The Mystery of Market Volatility

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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.

The Deceptive Nature of Indices

Index

An essential part of the business of investing involves figuring out how well you are doing. In some respects, the best benchmark for how well you are doing should be personalized to you. How conservative are you? What kind of income needs do you have? How old are you? While the case remains strong for everyone to have a personal benchmark to compare against their investment portfolios, in practice many people simply default to market indexes.

I’ve talked a little about market indexes before. They are poorly understood products, designed to give an impression about the overall health and direction of the economy and can serve as a guide to investment decisions. Large benchmarks, like the S&P 500, the TSX, or the FTSE 100, can tell us a great deal about the sentiment of investors (large and small) and what the expected direction of an economy may be.

But because these tools are usually poorly understood, they can contribute to as much confusion as they do clarity. For instance, the Dow Jones uses a highly confusing set of maths to determine performance. Last year General Electric lost about 50% of its market capitalization, while at the same time Boeing increased its market capitalization by 50%, but their impact on the Dow Jones was dramatically different. Boeing had an outsized positive contribution while General Electric had a much smaller negative impact.

The S&P 500 currently is one of the best preforming markets in 2018. Compared to most global indexes, the S&P 500 is ahead of Germany’s DAX, Britain’s FTSE 100 and FTSE 250, Japan’s Nikkei and Canada’s TSX. Yet if you are looking at your US focused investments, you might be surprised to see your own mutual funds lagging the index this year. If you were to ask an ETF provider or discount financial advisor why that is they would likely default to the answer “fees”, but they’d be wrong.

YTD FTSE S&P500 TSX
While the S&P 500 isn’t exactly “running away” it is doing considerably better than the TSX and the UK’s FTSE 100

This year is an excellent example of the old joke about Bill Gates walking into a bar and making each patron, on average, a millionaire. While the overall index has been performing quite well, the deeper story is about how a handful of companies are actually driving those returns, while the broader market has begun to languish. Of the 11 sectors in the S&P 500, only two are up, technology and consumer discretionary, while a further 6 were down for the year. In fact the companies driving most of the gains are: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google), Netflix and Microsoft. The 80 stocks in the consumer discretionary space not in that list have done almost nothing at all.

What does this portend for the future? There is a lot to be concerned about. The narrowing of market returns is not a good sign (although there have been some good results in terms of earnings), and it tends to warp investment goals. Investors demand that mutual fund returns keep up with their index, often forcing portfolio managers to buy more of a stock that they may not wish to have. In the world of Exchange Traded Funds (or ETFs), they participate in a positive feedback loop, pulling in money and buying more of the same stocks that are already driving the performance.

In all, indexes remain a useful tool to gage relative performance, but like with all things a little knowledge can be deceptive. The S&P 500 remains a strong performing index this year, but its health isn’t good. Healthy markets need broad based growth, and investors would be wise to know the details behind the stories of market growth before they excitedly commit money to superficially good performance.  

Did that make you worried? Don’t be scared, call us to set up a review of your portfolio to better understand the risks!

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.

Looking for Dark Clouds Amidst Silver Linings

628x471This year got off to a rocky start. As of writing this post, the S&P 500 is down over -2% year-to-date (YTD), while other global markets have been similarly affected. The MSCI Global Index is down nearly -1%, the MSCI Emerging Markets index is also down -4.5%, as is the FTSE 100 (UK, -1.3%) and last year’s super-performer, Japan (-12.1%). This sudden “frothiness” has brought out the fear mongers and market doom-sayers. So regularly has the drum been beaten that 2014 should see a significant slide in market value that it has become a regular question in every meeting. (note: I did not update these numbers for the current week, however many of these returns have improved. In some cases quite dramatically)

The only problem is that any internet search will easily reveal market calls for a correction EACH and EVERY YEAR! This doesn’t mean that a correction won’t happen, in fact if there is one thing that we know about the markets its that corrections do, and must happen. We also know that the longer you go without a correction the closer you must be to having one. The problem is that we place value on people who claim to be able to predict a market downturn, even when we can’t actually predict when a downturn will actually occur. So the media keeps trotting out people willing to make outlandish market predictions knowing that it will grab headlines and eventually be right.

Except….

Except that there are lots of reasons to be cautious in the current market conditions. Not that we can predict when we might actually see a downturn, but there a lot of reasons why it makes sense to have defensive positions in your portfolio. For instance, we are currently at an all time high for IPOs, the most since 1997. There is some evidence that as IPOs peak its not uncommon to see a market correction, as less valuable companies try to cash in on market exuberance and professional investors try and sell their positions in less viable companies to bullish markets.

Other market metrics also seem to favour being on the defensive. Currently there are 84 companies on the S&P 500 with shares that are valued above 10x earnings. This means that investors are incredibly bullish about the future prospects when it comes to income growth. Many of these companies are in hi-tech sectors, like social media firms such as Twitter. For the record that is the most number of companies above this valuation since prior to the tech bubble in 1999.

Share buy backs also play a role here. If you aren’t familiar, with borrowing rates still very low many companies have taken the opportunity to borrow large sums of money and buy their outstanding shares back. Why? As the number of outstanding shares in the market declines the Earnings Per-Share goes up. This means that even if a company isn’t seeing actual growth in sales, it does mean that the the remaining shares receive a greater portion on the earnings, artificially increasing their value. In of itself this isn’t a problem, but it serves to increase the stock market while not seeing much in the way of actual economic growth.

Lastly we have also seen that the flow of money into ETF funds (passive investments that mimic indices) is also adding volatility to the markets. As investors remain concerned over negative surprises in the news, the high liquidity of ETFs causes even greater short term fluctuations in the markets as investors pull back. This is especially true in the Emerging Markets, and has had the unusual side effect of showing that actively managed funds have outperformed comparable ETFs.

In summary then there are four good reasons to believe that the markets may get more turbulent going forward. The lesson however is not to commit to a wholly negative or positive view of the markets, but rather continue to hold a diversified group of assets to deal with all market surprises, both good and bad!

 

Jack Sparrow and the Pirate Stock Exchange

In case you missed it 2013 seemed to mark the end of Somali piracy. If you can cast your mind back to 2011, piracy off the coast of Africa seemed to be the next big problem. In fact 2011 marked the peak of Somali piracy with 237 separate attacks. In contrast 2013 saw only 15 Somali pirate attacks, an incredible reduction. Piracy is still out there, around countries like Indonesia and off the coast of some West African nations, but the threat of Somali piracy has largely disappeared.

That’s good for those on the high seas, but it means that we miss an opportunity to see how natural and beneficial capital markets are in distributing wealth and helping economies. And yes you read that sentence right.

In this photo taken Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, masked Somali pirate Hassan stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia. The empty whisky bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs that litter this shoreline are signs that the heyday of Somali piracy may be over - most of the prostitutes are gone, the luxury cars repossessed, and pirates talk more about catching lobsters than seizing cargo ships. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)
In this photo taken Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, masked Somali pirate Hassan stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia. The empty whisky bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs that litter this shoreline are signs that the heyday of Somali piracy may be over – most of the prostitutes are gone, the luxury cars repossessed, and pirates talk more about catching lobsters than seizing cargo ships. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

The core problem for Somalians is that amongst their many, many problems, there is not enough money in the country. This makes sense for a number of reasons. It is a dangerous place, and people who do have money and live there are unlikely to put money into local businesses or trust a bank. Corruption is rampant and the best way to describe Somalia currently is as a failed state. All this makes it very difficult for the citizens of Somalia to attract foreign investors. As an alternative to traditional business practices, many Somalians took up the cause of high seas piracy and ransomed boats and ships back to their host countries in exchange for money. Whether you realize it or not, in this way Somalia was actually improving their economy (albeit illegally) by providing fresh inflows of foreign capital. But how did the money find its way into the local economy? Through the pirate stock market of course!

That’s right, in 2009 a stock market was set up in the small fishing community of Harardheere with about 70 different…pirate entities(?) that locals could invest in. Giving money to one of these entities helped fund piracy on the high seas and successful raids would be paid out to the investors. There is more information about it in this 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal and I encourage you to have a read of this fascinating account of a naturally occurring stock market, but I think this quote from the article sums up the rather banal and natural benefits that markets provide to economies:

As local security officer Mohamed Adam put it to Reuters, “Piracy-related business has become the main profitable economic activity in our area and as locals we depend on their output.” Mr. Adam claims that the district government gets a cut of every dollar collected by pirates and uses it—naturally—for schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure.

jack-sparrow-running

Since then however the international response to Somalian piracy has been swift and decisive. And while the horn of Africa might be safer for international shipping the reasons behind Somalian piracy remain unresolved. But it is insightful to see that this brief chapter of piracy (outside of the Johnny Depp variety) was actually more nuanced and lends an odd credibility to the needs and benefits of markets for investors and companies, regardless of who they are or what business they are in.