing the Ukrainian government, assisting “rebels” and being indirectly responsible for the murder of a plane full of people. All of which came to a head last week when it appeared that Russia might have just started a war with the Ukraine (still somewhat indeterminate).

Russia’s moves with the Ukraine may have more to do with challenging the West, and some of the other recent militaristic actions show that may be its real intent. Russia announced in July that it would be reopening both an arctic naval base and a listening post in Cuba built back in the 1960s. Combined with many heavy handed tactics at home including essentially banning homosexuality, Putin is making a brazen attempt to assert its regional dominance and stem the growth of Europe’s influence in the most aggressive way it can. To some extent this seems to be working with his own population, but it isn’t making him popular globally.

Europe’s response to Russia has been to hurt it with economic sanctions, which since the Ukrainian situation first began have been escalating in severity. Two weeks ago Russia responded in kind. How? By banning food imports from sanctioning nations.

If you don’t know much about the Russian or European economies this may seem like potent response from one of the BRIC countries and major global economies. But Europe is a big economy, and agricultural exports don’t make up a significant part of GDP, with the same being true for the United States. And while sanctions targeted at farms can be politically dangerous (farmers are typically a well organized and vocal lobby) the most interesting thing about these sanctions is what it tells us about the Russian and European economies respectively.

First, Russia imports a great deal of food, mostly from Denmark, Germany, the United States and Canada. So sanctions imposed by Russia are really going to hurt the Russians as food prices begin to rise and new food suppliers (expected to be from Latin America) have to ship food farther. But more interesting is the sanctions Russia chose not to impose. Europe is heavily dependant on oil & gas for its energy needs. So why not really make Europe feel the pinch and create an energy crisis? Because Russia needs oil revenue.

16% of Russia’s GDP is made up from the oil and gas sector. Beyond that oil and gas make up more than half of Russia’s tax revenues and 70% of it’s exports. In other words Russia can’t stop selling its oil without creating an economic crisis at home every bit as severe as in Europe. Banning imports of food and raising the cost of living may not be the ideal outcome from sanctions you impose, but it is mild in comparison to creating a full on catastrophe.

By comparison Europe starts to look very good, and it’s a reason that investors shouldn’t be quick to write off Europe and all its recent economic troubles. It’s a large and dynamic economy, filled with multi-national companies that do business the world over. It is backed by stable democracies and a relatively prosperous citizenry. By comparison Russia is a very narrow economy, dependent on one sector for its economic strength run by a (in all but name) dictator with an incredibly poor populace. A few years ago it was quite trendy in the business news to write off Europe as a top heavy financial mess, and while I wouldn’t want to dismiss Europe’s problems (some of which are quite serious) it’s important to have some perspective about how economies can rebound and which ones have the flexibility to recover.

Las Vegas and the Shrinking Invisible Economy

dsc1511lJust over a year ago I postulated that environmental investing may not be dead. The issue that keeps arising is the invisible economy. Traditionally in economics things that are provided “free” by the natural world don’t get counted in “The Economy”, while things that people do want from the natural world do get counted. For instance, everyone agrees that there is a market for commodities like gold, oil and lumber. Extracting any of those commodities is considered part of the economic growth of the country, from the people who build the roads and equipment for accessibility to the physical harvesting of the raw materials, back to its refinement all the way down to the finished product. All of that is part of the economic system. But by-products from all this economic activity that pollute water ways, or urban expansion that paves over marsh grounds, or excessive water waste that diminishes aquifers isn’t considered an economic activity, it’s called an externality.

In other words there are a number of benefits that are provided to us through natural processes that we get “for free” and rarely get assigned a price tag for their contribution. This has been allowed to happen since much of the ecosystems have been able to absorb considerable abuse without stopping the benefits that we have been provided. Except in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas already doesn’t make sense. It’s a desert oasis without an oasis. A bustling city that’s situated in the middle of nowhere, with few natural resources to support it. In fact Las Vegas is so heavily dependent on water that it is literally drying up the desert that will likely lead to the ending of the Hoover Dam as a source of power. Lake Mead, the lake created by the dam is the primary source of water for the city, and the city’s needs have become so great, and the water level so low that there are now two emergency tunnelling construction projects underway to ensure that there is still water for Sin City.

How low is the water? Currently the elevation of the lake shows 1104 ft. The lake is expected to be down to 1080ft by April of 2015. Five more feet and officially there is a level 1 emergency shortage declared. If the lake drops further, to 1050 ft. the Hoover dam stops producing electricity. Under current estimates (assuming that the desert doesn’t get torrential rains for the next few years) this isn’t a question about if, but about when.

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Las Vegas is unique for other reasons, it wastes an unbelievable amount of water, and its growth rate has been much higher than its gains in conservation. But its situation isn’t unique. It’s happening all over the world, and the result is both rising prices for water and growing infrastructure investments. These will be good opportunities for investors, but bad for local economies as disposable income will be shifted to covering increasing water costs. Las Vegas is useful because the scope of these problems is obvious. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to extend the usefulness of Lake Mead to Vegas. Water rights are being purchased by the city as fast as possible, and if the Hoover Dam stops producing electricity there will be not simply lost revenue from the dam, but increasing electricity and infrastructure costs. The invisible economy of the environment may soon not be so invisible.

Lake Mead