What “The Big Short” Can Tell Us About Market Risk

I81wBzBcSclL‘ve just had a chance to watch the movie The Big Short, based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis has made a name for himself as a writer for being able to explain complex issues, often involving sophisticated math that befuddles the general population but is responsible for much of the financial chaos that has defined the last decade.

The principle of our story is Dr. Michael Burry, a shrewd investor whose unique personal qualities gives him the patience to tear apart one of the most complicated financial structures in modern finance. Having done that he creates a new market for a few people who had the foresight to see the US housing bubble and how far the crash might reach. The story is captivating and the tension builds to what we know is the inevitable conclusion of the worlds biggest crash, but there is a problem with the story.

No matter what they do in the movie, we know how it all ends. That hindsight undercuts the real tension in the film, the risk that these few traders and hedge fund managers took with other people’s money to bet against what were largely considered to be safe investments. In some ways, the US housing crash is unique because of how much institutionalized corruption had seeped into the system. The ratings agencies who sold their AAA ratings for the business, the mortgage brokers who pushed through unfit candidates into subprime adjustable rate mortgages, the analysts and financial specialists that repackaged low grade mortgages into AAA rated bonds; it took all of them and more to create the biggest market bubble since the South Sea.

Their smart move seems like lock, but if you look past the drama the heroic brokers of our story were taking a huge gamble with other people’s money. From Dr. Michael Burry down through the rest of the characters, hundreds of millions, billions even, were tied up in investments that few understood but carried incredible potential for losses. The confidence that our heroes show in demanding “half a billion more” as they come to understand the scope of the problem seem smart in hindsight, but they were making big bets. Bets that could have easily ruined people’s lives and finances.

This is the true nature of risk. Things are only certain in hindsight. At the moment we need to make decisions rarely do we possess the kind of clarity that we believe we should have when dealing with markets. If we look to current markets what can we honestly say we know about tomorrow? Markets are chaotic, oil prices are in the tank, central bankers are talking about negative interest rates (while some have gone and done it), and then we will have 2 or 3 days of market rallies. What picture should we draw from this? What certainty do we have about tomorrow’s performance?

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 12.47.52 PM
From Bloomberg

Our problem is that when we are inclined towards certainty we are also inclined towards fantastic risk. In fact we won’t even believe there is risk if we are certain of an outcome. And we are prone to lionizing people who risk it all and are proved to be right, while forgetting all those people who made similar gambles and lost everything, leading us to repeat a mistake that has undone many.

The story we need isn’t the one about the people who bet big and won. We need the story about the people who bet smart and navigated confusing and risky markets and came out fine. That story sadly won’t have the kind of impact or drama that we long for in a movie, but it’s the story that each and every investor should want to be part of.

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.

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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.

Hyperbole and a Half: Terrible Financial Advice

bear market

Walking into my office this morning I was bracing for yet another day of significant losses on global markets. It’s a tricky business being a financial advisor in good or bad markets. But seeking growth, balancing risk, and managing people towards a sustainable retirement (a deadline that looms nearer now with every passing year) only grows more challenging in terrible markets like the ones we are in.

In some ways it can seem like divining, working out which thread of thought is the most crucial in understanding the problems afflicting markets and panicking investors. Is the rising US dollar enough to throw off the (somewhat) resurgent American manufacturing sector? Has China actually successfully converted its economy, and is no longer requiring infrastructure projects to drive growth? Is oil oversold, and if so should we be buying it?

Aiding me in this endeavor is the seemingly boundless supply of news media. There is never a moment in my day where I do not have some new information coming my way providing “insight” into the markets. The Economist, the world’s only monthly magazine that comes weekly, begins my day with their “Economist Espresso” email I get every morning. No wake-up period is complete for me without glancing at the Financial Times quickly. My subscription to the Globe and Mail and the National Post never go unattended. Even facebook and Reddit can sometimes provide useful information from around the planet. After that is the independent data supplied by various financial institutions, including banks, mutual fund companies and analysts.

So what should you do when the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) screams across the internet “Sell Everything Before Market Crash”.

Panic%20button

The answer is probably nothing, or at least pause before you hit the big red button. It’s not that they can’t be right, just that they haven’t exactly earned our trust. RBS, if you may recall, was virtually nationalized following losses in 2008, having 83% of the bank sold to the government. In 2010 despite a £1.1 billion loss, paid out nearly £1 billion in bonuses, of which nearly 100 went to senior executives worth over a £1 million each. In 2011 it was fined £28 million for anti-competitive practices. In short, RBS is a hot mess and I suppose it is in keeping with it’s erratic behavior that it should try and insight panic selling the world over with a media grabbing headline like this.

I may be unfair to RBS. I didn’t speak to the analyst personally. The analyst was reported in the Guardian, a newspaper in the UK whose views on capitalism might be best described as ‘Marxist’, and inclined to hyperbole. It’s not as though I am not equally pessimistic about the markets this year, nor am I alone in such an assessment. But it should seem strange to me that an organization whose credibility should still be highly in question, who undid the financial stability of a major bank should also be trusted when calling for mass panic and reckless selling.

The analyst responsible for this startling statement is named Andrew Roberts, and he has since followed up his argument with an article over at the Spectator (I also read that), outlining in his own words the thoughts behind his “sell everything” call, essentially spelling out much of we have said over the past few months in this blog. I find myself agreeing with much of what he has written, and yet can’t bring myself to begin large scale negation of sound financial planning in favour of apoplectic pronouncements that are designed as much to generate headlines and attention as they are to impart financial wisdom.

Panic Selling

The point is not to be dismissive of calls for safety or warnings about dire circumstances. Instead we should be mindful in how we make sense of markets, and how investors should approach shocking headlines like “sell everything”. I am not a fan of passive investing, the somewhat in-vogue idea that you can simply choose your portfolio mix, lean back and check back in once every decade for a negligible cost. I advocate, and continue to advocate for ongoing maintenance in a portfolio. That investors must be vigilante and while they should not have to know all the details of global markets, they should understand how their portfolios seek downside protection. My advice, somewhat less shrill and brimstone-esque , is call your financial advisor, discuss your concerns and be clear on what worst case scenarios might mean to your portfolios and what options are available to you. If you don’t have a financial advisor, feel free to reach out to us too.

Concerned about the markets and need a second opinion? Please drop us a line and we will be in touch…

 

Oil: Lower for Longer

We’ve done a little video to try and explain why analysts now expect the price of oil to stay much lower for much longer. It’s a different format than our previous videos, but we think it offers an opportunity to be more informative with a greater impact than some of our other videos.

We’ll be playing around with this idea for a while, experimenting with ways to make it interesting and quick, so please send us your thoughts and any topics you’d like us to cover.

In other news, the Canadian and global markets have been taking a beating over the last couple of weeks. Much of this is tied to an expected Federal Reserve rate hike for the end of December. The rate hike will be unbelievably small, but markets have been selling off in anticipation of it’s arrival.

The “normalising” of interest rates is a hot topic for many. Some American manufacturers worry that rising rates will inflate the USD further than it already has this year. In Emerging Markets the rising USD has meant a collapse in investment while funds flow back to American shores. Proponents of the rise have argued (persuasively I believe) that seven years after a major financial crisis it makes no sense to have interest rates at emergency levels. Long term cheap credit can’t be allowed to continue.

Canada is also getting badly beaten by the continuing falling price of oil and the end of the commodity super cycle. The slowing down of China has meant that there is simply less need for the huge amount of raw materials we have been selling. Prices on iron ore and copper have all been falling with the price of oil.

Canada is also saddled with other problems. Debt to income just hit a new high, while government debt is expected to grow substantially over the coming years while the economy looks to be doing worse.

We’ve been extremely busy in the second half of this year, which has kept us from writing as much as we have in the past. But we will try and be back later in the week with some more analysis on the markets and economy.

 

 

Oil’s Cheap, So Now What?

mugato oil
Yes. I know I’m using the meme incorrectly. Please don’t email me about this.

The price of oil continues to fall, and it won’t be long before investors and the media will be asking whether it’s time to load up on energy within portfolios. Right now the primary focus is on how low the price can get, with current estimates suggesting that $30/barrel is not out of the question, and some predictions claiming it could go even lower. So when is the right time to buy, and how much of a portfolio should be allocated to energy?

These are good questions, but not for the reasons you might expect. Answering those questions mindfully should help any investor better understand the underlying assumptions that go into making smart investment decisions. For instance, why should a $30 barrel of crude be an attractive price to buy? Superficially we assume that it’s a bargain: the price was $100, now its $30, so you should buy some. But what should matter to an investor is not the new price but whether that price is inherently flawed. The sudden drop in the price of oil may lead us to believe that oil is too cheap, but if so what should the proper price be? Determining what a fair market price should be can be challenging, one matched only by trying to figure out when the price has actually bottomed and won’t go any lower.

Capture

But say you feel comfortable that the price of oil has reached its final low and is significantly undervalued, you’ve still yet to figure out the best way to participate in the rebound. For instance, are you going to invest in individual oil companies, or will you purchase a mutual fund that buys a basket of various energy firms? If the former, what kind of companies do you want? Big energy firms like Shell and BP, or some of the very small producers? Will you be buying into shale oil, tar sands, or investing in energy production farther afield?

If that feels too complicated a set of questions to answer you could always buy an exchange traded fund (ETF). ETFs have become quite common today as a method to passively have your investments mirror various indices, but they were initially a way to simplify investing in commodity markets. So rather than focus on the companies that will extract the oil, you’d rather invest in the price of the barrel itself. That has the advantage of removing any extensive analysis that may be needed to be done on a company (profitability, type of oil investment, liabilities), but carries the down side of significant volatility.

MI-CH372_OILfro_DV_20150119163357Getting over all those hurdles leaves only the question of how much of a portfolio should be allocated to the energy sector. The answer here is as frustrating as all the rest, it will depend on how much volatility you can stomach. If you are encroaching on retirement, a good rule of thumb would be not too much (if at all). If you are very young and aren’t intending to use your investments for sometime you can presumably accommodate quite a bit more.

After all that the only thing left is to have the price rise. What could stand in the way of that? Perhaps a prolonged battle for market share that sees a continued lowering of the price, or even nations not sticking to their assigned production targets. Maybe an international treaty that could see a former energy producing nation reenter the market place, flooding it with cheap oil. An extended slowdown in a significant economy might also reduce global demand, prolonging the lowered valuation. Even the arrival of new technology could displace a portion of the market driving down future oil requirements. Or the simple knowledge that proven reserves are abundant can remove market concern of future shortages. In other words, lots of things can still prevent a rapid rebound in the price of oil.

The point here isn’t so much about oil but about more clearly seeing the risks that underlie “sure thing” opportunities. There is no easy money to be made in investing. Opportunities, no matter how superficially guaranteed they may seem still come with dangers that shouldn’t be ignored. Cheap buying opportunities can be good, and if they make sense should be pursued. But all investing comes with risks and not being aware of those risks can lead to serious mistakes in the management of a portfolio. More than one competent investor has been badly burned over-estimating the likelihood of a significant rebound. The lesson is don’t let your lust for opportunity crowd out sound investing strategies.

What a Race Car Driver Taught Me about Oil Prices

karun_carouselTesla is all over the news. Most recently I have seen several postings about the new P85D Tesla’s Insane Mode, a setting in the car that delivers the maximum amount of power to the car (a big thanks to my client who sent me the link).

Tesla, and it’s CEO Elon Musk (who is a real life bond villain) has made quite a splash, building a high quality and competitive electric car with a solid range. A real first. And while his current offerings in the market remain decidedly high end, his ambitions include creating a more affordable middle class version as well.

But the economics of electric vehicles remain challenging at best. There are more options than ever, from Chevrolet, to Ford to Toyota. But these cars all tip the scales at the upper end of the car market, and are not sensible economically on a three year lease.

This is the Tesla Model X. It's due to hit the road in 2016, and is gorgeous. Notice the "Falcon Wing." Notice it! Did you notice it?  Awesome, right?
This is the Tesla Model X. It’s due to hit the road in 2016, and is gorgeous. Notice the “Falcon Wing.” Notice it! Did you notice it?
Awesome, right?

But the problem for electric cars may be best explained by the new Formula E series that is currently in it’s inaugural season. Using a newly designed electric race car I was surprised to learn that there are limits on the power that drivers can use in races, (while fans can vote to give some drivers an addition 50 bhp to boost speed each race via twitter). Why is this? Ostensibly it is to help preserve the life of the battery, already the heaviest part of the car and not powerful enough to get a car through a single race without a second car. In other words, the economics of the battery is still the biggest challenge facing all auto producers.

By some good fortune my brother in law is a driver in Formula E for team Mahindra. Mahindra & Mahindra isn’t as well known in Canada, but is a large conglomerate and a significant auto producer that sells in many countries. This past year they have launched India’s first electric passenger vehicle, the Reva e2o, which they had loaned to Karun and afforded me the opportunity to test drive while visiting my extended family in India. It’s a good car, and I could see that Karun had enjoyed driving it. But he pointed out the first challenge to electric cars in India was that the Indian government is only just introducing an electric car subsidy (having previously canceled one in 2012). In fact it is government subsidies that have helped foster the boom in electric cars.

From NASDAQ, February 4, 2015
From NASDAQ, February 4, 2015

What this all leads to is the inevitable challenge poised by the sudden drop in the price of oil. Electric cars sit at the top of the market in terms of cost, and many aren’t even viable until after you both:

  1. Don’t have to buy gas anymore when oil is over $100 a barrel.
  2. Are given money by the government to help afford the car.

So if high gas prices underly the business case for electric cars, then a sudden cut in the price of oil does significant damage to that business case. It makes traditional petrol cars more cost effective, more competitive and more profitable compared to their e counterparts.

This tells us two things about oil and electric cars. The first is that while oil prices may stay depressed compared to previous market highs, the demand for oil is unlikely to decline and will likely recover as cheap oil spurs economic growth. The second issue is whether the rise of companies like Tesla is overstated. As exciting as they may appear, the market valuation of TESLA is the real insane mode, and certainly not in line with a traditional auto maker. The reality at least is that the end of oil, and the growth of electric cars is going to be dependent on considerable innovations in battery technology and will not be viable in the long term with cheaper oil and government subsidies. But who knows, next year’s Formula E series will allow teams to design their own cars and we may begin seeing some interesting innovations start in battery development.

Will We All Be Victims of Cheap Oil?

OILEarlier this year we wrote that Russia’s economy was fundamentally weaker than Europe’s and that their decision to start a trade war in retaliation for economic sanctions over the Ukraine would hurt Russia far more than Europe. As it happened Russia has suffered that fate and had a helping more. The collapsing price of oil was a mortal wound to the soft underbelly of the Russian economy, leading to a spectacular collapse in the value of the Ruble and an estimated 4.5% contraction in their economy for 2015.

The Ruble’s earlier decline this year had already made the entire Russian stock market less valuable than Apple Computers, but as the price of Brent oil continued to slide below $60 (for the first time since 2008) investors began to loose confidence that Russia could do much to prop up the currency, prompting an even greater sell-off. That led to an unprecedented hike in the Russian key interest rate by its central bank, moving it from 10.5% to 17% yesterday. Moves like that are designed to reassure investors, but typically they only serve to ensure a full market panic. The Ruble, which had started the year at about 30 RUB per dollar briefly dropped to 80 before recovering at around 68 to the dollar by the end of trading yesterday.

The Russian Ruble over the last year. The spike at the end represents the last few weeks.
The Russian Ruble over the last year. The spike at the end represents the last few weeks.

Cheap oil seems to be recasting the economic story for many countries and millions of people. The Financial Times observes that oil importing emerging markets stand to be big winners in this. Dropping the cost of manufacturing and putting more money in the pockets of the growing middle class should continue to help those markets. The same can be said of the American consumer, who will be benefiting from the sudden drop in gas and energy prices.

The Financial Times always has the best infographics.
The Financial Times always has the best infographics.

Losers on the other hand seem easy to spot and piling up everywhere. Venezuela is in serious trouble, so is Iran and the aforementioned Russia. Saudi Arabia should be okay for a while, as it has significant foreign currency reserves, but as the price drops other member states of OPEC will likely howl for a change in tactic. But along with the obvious oil producing nations, both the United States and Canada will likely also be victims, just not uniformly.

Carbon Tracker Initiative
Carbon Tracker Initiative

Manufacturers may be breathing a sigh of relief in Ontario, but Canadian oil producers are sweating it big. Tar sand oil requires lots of refining and considerable cost to extract. Alberta oil sands development constitute some of the most expensive projects around for energy development and a significant drop in the price of energy, especially if it is protracted, could stall or erase some future investments. This is especially true of the Keystone Pipeline which many now fear isn’t economically viable, in addition to being environmentally contentious.

This chart was produced by Scotiabank
This chart was produced by Scotiabank

Saudi Arabia has continued to allow the price of oil to fall with the intention of hurting the shale producers in the United States. This price war will certainly claim some producers in the US, but it will difficult to know at which point that market will be effectively throttled. Certainly new projects will likely slow down but the continued improving efficiency of the fracking technology may make those producers more resilient to cheap energy.

But there is one more potential victim of the falling price of oil. That could be all of us. I, like many in the financial field, believe that cheap energy will enormously benefit the economy. But our biggest mistakes come from the casual confidence of things we assume to be true but prove not to be. A drop in energy should help the economy, but it doesn’t have to. If people choose not to spend their new energy windfall and save it instead, deflationary pressure will continue to grow. As I’ve previously said, deflation is a real threat that is often overlooked. But even perceived positive forms of deflation, like a significant reduction in the price of oil, can have nasty side effects. The loss to the global economy in terms of the price of oil is only beneficial if that money is spent elsewhere and not saved! For now confidence is that markets will ultimately find the dropping price of oil helpful to global growth, regardless of the early losers in the global price war for oil.