Are Economists Incompetent or Just Unhelpful?

 

 

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When economists get things wrong their missteps are practically jaw dropping. Despite making themselves the presumed source of useful information about economies, interest rates and economic management, often it seems that the economists are learning with the rest of us, testing ideas under the guise of sage and knowledgable advice. Their bias is almost always positive and the choices they make can be confounding.

As an example, let us consider the case of the Bank of Canada (BoC).

If there are perennial optimists in this world they must be employed at the BoC, for no one else has ever stared more danger in the face and assumed that everything will be fine.

For those not in the know, the BoC publishes a regular document called the Financial System Review, a bi-annual breakdown of the largest threats that could undo the Canadian economy and destabilize our financial system. Because they are the biggest problems we tend to live with them over a long time and thanks to the Financial System Review we can see how these dangers are presumed to ebb and flow over time.

For instance, two years ago the four biggest dangers according to the BoC were:

  1. A sharp correction in house prices
  2. A sharp increase in long-term interest rates.
  3. Stress emanating from China and other Emerging Markets
  4. Financial stress from the euro area.

Helpfully the BoC doesn’t just list these problems but also provides the presumed severity and likelihood of them coming to pass and places them in a useful chart.

Here is what that chart looked like in June of 2014:

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The worst risk? A Canadian housing price correction. The likelihood of that happening? very low. Meanwhile stress from the Euro area and China rate higher in terms of possibility but lower in terms of impact.

By the end of 2014 the chart looked like this:

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Unchanged.

Interestingly the view from the BoC was that there was no perceivable difference in the risks to the Canadian market. Despite a Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the sudden collapse in the price of oil and the continued growth of Canadian debt, the primary threats to Canada’s economy remained unmoved.

So what changed by the time we got to mid 2015?

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The June 2105 FSR helpfully let Canadians know that, presumably, threats to Canada’s economy had actually decreased, at least with regards to problems from the euro area. This is curious because at that particular moment Greece was engaged in a game of brinkmanship with Germany, the IMF and the European Bank. Though Greece would go on to technically default and then get another bailout only further kicking the can down the road, the view from the BoC was that things were better.

Interestingly the price of oil had also continued to decline in that period, and the BoC had been forced to make a surprise rate cut at the beginning of the year. Debt levels were still piling up, and there was a worrying uptick in the use of non-regulated private lenders to help get mortgages.

None of that, according to the analysts at the Bank of Canada, apparently mattered. At least not enough to move the needle.

The December 2015 FSR is now out, and if we are to take a retrospective on the year we might point to a few significant events. To begin, the economy was doing so poorly in the summer that the BoC did a second rate cut, which was followed by further news that the country had technically entered a recession (but nobody cared). Europe’s migrant crisis reached a tipping point, costing money and the risking the stability of the EU. Germany’s largest auto maker is under investigation for a serious breach in ethics and falsifying test results. China’s stock market began falling in July, and the Chinese government was forced to cut interest rates 5 times in the past year. The United States did their first rate hike, a paltry 25 bps, but even that has helped spur a big jump in the value of the US dollar. Meanwhile the Canadian dollar fell by nearly 20% by the end of 2015.

And the Bank of Canada says:

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Things are better? Or not as severe?

In two years of producing these charts, despite continued worsening of the financial pictures for Canada, China, the EU and even the United States, the BoC’s view is still pretty rosy. What would it take to change any of this?

Whether they are right or not isn’t at issue. It’s the future and it is unknowable. What is at issue is how we perceive risk and how ideas about risk are communicated by the people and institutions who we trust to provide that guidance. This information is meaningless if we can’t understand its parameters and confusing if a worsening situation seems to change nothing about underlying risk.

As you read this I expect the Chinese and global markets to be performing better this morning on reassuring news about Chinese GDP. But I would ask you, has the risk dissipated or is it still there, just buried under positive news and investor relief? It’s a good question and exactly the kind that could use an honest answer from an economist.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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).

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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.