Cereal Killing Our Money

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This week one of the most absurd events of recent memory came to pass in London. An anarchist group (collective?) called Class War staged a protest outside a cereal bar in London’s East End called Cereal Killer Café to protest gentrification. Paint was thrown, threats were made and in the end riot police were called.

I’m completely serious.

Businesses like the Cereal Killer Café raise some interesting questions about what we do with our newly gentrified neighborhoods, and what we consider to be worthwhile economic activities for our money. It is curious, for instance, that there could ever be such a thing as a “cereal bar“, literally a place to go and buy a single bowl of cereal and milk for just over $6 CDN. The number of hamburger joints offering up organically raised beef and artisanal fries may reflect an increasing focus on authentic slow food, but more realistically suggests that we are bad at assessing value and have a disheartening economic focus on frivolity.

mugNovelty is nothing new (cough, cough) and our desire to spend money on novelty shouldn’t surprise us. Cities too have always been home to novel and frivolous ways to spend money. But given the abundance of economic frivolity it is worth considering whether we have our priorities straight. Consider that a major complaint is that people simply don’t have enough money to live at an accepted standard. Home ownership is being discounted by a whole generation that feel that home prices are simply too high. But given the abundance of commercial activity revolving around food, drink, and events, it is worthwhile raising at least a question of fiscal prudence.

I’m not of the opinion that by avoiding lattes you can have a decent retirement, but there are enough businesses with questionable reasons to exist that it is at least worth considering whether we are spending our money wisely. The surprising existence of juice bars, cupcake boutiques, frozen yogurt stores and designer cookie brasseries can be described as nothing short of head scratching. Joined by the numerous residents of the city who regularly go to the café dedicated to board games, throw axes, jump on trampolines, drink at Harry Potter themed bars, partake in juice cleanses, play Ping Pong or just seek ways to leave a room, it might not be unfair to think that we are in some ways the authors of our own financial short comings.

I thought I had more saved!

The first step to financial stability is being able to make sense of where your money is going and gaining perspective on the total range of your spending. The benefits of city living is the endless amount of fun available to you, but that is also it’s chief drawback. Having a clear eyed picture of your financial needs, realistic financial goals and a roadmap to get there will be worth far more in the long run, provide comfort that you aren’t undermining your financial future and make your luxuries exactly that. Luxuries.

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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.

Only Time Gives Clarity to Investors

The reality of the 21st century is that finding clarity in world events for investors is almost impossible. Take the recent price drop in oil, which has been hailed as both a good and bad thing. And as the new lower price of energy slowly becomes the norm, everyday news reports come in about its respective benefits and unintended negative consequences.

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/540161044786589698

Those seeking to know what those events mean and what guidance headlines should give will only be frustrated by the almost endless supply of information that seeks to empower decisions but leaves many scratching their heads in wonder about the future.

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A big reason for this is the sheer volume of information that we can now rely on. Since the advent of computers and the more recent rise of high-speed communication and networking we have found that the core truth of an event still isn’t apparent until after something has happened. In other words it’s almost impossible to predict corrections before they happen despite an almost inconceivable amount of data and endless ability to process it.

This is true no matter where we look in the world of investing. Consider Black Friday, the end all and be all day in shopping in the United States. This year Black Friday seemed to fizzle. Sales were down 11% year-over-year and that got people nervous. Yet Cyber Monday, the electronic version of Black Friday, sales were up 17% and topped $2 billion for the first time. Combined with the longer sales period leading up to the weekend, many suspect that total sales were actually higher.

All of this data conflicts with each other, which for investors means sometimes you will be wrong. Small things sometimes prove to be big things, and what initially appears simple turns out to be surprisingly complex, and much of it you simply won’t predict. This points investors back to some dull but surprising truths about investing.

1. Not much has changed when it comes to determining what makes a company worthwhile to invest in. Corporate health, sound governance and healthy cash flow still tell us more than loud hype about potential new markets, new products and new trends.

2. Time is a better arbiter than you about investing. The old line is time in the market, not timing the market, and that still appears true. Many Canadians are likely wringing their hands about the sudden drop of oil and the impact it is having on their portfolios. But the best course of action maybe not to abandon their investments, but make sure they are still sensibly invested and well diversified. The market still tends to correct in the long run and immediate volatility (both up and down) are smoothed out over time.

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The S&P 500 over the last 50 years. From Yahoo Finance

Not every sensible investment will work out, but a portfolio of sensible investments over time will. For investors now wondering about the future and their investments in Canada, the best thing to do is understand the logic behind their investments before choosing a course of action.

 

America Is In Great Shape; Be Afraid!

markets_1980043cAll year people have been expecting a correction in the US Markets. For most of the year I have listened to portfolio managers discuss their “concern” about the high valuations of American companies. I have also listened to them point out that America remains the strongest economy and the most likely to see significant growth in the coming year.

Flash forward to late-September, early October and the markets have finally had their corrections. At the bottom every market was negative, including the TSX which had given up all of its YTD high of 15%. That was the bottom. The recovery was swift, money flowed back into the markets, and hedge fund managers managed to make a mockery of some otherwise nervous DIY investors. Now the markets look strong again, with the S&P 500 reaching new highs. Nobody is happy.

All of this comes on the news that US GDP was up 3.9% in the third quarter, a full .5% above analyst expectations (that sounds small, but it’s worth billions) while energy prices continue to decline, manufacturing is highly competitive and US consumers look poised for a significant Christmas bonanza. So what’s wrong with this picture? Why are both the Globe and Mail and the Financial Times worried about the US stock market?

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The answer is a combination of fear, data, and the insatiable need for stories to populate the media everyday. First is the fear. Stocks are at all time highs. The problem is that “all time high” isn’t some automatic death sentence for a stock market. The stock market always hits new highs all the time, and a by-product of that is that corrections can really only happen after a high is reached. Look at the history of the S&P 500 since 1960:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 11.02.50 AMAs you can probably tell, there are a lot of “new highs” that had occurred over the last 40 years, but each new high did not automatically translate into some automatic correction. There were legitimate reasons why the economy could continue to grow, and in the process make those companies in the stock market more valuable. That isn’t to say that the stock market can’t be “frothy” or that their aren’t problems in the stock market today. It merely means that setting a new market high isn’t proof of an impending collapse.

The second issue is data. We live in an age of Big Data. Data is everywhere and there is so much it can be hard to separate the useful data from the useless. Some of the data is concrete, but much of it takes time to understand or even become clear. The first analysis of the higher than expected GDP numbers seemed great (more economy, Yay!) but upon closer inspection, there are reasons to be cautious. While the GDP was higher than expected, it was largely due to growth in government spending, not consumer spending. In fact consumer spending was lower quarter over quarter. In addition there are a number of concerns about how corporations are spending their profits and whether that is sustainable. Many of these concerns, when taken in context, seem to be the same from earlier in the year.

The third factor is the insatiable need to write something. Content is king in the news world and providing insight (read: opinion) means that you must constantly produce new stories to publish. That means that there is a need to be constantly suggesting that things are about to go wrong (or more wrong than they already have) to create a compelling story. It isn’t that these stories are wrong, just that constantly saying the stock market is going to go down isn’t insightful, since at some point we can expect the stock market to correct for one of a number of reasons.

So is America frothy? Are we poised an some kind of financial collapse? I don’t know, and nobody else does either. We are no more likely to correctly know when the market might correct again than we are to guess the future price of gas. The best response is to diversify, and remember some core elements of investing. Buy low and sell high. With that in mind sturdy investors should probably start giving the beat-up and maligned Europe a second look…