The Trump Effect

Over the weekend investors got a chance to read the fine print on the faustian bargain they had with President Donald Trump. Since Trump’s election night win, markets had jumped significantly. The promise of stimulus spending, tax cuts and a renewed focus on deregulation had given investors a “sugar rush”, and eclipsed the more basic concerns about Trump’s general lack of suitability to be president.

dow-jones-since-election

But with the stroke of a pen investors were being reminded about how quickly Trump’s essential character and the presidency he promised could bring chaos and confusion. On Friday Trump signed an executive order to temporarily restrict accepting refugees from seven predominantly muslim countries. The order was vague, poorly thought out, badly executed and quite possibly illegal. Confusion reigned and initially the order was applied to people with legal immigrant status in the United States, including those with green cards.

The weekend was filled with protests at airports, backtracking by members of the administration, and out and out insurrection by members of the government who believed that the order was unconstitutional. Very quickly the official story has descended into the kind of decontextualized factual minutia that has come to characterize attempts to grapple with the truth in the age of the internet. Did Obama do something similar? Is this a Muslim ban or something more restrained? Is it more or less reasonable than it was presented? Accusations or partisan hackery and racism powered the internet and every conversation everyone had over the weekend and well into today.

The answers to these questions are largely immaterial. Trump is a populist and is likely going to do exactly what he said he would do on the campaign trail. That his cabinet is a group of people with little understanding of the nuances of government and that he may in fact be heading up an administration that is kleptocratic on par with a South American government is part of his current appeal. This weekend won’t be the last time controversial and vague (or illegal) orders are issued by this president and it won’t be the last time that they are met with organized resistance.

airport-protest

2016 was a year in which great changes to the status quo were made without many of those changes having an impact. Investors may have come to believe that the rising tide of angry populism won’t have any negative repercussions, or may even be positive. But this weekend brought investors face to face with the reality of unpredictable populist outsiders calling the shots. Volatility is in the cards, and even if (as many believe) that Trump will be good for the economy, his style is not slow and deliberate, but fast and reckless. Investing in the US, which has a strong economy, is unlikely to be smooth even if the trajectory is up.

trumps-executive-order-on-immigration-includes-a-plan-to-publish-a-weekly-list-of-crimes-committed-by-aliens

That’s the problem with Faustian bargains. You get what you want but what you sacrifice has typically been undervalued. The future for the American markets still looks good; but NAFTA talks loom, there are threats of trade wars, and a stable and predictable government seems unlikely. Investors should take note; its day 11 and there are another 4 years ahead. Even if we can’t predict tomorrow, we should acknowledge that tomorrow’s unpredictability may be the thing that investors have to make peace with.

The Age of Breakable Things

With Brexit around the corner, the potential for a Donald Trump presidency and a host of other global problems (big problems), it’s hard not to talk about all the chaos and what it might mean to investors even when there is lots of other things to go over. For now, this will be our last article on the subject of Brexit until next week following the vote. I will take a look at some other issues later in the week.

One thing that jumps out at me about “Brexit” is how fragile much of our world is. Progress is most often thought of as making things stronger or better, but that is only true to a point. Progress also has the unfortunate downside of making things much more fragile. The more progress allows us to do, the more fragile each step makes us.

Freedom Tower
Beautiful tall buildings like this remain a testament to our progress and how profoundly fragile it all is.

Historically that fragility can frequently be seen during times of war. Britain, undoubtedly the world’s most powerful empire at the outset of the first and second world war, saw how quickly its strengths could be overcome by the weaknesses of a far flung empire. The supply lines, the distant resources and the broad reach of the war all exposed the underlying frailty of the British Empire. Two World Wars was all it took to end an empire that had been 500 years in the making.

What we hold in common with the British Empire is the causal assumption that things are the way they are naturally, that we cannot change the inherent status quo in our lives. Canada, the United States and Europe are rich nations because they are naturally rich nations, and not the result of a combination luck, science, philosophy and culture that have conspired to land us where we are today.

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/727159709912825856

We live in a breakable society, one that doesn’t realize how fragile it is. In the past few years it has been tested in a multitude of ways, and this year is no exception. Brexit isn’t even the worst of how it can be. Syria has been reduced to rubble, Turkey has essentially lapsed into a dictatorship, with Russia having gone the same way. Venezuela, which I wrote about earlier, has moved from breadlines to mob violence.

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/744955054520700928

Progress isn’t just uneven, it also isn’t guaranteed. Nations, empires and great civilizations have all come and gone, each of them burning brightly, however briefly, before being extinguished. The speed of a decline in Venezuela isn’t just a result of bad management, it is a reflection to just how much support our civilization needs. The rise of the new introverted nationalism doesn’t see this, and has sought an imagined self sufficiency as a way to relieve temporary difficulties. If people thought that the EU was difficult to deal with when you were a part fo it, wait until you aren’t.

Capture

Brexit is a choice that is both scary and appealing because it is scary. For an entire generation there may never be a choice like this again, a chance to permanently alter the geopolitical landscape, even with little understanding of what those changes can mean or do. Whether Britain will be poorer or richer over the next decade may ultimately hinge on the vote this Friday. Far more frightening is whether our ability to build something lasting, powerful but fragile will be permanently undone in the European sphere.

The Difference Between Mostly Dead, and Dead

8463430_origThe first (and so far only) good day in the markets for 2016 shouldn’t go by without instilling some hope in us investors. The latter half of 2015 and the first weeks of 2016 have many convinced that the market bull is thoroughly dead, having exited stage left pursued by a bear (appropriate for January). The toll taken by worsening news out of China, falling oil, and the rising US dollar have left markets totally exhausted and despondent. But is the bull dead, or just mostly dead? Because there’s a big difference between all dead and mostly dead. In other words, is there a case to be made for a resurgence?

I am, by nature, a contrarian. I have an aversion to large groups of people sharing the same opinion. It strikes me as lazy, and inevitably many of the adherents don’t ultimately know why they hold the views that they do. They’ve just gotten swept up in the zeitgeist and now swear their intellectual loyalty to some idea because everyone else has. And when I look at the market today, I do think there is a contrarian case for a market recovery. Not yet, it’s too early, but there are reasons to be hopeful.

Letters_to_a_Young_Contrarian
This book had a big impact on me growing up.

First, let’s consider the reasons we have for driving down the value of most shares. Oil prices. The price of oil has come to seemingly dictate much of the mood. Oil’s continued weakness speaks to deflation concerns, and stands in for China. It’s price is undermining the economies of many countries, not least of which is Canada. It’s eating into the profits of some of the biggest companies around. It’s precipitous fall has lent credence to otherwise outlandish predictions about the future value. Yet this laser like focus on oil has eclipsed anything else that could turn the tide in the market. Other news no longer matters, as the oil price comes to speak for wider concerns about China and growth prospects for the rest of the world. In the price of oil people now see the fate of the world.

That’s foolish, and precisely the kind of narrow mindset that leads to indiscriminate overselling. The very definition of babies and bathwater. And negativity begets more negativity. The more investors fear the worse the sentiment gets, leading to ever greater sell-offs. Better than expected news out of China, continued employment growth from the US, and the fundamental global benefit of cheap energy are being discounted by markets today, but still represent fundamental truths about economies that will bring life to our mostly dead bull tomorrow.

Don’t mistake me, I’m not trying to downplay the fundamental challenges that markets and economies are facing. Canada has real financial issues. They are not driven by sentiment, they are tangible and measurable. But they are also fixable, and they do not and will not affect every company equally. The same is true for China, just as it is true for the various oil producers the world over. What we should be wary of is letting the negative sentiment in the markets harden into an accepted wisdom that we hold too dear.

1799e31167498fe7c3eb4c577874873f

Put another way, are the issues we are facing today as bad or worse than 2011, or even 2008? I’d argue not, and becoming too transfixed by the current market sentiment, the panicked selling and the ridiculous declarations by some market analysts only plays into bad financial management and will blind you to the opportunities the markets will present when a bottom is hit and numbers improve.

So is the bull dead? No. He is only mostly dead and there is a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. We will navigate this downturn, being mindful of both the bad news and the good news. Investors should seek appropriate financial advice from their financial advisors and remember that being too negative is just another form of complacency, a casual acceptance of the world as it currently appears, but may not actually be.

Remember, the bull is slightly alive and there’s still lots to live for.

For over 20 years we have been helping Canadians navigate difficult markets like this, by meeting in their homes and discussing their personal situations around the kitchen table. If you are looking for help, would like a complimentary review of your portfolio, or simply want to chat about your finances, please contact us today.

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.

Is Liquidity Worth the Price?

LiquidityLiquidity is a sacred cow among the investing professional class and the importance of being able to sell and redeem an investment at a moment’s notice is a cornerstone of presumed investor safety and a hallmark of modern investing. In fact, improving liquidity has been a goal of markets and it’s a major achievement that there isn’t a commonly held mutual fund, ETF or stock that can’t be sold at the drop of a hat.

But in the same way that we can overemphasize the benefits of some health trends to the point of excluding other good for you foods, (I’m looking at you gluten free diet) the assumed exclusive positive benefits of liquidity can crowd out some very reasonable reasons to seek investments with low or limited liquidity.

Why would you choose an investment that can’t be sold easily? It’s worth pointing out all the ways that liquidity make investing worse. Volatility is increased by liquidity. High frequency trading, ETFs and trading platforms that let novice investors monitor the ups and downs of the market provide liquidity while magnifying risk. Sudden events best ignored become focal points for sell-offs. Liquidity is almost always the enemy of cooler heads.

HFT

Liquidity also costs money. For investments that are traditionally illiquid, like some bonds and GICs, redeemable options often trade at a discount. According to RBC’s own website the difference between a redeemable and non-redeemable GIC is 25 bps ( a quarter of 1%), which doesn’t sound like much, but when rates are as low as 1.5% for a five year GIC that is a 16% reduction in return.

Picture of the early Dutch stock market
Picture of the early Dutch stock market

The principle of investing has been that buying and holding something over a period of time would result in returns in greater excess than the rate of inflation. That rate of return is based on the associated risk of the enterprise and how long the investment should be held for. But into this mix we have also come to value (greatly) the ease with which we can walk away from an investment. It is the underpinning of a stock market that your commitment to a corporate venture need not be you, but that your financial role can be assumed by someone else for a price (your share).But that feature has come to dominate much of what we both value and hate about investing. Canadians are relieved to know that can sell their investments on short notice, protecting them from bad markets or freeing up cash for personal needs. But by extension things like High Frequency Trading use that same liquidity to undermine fair dealings within markets.

Are there reasons to not choose a liquid investment (aside from your house)? I think the answer is yes. For one thing we may put an unnatural value on liquidity. We pay for its privilege but we rarely use it wisely. The moment we are tempted to use liquidity to our advantage we usually make the wrong choice. Selling low and buying high are the enemy of smart investing, but all too often that is exactly what happens. Every year DALBAR, a research firm, publishes a report detailing investor behavior and its results are sobering to say the least.

Poor investor decisions have led to chronic underperformance by “average investors”. The inability to separate emotions from investing, and the ease with which changes can be made have led to meager returns. In the 2014 study showed that the “average investor” 10 year return was a paltry 2.6%, nothing compared to the return of most indices. That return got surprisingly worse over time, with a 2.5% annualized return over 20yrs and 1.9% over 30. Reduced liquidity could inadvertently improve returns for investors by simply removing the temptation to sell in poor markets; in those moments when our doubt and emotions tell us to “run”.

This is from the 2014 DALBAR QIAB, or Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior.
This is from the 2014 DALBAR QIAB, or Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior.

So what types of investments are typically “illiquid”? Such products are normally reserved for “accredited investors”, or investors that have higher earnings or larger net savings. These deals are traditionally considered riskier and would be unsuitable for a novice investor (unfamiliar with the risks) or ill-suited to someone who might need to depend on their savings on short notice. That makes a lot of sense and any manager worth their salt would tell you that you shouldn’t tie up your savings if you might need them. But it is worth considering whether we have let our obsession with the convenience of liquidity undermine our goals as investors. Something to consider next time the urge to sell in bad markets comes upon you.

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.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 8.36.05 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 2.48.01 AM
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.