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…

Be the Most Interesting Person at Christmas Dinner

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! We’ve been busy over here for the last couple of weeks and unfortunately I haven’t been able to update our blog as often as I would like. However lots of interesting and important things have been happening over the past two weeks and they are worth mentioning. Check them out below!

Bitcoin is maybe not going to survive. Maybe: There is an ongoing fight about whether Bitcoin, the digital currency, is in fact a real currency. Bitcoin has been criticized for being a tool of the criminal underworld, and praised for its inventiveness. But like all fiat currencies there is a lot of speculation about whether it is worth anything. After all, who is backing Bitcoin? There is no government that will guarantee it and not every government is happy with it, and its value fluctuates wildly. And yet Bitcoin persists, at least until today. China has just banned Bitcoin and its largest exchange will not accept any more deposits, sending the value of Bitcoin tumbling.

What’s good for the investor maybe bad for the economy: There is a demographic shift going on in the Western Developed nations. People are getting older. Not just older, but retirement older, and as a result the economy is feeling pressured to respond to needs arising out of this aging baby boomer trend. One of those shifts is towards dividends. Dividends are traditionally issued by companies to their shareholders when the companies have extra money lying around and can’t use it productively. However many companies, especially large ones that generate more cash flow than they can reasonably use issue regular dividends, such as banks and many utilities. This is useful to investors that are looking to retire or are retired already. Regular dividends help provide retirees with regular and predictable income. However dividends may be bad for the economy. CEOs are often rewarded for market performance, and markets tend to like companies that increase their dividends (Microsoft increased its dividend in September). But companies can be far more useful to the economy generally when they invest in growth rather than give money back to shareholders. That would mean hiring new people, building new factories and generally moving money through the economy. But as much of the population ages and looks for dividends this might undermine the both growth in economic terms and affect choices that CEOs make about the future of their companies.

Canadians are at record debt levels, again: This may not come as much of a surprise, but Canadians have record debt levels and nothing seems to be correcting it! This story began regularly occurring in 20102011, 2012, and of course 2013. What is more important about how high the debt of Canadians continues to rise, but what’s driving it. Not surprisingly it’s mortgages. The high cost of Canadian housing has worried the federal government, and many global organizations. But far worse would be a deflationary cycle on Canadian homes, driving down the price while saddling home owners with debts far in excess the value of their houses. Despite a number of efforts to limit the amounts that Canadians are borrowing, the very low interest rate set by the Bank of Canada is keeping Canadian’s interested in buying ever more expensive homes. The reality is that no one is really sure what is to be done, or what the potential fallout might be. What is clear is that this can’t continue forever.

We’re going to be taking next week off, but will be back in January!

Successful Cities Don’t Always Feel Successful

Toronto Boom Town

In the ongoing tedious and sad affair that is Rob Ford, I came across an interesting article from Edward Keenan written just before Mayor Ford won his election. The pertinent part of the article I feel is where the Ford campaign’s genius was to define the election around the idea that Toronto is a city in decline. This idea, which caught on as the election narrative suited the Ford camp well, and by pointing to traffic, city projects and basically the realities of a city that is rapidly growing made it appear that Toronto really was broken.

But Toronto isn’t broken, and many of the problems that we face are actually the problems of a city that is incredibly successful and growing rapidly. It’s ironic that the outward signs of our success are some of the things that aggravate us the most, but its a reminder that strong economies don’t look like lazy towns on a Sunday afternoon but instead are chaotic, busy, hot and frustrating. It’s also interesting that many of the problems that successful cities face (and things that define a successful city) don’t ever change, regardless of the age. Noise, construction, overcrowding, congested traffic and suburban resentment are the hallmarks of prosperous cities.

Since I am a great believer that cities are our economic future I think its worth pointing out that the problems we face today we faced in the past, and will continue to face in the future. Cities that are actually in decline have a totally different set of problems. So its better to worry about constant traffic congestion and debate how best to expand our public transit than to wonder whether we should have public transit at all. If you’d like to see Toronto dealing with this in the past, may I recommend Toronto Boom Town by Leslie McFarlaneNational Film Board of Canada, a ten minute long video from 1951, looking at Toronto, a booming city of tomorrow!

Great Further Reading: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garret Keizer, Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser, Some Great Idea by Edward Keenan

All Time High Doesn’t Equal Bubble

iStockphoto 046On more than one occasion I have been quizzed about the future of some stock market-or-other to the lack of satisfaction of the quizzer. Invariably the conversation goes something like: “What with all the money being printed and the new highs of the stock market, shouldn’t it all come down?” And my answer is usually, “No.”

This is frustrating for people because there is a real feeling that the stock market in the United States should not be doing as well as its doing. Some of this comes from the incongruity of negative media reports about the US economy and the ever growing stock market, some comes from the lingering shock of 2008, and some from an intellectual class that feel that our economic future is built on sand.

But a large reason for my belief in future growth is in looking past the fear of “big numbers.” When the stock market has a correction it’s often pointed out that it had just reached new highs. But this doesn’t mean that all new highs equal a market correction. The subtext is that there must be some limit to the growth in the market and that a new “all time high” must transcend this natural barrier, creating a bubble.

This is a populist understanding of market bubbles and has little to do with reality. The market should grow and reflect a burgeoning economy, and while the American economy has struggled its companies have continued to post substantial profits and many of them have either continued to grow in the slower market, or have begun to offer or expand dividends, making them more attractive. 

The simple truth is crashes happen at market highs, but not because of them. Bubbles are not simply a quickly growing market, but represent a detachment between market fundamentals and a rapidly rising price, fed by the enthusiasm for rapidly growing prices.

Economists Worry About Canadian Housing Bubble, Canada Politely Disagrees

real-estate-investingThis week the Financial Times reported that “Canada’s housing market exhibits many of the symptoms that preceded disruptive housing downturns in other developed economies, namely overbuilding, overvaluation and excessive household debt.”

These comments made by economist David Madani have been repeated and echoed by a number of other groups, all of whom cite Canada’s low interest rates and large household debt (now 163% of disposable income according to Statistics Canada) as a source of significant danger to the Canadian economy.

This is not a view shared by Robert Kavic of BMO Nesbitt Burns who believes that the Canadian housing market has long legs, saying “Cue the bubble mongers!”

Since 2008 predicting the fall of housing markets has become a popular spectator sport. Canada seems to have sidestepped most of the downturn, which has only made calls for the failing of Canada’s housing markets greater. But the reality is that our housing markets are very hot, and we do have lots of debt.

So is Canada’s housing market heading for a crash? Maybe. And even if it was its hard to know what to do. Fundamentals in Canada’s housing sector remain strong (and have improved). People also want to live in Canadian cities, with 100,000 people moving annually to Toronto alone. In other words, there is lots of demand. In addition regulations in the Canadian financial sector prevent similar scenarios that were seen in the United States, Spain and Ireland from occurring.

But housing prices can’t go up forever, and the more burdensome Canadian debt becomes the more sensitive the Canadian economy will become to interest rate changes. Meanwhile I have grown far more weary of over confident economists assuring the general public that “nothing can go wrong.” 

The big lesson here is probably that your house is a bad financial investment, but a great place to live. Unless you own your home, a house tends to be the bank’s asset and not yours. In addition your home, like your car, needs constant maintenance to retain its value. So if you wanted to buy a house to live in, good for you. If you want to buy a house as an investment my question to you is, “Is this really expensive investment the best investment in a world of financial opportunities?”

The Rent is Too Damned High: Stop Stopping Condos!

Driving through mid-town the other day I caught a sign that said “Stop the Alaska Condo”. Not knowing anything about it I looked it up and was met with an inspiring, modern design to replace 28 family units with 130 new units of housing around Yonge and Strathgowan.

Image

The Proposed Alaska Condo

Of course there is a neighbourhood association who are protesting its development. Reasons to protest include “safety” (left considerably vague), that it will introduce a number of new people and cars and that it isn’t in keeping with the village’s rustic aesthetic. The Uptown Yonge Neighbourhood Alliance acknowledges the need of urban redevelopment, just not that urban redevelopment.

Cities are more than just crowded places that people live. They are the modern backbone of vibrant economies. Toronto itself accounts for 11% of Canada’s total GDP, and depends on a growing number of people to provide tax revenues, employment and businesses. In his book Triumph of the City, author Edward Glaeser outlines how cities provide networks that spawn a creative class and strengthen our economies.

But far more concerning is how in modern times cities have also become a mess of regulations that are stifling growth. Not economic growth, but residential growth. Urban density helps make neighbourhoods more prosperous and with a wider more successful variety of services. But as is the case with the Alaska Condo, proposals to increase density often face strong resistance. I tend to view this resistance as not only cutting off one’s nose, but as immoral too. Toronto is a bustling city, whose cost of living continues to skyrocket because of lack of housing. In the rush to try and prevent change to our city we are not only choking off our future economic vitality, but punishing people financially with ever increasing home ownership and rental costs, even as more and more of our economy depends on service sector work and less on manufacturing.

I have no doubt that the members of the Uptown Yonge Neighbourhood Alliance feel very passionately about their cause, but I’m afraid it boils down to little more than NIMBY-ism. People need places to live, and the Yonge & Strathgowan area will benefit from some lower cost housing and all the new residents, who will bring money, taxes and businesses to the area.

Further Reading: The Rent is Too Damn High by Matt Yglesias