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Market Inefficiencies are Making You Fat (But Maybe Also Wealthy)

If you wish to prove that the world is more prosperous today than ever before, you merely need to look at the statistics of global obesity. With close to 400 million people world wide affected by Type-2 Diabetes and costs to global health care nearing $470B (USD) obesity is the unfortunate side effect of rising standards of living.

Canadians and Americans spend around $130B (USD) on fast food annually. That’s a lot of money, and you can imagine that much of it happens at lunch. Across many major cities, workers flee their office towers and head towards food courts to satisfy their hunger. Something else that both Canadians and Americans spend a lot of money on is weight loss, to the tune of $44B a year. So to recap, Canadians are spending lots of money on fast food, and lots of money on trying to lose weight.

Obesity is easily one of the major social issues that occupies our conscious. Perhaps because so many of us are now overweight, because the costs are so high, because the science is so confusing, or because we have such a warped image of beauty,

It's time to end the unreal expectations of beauty for men, most of us just won't have claws.
It’s time to end the unreal expectations of beauty for men, most of us just won’t have claws.

Canadians are eating too much and regretting it later to the tune of billions. Whatever the reasons it is now common to say that obesity is at epidemic levels.

One of the more popular reasons cited for this epidemic is that not only are our eating habits so poor, but that we aren’t really clear about what is in our food. Most recently this has been the focus of the Katie Couric documentary FED UP, which took aim at the sugar industry and how much sugar has been added to our foods without our knowledge. And there is some strong evidence that sugar may be one of the chief culprits behind obesity, type-2 diabetes, and a host of other illnesses now largely associated with prosperous societies.

We might expect that our “efficient markets ” would respond to the incredible demand for healthy foods by providing more nutritious fast foods, like Freshii. Freshii is a highly successful fast food chain that specializes in salads, wraps and other healthy food options. At lunch time in most food courts the lineup for Freshii is easily one of the longest, and yet the number of fast food places that imitate their business model, or compete directly is shockingly low. The theory that markets naturally respond to the needs and wants of the consumer seems to fall flat here.

One explanation is that the markets are responding to the desires of the consumer, and consumers don’t really want healthy food, but prefer hamburgers and french fries. Another theory is that if there aren’t any healthy food options around, people will choose only what they have available to them (hamburgers and french fries). I choose to assume another explanation. That is that businesses are incredibly conservative and typically don’t like to disrupt a known and profitable business model in favour of one that is largely untested. Entrepreneurs tend towards being “disagreeable” (to borrow a term from Malcolm Gladwell) and don’t mind risking failure to try something new.

This lag between successful companies and upstart firms like Freshii has been demonstrated by other companies (and most recently challenged in the New York Times) like Apple, and even Ford Motors. Henry Ford famously said that if he had asked what his customers wanted, “they would have asked for a faster horse.” Markets may ultimately be responsive to consumer needs, but not efficiently so. And within market inefficiencies we often find opportunities that are being ignored. While that can be good for the watchful investor, it seems to be bad for our waistlines.

My Car Runs on Geopolitics – Why “Fracking” is an Important Investment for Your Portfolio

frackingI’m an environmentalist. But as a Financial Advisor I consider that some of the best opportunities I can provide to my clients is exposure to the burgeoning US and Canadian energy markets. That’s right I’m a big proponent for one of the most ecologically damaging and publicly derided forms of energy extraction.

However, next time you put gas in your tank consider this: 7000 fighters are currently making a mockery of whatever pretense Iraq was making at being a legitimate country. ISIS, the Islamic faction currently pushing into northern Iraq from Syria with aims to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the region has been routing Iraqi government forces. An army a quarter of a million strong, equipped with the latest in weapons, tanks and aircraft are losing regularly to a rag tag group of extremists equipped only with machine guns.

Meanwhile in the Ukraine we have fresh assurances that Russia will abide by a new ceasefire between Ukrainian government forces and rebels loyal to the Russian government. While Russia may have undone its own objectives of building a rival economic group, they have successfully reminded everyone why Russia, no matter how weakened it may be, is a powerful force that controls a great deal of energy needed for global consumption.

Across many of the nations that produce some form of energy (oil, natural gas, coal, etc.) there are very few that can claim to be a democratic, civil society not embroiled in some kind of sectarian civil war. But as of this year the United States has become the world’s largest producer of energy, outpacing Russia and Saudi Arabia, and that promises to change the way we think about economies and economic opportunities going forward.

production

In many developed countries there is a great deal of hand-ringing about the sudden rise of hydraulic fracturing – a relatively recent method of energy extraction that is reducing the cost of production and breathing new life into American manufacturing. “Fracking” comes with a number of environmental downsides, some of which are both scary and quite dramatic.

But energy is the life blood of civilisations and a steady supply of affordable energy is what gives us the ability to grow our economies and invest in new technologies. Sometimes this means making hard choices about how we allocate resources, and what the long term impacts of certain industries to our environment might be. But affordable energy, in the form of both oil and natural gas, provided from countries like Canada and the United States doesn’t just help bring back domestic manufacturing. It also economically weakens dictators and states that ignore human rights and puts power back in the hands of liberal democracies to enforce sanctions.

In other words there are numerous political and economic benefits that come along with cheaper Western energy. While this doesn’t address our environmental problems it’s important to love your monsters. The tools that give us our wealth and prosperity shouldn’t be abandoned just because they pose challenges, rather it invites us to both reap profits and seek new ways to conquer those problems we face. That is at least until either Google or Tesla solve all our driving problems.

Ninjutsu Economics – Watch the Empty Hand

First, an apology that we have been on a break from our website. Over the last month we’ve had lots going on that has distracted us from doing our regular writing, but we’re back now for the rest of the summer!

Since 2008 there has been two great themes in investing. One, is the search for yield, or income, from safer investments. The second has been the imminent arrival of a rising interest rate environment which threatens to gobble up everyone’s money. If you aren’t too familiar with monetary policy or even how low interest rates work on the economy, don’t worry. What you need to know is this:

In really bad economic times Keynsian theory states that the government should help the economy by creating inflation through stimulus spending and keeping borrowing rates low. This is often done by printing large amounts of money. The availability of cheap money has an inflationary effect on the market, and the economy is believed to rebound more quickly than it would have if it had simply let businesses fail and people be laid off work.

The flip side is that many believe printing money can lead to serious and even extreme hyper-inflation (not entirely unfounded) that in the long term can be extremely detrimental to the financial health of people. This is the fundamental tension in modern economics that is nicely summed up in the below parody video of John Maynard Keynes vs F.A. Hayek. Should markets be steered or set free? Or put more bleakly, should economies be allowed to collapse or should they be saved in the midst of an enormous financial meltdown?

In the past few years there has been an enormous amount of money printing going on (Keynsian) but at the same time governments have been trying to reduce their debts and deficits (Hayek). But the money printing has many people worried. The printing of billions of dollars globally has many inflation hawks declaring that the end of America is nigh, that the currency will soon be worth nothing and that the older traditional economies are doomed to fail. This concern has seeped into the general consciousness to a great degree and it’s not uncommon for me to get questions about whether the United States is on the verge of some new financial collapse.

I tend towards the contrarian angle however, and encourage you to do the same. So much energy and time has been focused on the threat of inflation, few seem to be watching the encroaching danger from deflation.

What’s deflation? It’s like inflation only much worse, since no one knows how to fix it. Deflation is a self fulfilling prophecy where a decreasing supply of circulating money leads to a drop in general prices for everything (this includes labour and products). On the surface that doesn’t sound too bad, but since people tend to earn less in a deflationary environment your existing debt tends to become ever more burdensome. In the same way that the collapse of the American housing market made many homes less valuable than the mortgages on them, deflation just does it to the whole economy. Japan has been in a deflationary situation for nearly 20 years, with little sign of relief. Even last year’s introduction of the unprecedented Abenomics has yet to produce the kind of inflationary turnaround that Japan is in such desperate need of.

When I look to Canada (and more specifically Toronto) I tend to see many of the signs that deflation looms in the shadows. Borrowing rates are incredibly low, largely to encourage spending. Many small retail spaces sit empty, squeezed out by  rising lease costs. Manufacturing sectors in Ontario continue to suffer, while wages remain stagnant. Canadians are currently sitting with record amount of debt and most growth in Canadian net worth have come through housing appreciation, not through greater wealth preservation. In other words, the things that contribute to a healthy economy like rising incomes and a growing industry base are largely absent from our economy. The lesson here is that when it comes to markets, we should worry more about the issues we ignore than the ones we constantly fret over. It’s the hand you don’t watch that deals the surprising blow!

By the Numbers, What Canadian Investors Should Know About Canada

I thought I had more saved!I am regularly quite vocal about my concern over the Canadian economy. But like anyone who may be too early in their predictions, the universe continues to thwart my best efforts to make my point. If you’ve been paying attention to the market at all this year it is Canada that has been pulling ahead. The United States, and many global indices have been underwater or simply lagging compared to the apparent strength of our market.

But fundamentals matter. For instance, the current driver in the Canadian market is materials and energy (translation, oil). But it’s unclear why this is, or more specifically, why the price of oil is so high. With the growing supply of oil from the US, costly Canadian oil seems to be the last thing anyone needs, but a high oil price and a weak Canadian dollar have conspired to give life to Canadian energy company stocks.

YTD Performance of Global Indices as of April 25th, 2014
YTD Performance of Global Indices as of April 25th, 2014

Similarly the Canadian job market has been quite weak. Many Canadian corporations have failed to hire, instead sitting on mountains of cash resulting in inaction in the jobs market. Meanwhile the weak dollar, typically a jump start to our industrial sector, has failed to do any such thing. But at the core of our woes is the disturbing trend of burdensome debt and the high cost of homeownership.

I know what you want to say. “Adrian, you are always complaining about burdensome debt and high costs of homeownership! Tell me something I don’t know!” Well, I imagine you don’t know just how burdensome that debt is. According to Maclean’s Magazine the total Canadian consumer and mortgage debt is now close to $1.7 Trillion, 1 trillion more than it was in 2003. That’s right, in a decade we have added a trillion dollars of new debt. And while there is some evidence that the net worth of Canadian families has gone up, once adjusted for inflation that increase is really the result of growing house prices and recovering pensions.

Today Canadians carry more personal credit card debt than ever before. We spend more money on luxury goods, travel and on home renovations than ever before. Our consumer spending is now 56% of GDP, and it is almost all being driven by debt.

Canadians have made a big deal about how well we faired through the economic meltdown of 2008, and were quick to wag our fingers at the free spending ways of our neighbours to the South, but the reality is we are every bit as cavalier about our financial well being as they were at the height of the economic malfeasance. While it is unlikely we will see a crash like that in the US, the Canadian market is highly interconnected, and drops in the price of oil will have a ripple effect on borrowing rates, defaults, bank profits and unemployment, all of which is be exasperated by our high debt levels.

Environmentalists Don’t Get Economics, and That’s Dangerous for Everyone

From the Toronto Star
From the Toronto Star

The Keystone Pipeline has enraged many people since it was first announced. Traditionally framed as a conflict between environmentalists and oil executives, the Keystone Pipeline is 1897 km of 36 inch pipe running from Hardisty, Alberta to Steel, Nebraska and for several years it has existed in limbo. Caught in the cross hairs of politicians, environmentalists, various national interests and corporations, it has been six years of waiting and becoming more unlikely that it may ever get built. A definitive win for the champions of the environment.

Or is it? In simple terms, NOT having a Keystone Pipeline does indeed impede the growth of Tar Sands industry, hampering the longer term ability to send extracted oil to be refined. But it doesn’t stop it. In fact, not building doesn’t stop the oil companies from shipping at all. The Keystone Pipeline has become a symbol of social angst about the environment, but in its place a number of much more terrible and dangerous options have been pursued. For instance, if you live int he city of Toronto you may have noticed that the CP Rail line that runs through the heart of many residential neighbourhoods is actually carrying hundreds of thousands of oil tankers destined for the same location as the proposed pipeline.

In response to constant deferral Canada’s rail lines have picked up the slack, moving as much oil around as the proposed pipe would have. This first came to my attention around a year ago at a lunch where a portfolio manager for an energy fund was explaining that even though Keystone had stalled, a new pipeline had indeed opened. The difference was that it was actually the railway system. Since then it has slowly been gaining wider acknowledgement that in place of a relatively safe oil pipeline we instead now have hundreds of trains travelling through neighbourhoods and schools and towns carrying vast amounts of highly toxic oil, among other dangerous things.

All this leads to the hard truth about difficult economic decisions. Sometimes the big bad business is still making the best decision. Opposing development, no matter how well intentioned, rarely changes the underlying needs that feed those projects. Worse still, not recognizing the economic drivers behind controversial projects like this only leads to the kind of unintended blowback that creates future messes. For environmentalists the likely outcome will have been to have slain a largely symbolic dragon, while in reality they have set the stage for future environmental disasters on a much greater scale than they had ever intended. They haven’t changed the direction of the energy market, or the need for oil. But they have undermined a good economic proposal in favour of a bad one.

Crude Oil YTD

Canada’s Economy Still Ticking Along, But Don’t be Fooled

Money CanThis year the Canadian markets have been doing exceptionally well. Where as last year the S&P/TSX had been struggling to get above 2% at this time, this year the markets have soared ahead of most of their global counterparts. In fact the Canadian market triumph is only half of this story, matched equally by the disappointing performance of almost every significant global market. Concerns over China have hurt Emerging Markets. The Ukrainian crisis has hindered Europe, and a difficult winter combined with weaker economic data has put the brakes on the US as well.

YTD TSX Performance

But this sudden return to form should not fool Canadians. It is a common trope of investing that people over estimate the value of their local economies, and a home bias can prove to be dangerous to a portfolio. Taking a peak under the hood of Canada’s market performance and we see it is largely from the volatile sectors of the economy. In the current year the costs of Oil, Natural Gas and Gold are all up. Utilities have also driven some of the returns, but with the Materials and Energy sector being a full third of the TSX its easy to see what’s really driving market performance. Combined with a declining dollar and improving global economy and Canada looks like an ideal place to invest.

TSX Market Sectors

But the underlying truth of the Canadian market is that it remains unhealthy. Manufacturing is down, although recovering slowly. Jobs growth exists, but its highly anemic. The core dangers to the vast number of Canadians continue to be high debt, expensive real-estate and cheap credit. In short, Canada is beginning to look more like pre-2008 United States rather than the picture of financial health we continue to project. Cheap borrowing rates are keeping the economy afloat, and it isn’t at all clear what the government can do to slow it down without upsetting the apple cart.

For Canadian investors the pull will be to increase exposure to the Canadian market, but they should be wary that even when news reports seem favourable about how well the Canadian economy might do, they are not making a comment about how healthy the economy really is. Instead they are making a prediction about what might happen if trends continue in a certain direction. There are many threats to Canada, both global and domestic, and it should weigh heavily on the minds of investors when they choose where to invest.

 

Apple May Have Just Won the Tablet Wars

Global Tablet Sales
In 2013 global sales of tablets reached just over 195 million. Of that Apple sold over 70 million tablets, growing their year over year sales.

As of today you can download and use Microsoft Office on your iPad. This news has hit my family with a yawn, but to me this is an excellent signal for the long term financial health of both Apple and Microsoft. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Apple may have just won the tablet wars for the foreseeable future.

In case you don’t know Microsoft has been hurting. Not financially. It’s doing great financially, but as a company where being “with it” seems important, Microsoft is decidedly not. Steve Baumer, the recently retired (and Bill Gates hand picked) CEO made several attempts to broaden and improve Microsoft’s product offerings, but many of them fell flat. The most notable has been Windows 8 and the Surface tablet, the new operating system that was meant to take Windows into the mobile era. The reception to both the Surface and Windows 8 has been so negative that the cost has been extraordinary. Microsoft has already announced Windows 9 and it is expected that it will be a return to the things that people love most about Windows.

Part of the strategy for moving into mobile computing had been to withhold Microsoft Office from the iPad. Office is still the bread and butter of the business world and it drives much of the revenue for Microsoft. The thought had been that limiting Office to a Microsoft platform would make their tablets more desirable and would steer the mobile business world towards Microsoft products. How wrong they were. Apple accounts for 73% of mobile enterprise solutions (sorry Blackberry). Even without the Microsoft Office platform people and businesses preferred to use the iPad, using different apps and numerous work arounds to integrate the Apple product into their business life.

Some will assume that the availability of Office for the iPad signals some kind of death knell for Microsoft’s future in the mobile world. I doubt that. If anything it will make them stronger. It will help solidify Microsoft Office as both the preferred software for businesses, renew interest in its personal use, and ease the pressure to choose the “right” tablet knowing that software can be shared across multiple platforms. The bigger story here is for Apple. Apple’s mobile operating system (iOS) may lag behind the sheer volume of users of Google’s Android operating system, but Apple easily sells the most tablets of any one company. In fact in 2013 Apple sold nearly double the number of iPad’s compared to its nearest competitor, Samsung.

But with the arrival of Microsoft Office it seems clear that Apple is likely to retain the profitable sector of personal and business tablets. Whether this ends up being reflected in the stock price of Apple is yet to be seen.