The Exciting New Field of Recession Prognostication

PsychicI wish to inform you about an exciting new profession, currently accepting applicants. Accurate recession prognostication and divination is an up and coming new business that is surging in these turbulent economic times! And now is your chance to get in on the ground floor of this amazing opportunity!

I am of course being facetious, but my satire is not without precedent. As 2018 has devolved into global market chaos, finally losing the US markets in October, experts have been marshalled to tell investors why they are wrong about markets and why they should be more bullish.

Specifically analysts and various other media friendly talking heads have been trying to convey to the general public that the negative market sentiment that has driven returns down is misplaced, and have pointed to various computer screens and certain charts as proof that the economy is quite healthy and that in this moment we are not facing an imminent recession. Market returns through the final quarter of 2018 indicate this message has yet to find fertile ground among the wider public.

Dow Jones Dec 31
The Dow Jones has had a wild ride this year, with significant declines in February, October and finally in December when the markets ended the year lower than they began.

While these experts, analysts and financial reporter types may not be wrong, indeed the data they point to has some real merit, I don’t think that investors are wrong to heavily discount their advice. For the wider investing audience, being right 100% of the time is not a useful benchmark to strive towards with investments ear-marked for retirement. Instead a smarter approach is to be mindful about risks that can be ill-afforded. Investment specific risk, like that of an individual stock may be up to an investor (how much do I wish to potentially lose?). On the other hand, a global recession that is indiscriminate in the assets that suffer may be more risk than an investor can stomach.

TSX Dec 31
The S&P TSX has had another dismal year, and is currently lower than it was in 2007, marking a lost decade. Making money in the Canadian markets has been a trading game, not a buy and hold strategy.

The experts have therefore made two critical errors. The first is assuming that what is undermining investor confidence is an insufficient understanding of economic data. The second is that there is a history, any history, of market analysts, economists and journalists making accurate predictions of recessions before they happen.

This last point is of particular importance. While I began this article with some weak humor on prognostication and divination, it’s worth noting that predicting recessions has a failure rate slightly higher than your local psychic and lottery numbers. That so many people can be brought forth on such short notice to offer confident predictions about the state of world with no shame is possibly the worst element of modern investment culture that has not been reformed by the events of 2008.

2008 Predictions vs reality
These are the economist predictions for economic growth at both the start of Q3 and Q4 in 2008. Even as the collapse got worse, economists were not gifted with any extra insight. 

This doesn’t mean that investors should automatically flee the market, listen to their first doubt or react to their gut instincts. Instead this is a reminder that for the media to be useful it must think about what investors need (guidance and smart advice) and not more promotion of headline grabbing prognostication. The markets ARE down, and this reflects many realities, including economic concerns, geopolitical concerns and a host of other factors outside of an individual’s control. It is not a question of whether markets are right or wrong in this assessment, but whether good paths remain open to those depending on market returns.

The Mystery of Market Volatility

GTY 460643338 A FIN MAX USA NY

This past week markets had a sudden and sustained sell off that lasted for two days, and though they bounced back a little on Friday, US markets had several negative sessions. The selloff in US markets, which began on Wednesday and extended into Thursday, roiled global markets as well, with extensive selling through Asia and Europe on Wednesday evening/Thursday morning. At the end of the week Asian, European and Emerging markets looked worse than they already were for the year, and US markets had been badly rattled. This week has seen an extension of that volatility.

Explanations for sudden downturns bloom like flowers in the sun. Investors and business journalists are quick to latch onto an explanation that grounds the unexpected and shocking in rational sensibility. In this instance blame was handed to the Federal Reserve, where members had been quoted recently talking about higher than expected inflation forcing up lending rates at an accelerated pace. This account was so widely accepted that Donald Trump was quoted as saying that “The Fed has gone crazy”, a less than surprising outburst.

TSX YTD
TSX year to date performance is currently just over -4.3%

I tend to discount such explanations about market volatility. For one, it seeks to neuter the truth of markets as large complex institutions that are subject to multiple forces of which many are simply invisible. Second, by pretending that the risk in markets is far more understandable than it really is, investors are encouraged to take up riskier positions and strategies than they rightly should and ignore advice that has proven effective in managing risk. Finally, I have a personal dislike for the façade of “all-knowingness” that comes along after the fact by people who have parlayed luck into “expertise”. Markets are risky and complex, and it would be better if we treated them like a vicious animal that’s only partially domesticated.

Dow YTD
The Dow Jones performance has been quite good this year, but in the past week lost just over 5%, bringing year to date returns to 2.94%

In fact, as markets continue to grow with technology and various new products, complexity continues to expand. At any given time markets are subject to small investors, professional brokers, pension funds, algorithm driven trading programs, mutual fund managers, exchange traded funds and even governments, all of whom are trying to derive profits.

So what does that tell us about markets, and what should we take from the recent spike in volatility? One way to think about markets is that they operate on two levels, a tangible level based on real data and expectations set by analysts, and another that trades on sentiment. On the first level we tend to find people who advocate for “bottom up investing”, or the idea that corporate fundamentals should be the sole governor of stock’s price. If you’ve ever heard someone discuss a stock that’s “under-performing,” “undervalued,” “out of favor,” or that they are investing on the “principles of value” this is what they are referring to. People who invest like this believe that the market will eventually come around to realizing that a company hasn’t been priced correctly and tend to set valuations that tell them when to buy and sell.

DAX YTD
Germany, the strongest economy in EUrope has already struggled this year under the burden of the EU fight with Italy’s populist government and ongoing BREXIT negotiations. YTD performance is -10.56%

The second level of investing is based on sentiment, informed by the daily influx of headlines, rumour and conspiracy that clogs our news, email inboxes and youtube videos. This is where most investors tend to hang their hat because its where the world they know meets their investments. Most people aren’t analyzing a specific bank, but they may be worried a housing bubble in Canada, or the state of car loans, or the benefits of a recent tax cut or trade war. The sentiment might be best thought of as the fight between good and bad news informing optimism and pessimism. If a bottom up investor cares about a company they may ignore general worry that might overwhelm a sector. So if there is a change in in the price of oil, a value investor may continue to own a stock while the universe of sentiment sees a widespread selling of oil futures, oil companies, refining firms and downstream products.

Shanghai Comp YTD
China is the world’s second largest economy and the biggest market among the emerging markets. Having struggled with Trump’s tariffs, YTD performance is a whopping -22.8%

As you are reading this you may believe you’ve heard it before. Indeed you have, as our advice has remained consistent over the years. Diversification protects investors and retirement nest eggs better than advice that seeks to “beat the market” or chases returns. However, it seems to me that the market sentiment is undoubtedly a stronger force now than its ever been before. As more investors come to participate in the market and passive investments have grown faster than other more value focused products, sentiment easily trumps valuations. Since we’re always sitting atop a mountain of conflicting information, some good and some bad, whichever news happens to dominate quickly sets the sentiment of the markets.

You don’t have to take my word for it either. There is some very interesting data to back this up. Value investing, arguably the earliest form of standardized profit seeking from the market, has remained out of favor for more than a decade. Meanwhile the growth of ETFs has continued to pump money into the fastest growing parts of the market, boosting their returns and attracting more ETF dollars. When the market suddenly changed direction on Wednesday, the largest ETF very quickly went from taking in new dollars to a mass exodus of money, pushing down its value and the value of the underlying assets. At the same time some of the worst performing companies went to being some of the best performing in a day.

MW-FZ971_CSetff_20171211161201_NS
This chart shows that actively managed mutual funds have hemorrhaged money oer the past few years, while passive ETFs have been the chief beneficiaries, radically altering the investment landscape.

So what’s been going on? The markets have turned negative and become much more volatile because there is a lot of negative news at play, not because interest rates are set to go up too quickly. Sentiment, that had been positive on tech stocks like Amazon and Google gave way to concern about valuations, and with it opened the flood gates to all the other negative news that was being suppressed. Brexit, the Italian election, the rise of populism, currency problems in Turkey, a trade war with China and rising costs everywhere came to define that sentiment. As investors begin to feel that no where was safe, markets reflected that view.

Our advice remains steadfast. Smart investing is less about picking the best winner than it is about having the smartest diversification. A range of solutions across different sectors and styles will weather a storm better, and investors should be wary of simplistic answers to market volatility. Markets always have the potential to be volatile, and investors should always be prepared.

Vexed by the VIX

This past week a number of articles spilled forth regarding the VIX index being at record lows. If you aren’t familiar with the VIX, that’s quite okay; the VIX is an index that tracks the nervousness of investors. The lower the VIX is the more confident investors are. The higher the VIX, the greater the concern.

At first glance the VIX seems to clearly tell us…something. At least it seems like it should. The index is really a measure of volatility using an aggregate of prices of options traded on the S&P 500, estimating how volatile those options will be between the current date and when they mature. The mechanics aren’t so important for our purposes, just that this index has become the benchmark for the assumed fear or comfort investors have with the market.

So what does it mean when the VIX is supposedly at its lowest point in nearly a quarter of a century?

Historic VIX
This is the historic performance of the VIX. Data provided by CBOE.

Because we live in the 21st century, and not some other more primitive time, we have the best technology and research to look to when it comes to discerning the meaning of such emotionally driven statistics. Its here that the the area of study of behavioural economics and investing supposedly cross paths and that we might be able to yield some useful insight from the VIX.

Motorola RAZR V3_1
What is this, 2007? Might as well be the stone age!

Or not.

The holy grail of investing would presumably be something that allowed you to accurately predict changes in the market based on investor sentiment. Though over time stock markets are meant to be an accurate reflection of the health and wealth of an economy, in the short term the market more closely tracks a series of more micro events. Investor sentiment, political news, potential scandals as well as outside influences like high frequency trading and professional traders pushing stocks up and down all make up daily activity.

The VIX seems like an ideally suited index to then tell us something about the market, and yet it probably isn’t. The problem with research into behavioural economics (and its other partner, big data) is that it is great at telling us about things that have already happened. The goal, that we could use this information to change or alter human behaviour, is still a long way off (if it exists at all). Similarly the VIX is basically great at telling us stuff that we already know. When markets are bad the VIX is high. When markets are good its generally low.

Skiing in pants
Bad forecasting can lead to terrible outcomes.

Thus, the VIX represents a terrible forecasting device but an excellent reminder about investor complacency. When markets are “good” (read: going up) there is a tendency for investors to ask for more exposure to those markets to maximize returns. If you feel uncertain about the future, investors and financial advisors are less likely to “drift” in terms of their investing style, but if people feel very good about the future their far more likely to take their foot off the breaks.

Screen Shot 2017-05-18 at 2.00.19 PM
Yesterday’s selloff followed news that Trump’s Russia problem wasn’t going to go away, but remain a permanent feature of his administration.

Real market panics and crashes tend to be triggered by actual structural problems. 2008 wasn’t the result of too much confidence about the future from investors, but because the market itself was sitting on a bubble. That the VIX was low only tells us what we already knew, that we weren’t expecting a financial crisis.

Trump-Jail
We can hope.

With markets down sharply yesterday its tempting to see that this level of investor complacency/confidence harbingered the most recent sell off. But that’s not the case. Trump is, and remains, a kind of nuclear bomb of unpredictability that must be factored into anyone’s expectations about the markets. But what we should do is consider the VIX a mirror to judge our willingness and preparedness to deal with unexpected events and market downturns. If you’ve started to assume that you can afford growing concentration in your portfolio of high performing equity or that you don’t need as many conservative positions, you should take a long hard look at why you feel that way. Maybe its just because you feel a little too confident.

Like everyone else.

 

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.

How Imminent is the Next Market Crash?

image001This past week I received an article from a client regarding ideas about “wealth preservation” that made some good sense, and offered advice about calculating how much money you need for retirement. But while the premise was sound; that it makes sense to pursue investment strategies that protect your nest egg when your financial needs are already met, a one off comment about the future of the stock market caught my attention.

You can read the article HERE, but the issue I wanted to look at was the not so subtle implication that the US markets were now due for a correction. A serious one. Quoting the Wall Street Journal contributing writer William J. Berstein,

“In March, the current bull market will be six years old. It might run an additional six years—or end in April.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this point before. It isn’t unique and sits on top of many other market predictioner’s tools, but its use of averages gives a veneer of knowledge the writer simply doesn’t possess.

Obviously we would all like to know when a market correction is due, and it would be great to know how to sidestep the kind of volatility that sets our retirement savings back. But despite mountains of data, some of the most sophisticated computers, university professors, mathematicians and portfolio managers have yet to crack any pattern or code that would reveal when a market correction or crash should be expected.

Which is why we still rely on rules of thumb like the one mentioned above. Is the age of a bull market a good indication of when we will have a correction? Probably not as good of one as the writer intends. Counting since 1871, the average duration of a bull market is around 4.5 years, making the current bull run old. But averages are misleading. For instance the bull markets that started in 1975, and 1988 (ending in 1987 and 2000 respectively) lasted for 153 months each, or just shy of 13 years. Those markets are outliers in the history of bull markets, but their inclusion in factoring the average duration of the bull markets extends the average by an additional year. Interestingly if you only count bull markets since the end of the second world war the average length is just over 8 years, but that would only matter if you think our modern economy has significant differences from an economy that relied on sailing vessels and horses.

table_us_bull_markets_since_1871

The fact is that the average age of bull markets is only that, an average. It has little bearing on WHY a bull market comes to an end. There was nothing about the age of the bull market in the 2000s, when people had become convinced of some shaky ideas about internet companies that make no money, that had any bearing on its end. The bull market that ended in 2008 had more to do with some weird ideas people had about lending money to people who couldn’t pay it back than it did with a built in expiration date. Even more importantly, the market correction of 1987 (Black Monday) was an interruption in what was an otherwise quarter century of solid market gains.

Taking stabs at when a market correction will occur by using averages like duration sounds like mathematical and scientific rigour, but actually reveals very little about what drives and stops markets. And a quick survey of the world tells us a great deal more about global financial health and where potential opportunities for investment are than how long we’ve been the beneficiaries of positive market gains.

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?

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/537581249440014337

FullSizeRender

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…

The Media is Turning Market Panic up to 11 – Learn to Tune Them Out

The current market correction is about as fun as a toothache. Made up of a perfect storm of negative sentiment, a slowing global economy and concerns about the end of Quantitative Easing in the US have led to a broad sell-off of global markets, pretty much wiping out most of their gains year-to-date.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 3.38.09 PM
This is what my screen looked like yesterday (October 15th, 2014). The little 52L that you see to the left of many stock symbols means that the price had hit a 52 week low. The broad nature of the sell off, and indiscriminate selling of every company, regardless of how sound their fundamentals tells us more about market panic than it does about the companies sold.

One of the focal points of this correction has been the price of oil, which is off nearly 25% from its high in June. Oil is central to the S&P/TSX, making up nearly 30% of the index. Along with commodities, energy prices are dependent on the expectation of future demand and assumed levels of supply. As investor sentiment have come to expect that the global demand will drop off in the coming year the price of oil has taken a tumble in the last few weeks. Combined with the rise of US energy output, also known as the Shale Energy Revolution, or fracking, the world is now awash in cheap (and getting cheaper oil).

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 12.32.36 PM
The price of Brent Crude oil – From NASDAQ

But as investors look to make sense out of what is going on in the markets they would be forgiven if all they learned from the papers, news and internet sites was a barrage of fear and negativity masquerading as insight and knowledge. The presumed benefit of having so much access to news would be useful and clear insight that could help direct investors on how to best manage the current correction. Instead the media has only thrown fuel on the fire, fanning the flames with panic and fear.

WTI & BrentContrast two similar articles about the winners and losers of a dropping price of oil. The lead article for the October 15th Globe and Mail’s Business section was “Forty Day Freefall”, which went to great lengths to highlight one big issue and then cloak it in doom. The article’s primary focus is the price war that is developing between OPEC nations and North American producers. Even as global demand is reportedly slowing Saudi Arabia is increasing production, with no other OPEC nations seemingly interested in slowing the price drop or unilaterally cutting production. The reason for this action is presumably to stem the growth of oil sand and shale projects, forcing them into an unprofitable position.

 

This naturally raises concerns for energy production in Canada, but it is not nearly the whole story. The Financial Times had a similar focus on what a changing oil price might mean to nations, and its take is decidedly different. For instance, while oil producing nations may not like the new modest price for oil, cheap oil translates into an enormous boon for the global economy, working out to over $600 billion a year in stimulus. In the United States an average household will spend $2900 on gas. Brent oil priced at $80 turns into a $600 a year tax rebate for households. Cheaper oil is also hugely beneficial to the manufacturing sector, helping redirect money that would have been part of the running costs and turning them into potential economic expansion. It’s useful as well to Emerging Economies, many of which will be find themselves more competitive as costs of production drop on the back of reduced energy prices.

A current map of shale projects, and expected shale opportunities within the United States and Canada.
A current map of shale projects, and expected shale opportunities within the United States and Canada.

Business Reporting isn’t about business, it’s about advertising revenues.

While Canada may have to take it on the chin for a while because of our market’s heavy reliance on the energy sector, weakening oil prices also tends to mean a weakening dollar, both of which are welcomed by Canadian manufacturers. Corrections and changing markets may expose weaknesses in economies, but it should also uncover new opportunities. How we report these events does much to help investors either take advantage of market corrections, or become victims of it. As we wrote back in 2013, business reporting isn’t about business, it’s about advertising revenues. Pushing bad news sells papers and grabs attention, but denies investors guidance they need.