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?

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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.

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.

 

How Much Should You Care About Currencies?

hanson-tourists-ii-19881As Canadians we are all familiar with the dispiriting feeling of traveling abroad and finding out our money just doesn’t travel as far with us. Canadians for generations have felt the plight of coughing up extra to go to the United States, the UK and Europe. That was until recently. As the Canadian Dollar hit parity back in 2007 and remained strong through the financial crisis we may have felt that we could hold our heads a little higher on vacation. Perhaps daring to order the steak while out with the family.

Our dollar is sometimes called a petrodollar, or petrocurrency, which means that the price of oil and the value of our currency are interlinked. As the price of oil rises so too does our dollar, hurting domestic manufacturing and improving the lives of Canadian tourists everywhere. But rising and falling dollars also have an impact on our investments, complicating portfolios and either diminishing or improving returns, like an unwelcome fifth column.

For instance, back in 2007 the sudden rise in the dollar made two types of investments popular. Canadian equity funds, (specifically energy and natural resources) and currency hedged global funds. While other markets had done well they couldn’t keep up with the ascension of the dollar, and by the end of the year the buying power of the dollar had outpaced the growth of many investments. Since 2013 the dollar has lost 20% of its value, undoing that previous balance and making unhedged foreign investments more attractive.

CAN Dollar

Hedging works by protecting the value of the currency against future changes. If you hold a currency hedged investment, the true performance will always show through, regardless of good or bad markets. When a dollar is falling unhedged investments are more appealing since a falling local currency means your foreign investments are worth more. This can mitigate bad markets, so if performance is anemic in the United States, but the Canadian dollar has dropped by 5% or 6%, you will still show a strong gain on your US holdings.

So how much time and energy should people dedicated to currency hedging? Some people argue that you should always currency hedge (so you see the accurate performance) while others prefer to let it currencies play out, and still others like to tactically manage both. In my experience it has been easier to pick funds where managers either always or never hedge, since claims to be “tactically managed” are either too small to matter, or currency swings are too fast and unpredictable to be suitably countered. For myself I prefer to use currency hedging to try and reduce volatility rather than capture more performance.

Rebuilding Economics: George Soros
George Soros – Currency Superhero!

Currency trading is very risky, and those who do it successfully may be super human. Nevertheless there are books that encourage mere mortals to gamble with the direction of currencies and try and profit from those swings in value. That seems crazy, if only because my approach to dealing with currencies is to try and mitigate their impact, not try and profit from their unpredictability. Regardless, opportunities abound for individual “do-it-yourself-ers” to throw money at currencies and try and make some money.

The title of this book is called Currency Trading for Dummies.  Take the hint.
The title of this book is called Currency Trading for Dummies.
Take the hint.

So how should Canadians mange currency exposure? One (terrible) idea is to only invest in Canada, but after a couple of years of writing this blog I don’t think I should need to explain why. Another, perhaps better, idea is for Canadians to be mindful of when they need their money. If saving for retirement is about balancing risk versus time, currency hedging or employing some currency hedging can become more useful as you get closer to needing your money on a regular basis. It may reduce growth as dollars depreciate, but protect against significant and unwelcome swings. If you are younger and investing for the long run currency swings tend to work themselves out and the fluctuations will mean less over time. But the best thing for all investors to do is ask their financial advisors for guidance about currency hedging and what will make them most comfortable with their retirement plans.

Correlation: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Market and Love Diversification

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The look of a nervous investor who needs more diversification

This year has seen further gains in the stock market both in Canada and the United States. But after five straight years of gains (the US is having its third longest period without a 10% drop) many are calling for an end to the party.

Calling for a correction in the markets isn’t unheard of, especially after such a long run of good performance. The question is what should investors do about it? Most financial advisors and responsible journalists will tell you to hold tight until it 1. happens, and 2. passes. But for investors, especially post 2008, such advice seems difficult to follow. Most Canadians with any significant savings aren’t just five years closer to retiring than they were in 2008, they are also likely considering retirement within the next 10 years. Another significant correction in the market could drastically change their retirement plans.

Complicating matters is that the investing world has yet to return to “normal”. Interest rates are at all time lows, reducing the returns from holding fixed income and creating a long term threat to bond values. The economy is still quite sluggish, and while labour numbers are still slack, labour participation will likely never return to previous highs as more and more people start retiring. Meanwhile corporations are still sitting on mountains of cash and haven’t really done much in the way of revenue growth, but share prices continue to rise making market watchers nervous about unsustainable valuations.

In short, it’s a confusing mess.

My answer to this is to stay true to principles of diversification. Diversification has to be the most boring and un-fun elements of being invested and it runs counter to our natural instincts to maximize our returns by holding investments that may not perform consistently. Diversification is like driving in a race with your brakes on. And yet it’s still the single most effective way to minimize the impacts of a market correction. It’s the insurance of the investing world.

This is not you, please do not use him as your investing inspiration.
This is not you, please do not use him as your investing inspiration.

The challenge for Canadians when it comes to diversifying is to understand the difference between problems that are systemic and those that are unique. The idea is explained well by Joseph Heath in his book Filthy Lucre. Using hunters trying to avoid starvation he notes that “10 hunters agree to share with one another, so that those who were lucky had a good day give some of their catch to those who were unlucky and had a bad day…the result will be a decrease in variance.” This type of risk pooling is premised off the idea “that one hunter’s chances of coming home empty handed must be unrelated to any other hunter’s chances of coming home empty handed.”  Systemic risk is when “something happens that simultaneously reduces everyone’s chances of catching some game.” This is why it is unhelpful to have more than one Canadian equity mutual fund in a portfolio, and to be cognizant of high correlation between funds.

The question investors should be asking is about the correlation between their investments. That information isn’t usually available except to people (like myself) who pay for services to provide that kind of data. But a financial advisor should be able to give you insight into not just the historic volatility of your investments, but also how closely they correlate with the rest of the portfolio.

Sadly I have no insights as to whether the market might have a correction this year, nor what the magnitude of such a correction could be. For my portfolio, and all the portfolios I manage the goal will be to continue to seek returns from the markets while at the same time finding protection through a diversified set of holdings.

 

Why Buy an ETF?

Exchange Traded FundIt’s become an excepted fact amongst business reporters that the best investments to buy are ETFs, otherwise known as Exchange Traded Funds. What is an ETF and why are so many journalists convinced that you should buy them? Well an ETF is a fancy way to describe an investment that looks very similar too, (but isn’t quite) a stock market index. Unlike mutual funds, the ETF is bought and sold like a stock, but mirrors the performance of an index of your choosing, and by extension all the companies that make up that index. In that respect it shares the (supposedly) best aspects of both stocks and mutual funds. It is traded quickly and is quite inexpensive compared to a traditional fund, but unlike a stock is widely diversified and so should have reduced risk compared to a single company.

In the aftermath of 2008, many journalists that cover the investment portion of the news have touted ETFs as a better investment than traditional mutual funds, citing underperformance against respective benchmarks and the significant discount on trading costs for holding ETFs. ETFs represent a “passive investment”, meaning they don’t try to out perform their mirrored indexes, instead you get all of the ups, and all of the downs of the market. This message of lower fees and comparable performance has had some resonance on investors, and questions about ETFs are some of the most frequent I receive, however while I am not opposed to ETFs I am very hesitant about giving them a blanket endorsement.

That’s because I don’t know anybody who is happy with 100% risk. In the great wisdom of investing the investor should stay focused on “long term” returns and ignore short term fluctuations in the market. But investors are people, and people (this may shock you) are not cold calculating machines. They live each day as it comes and fret over negative news, get too excited about positive news and are generally greedy when they shouldn’t be. In short, people aren’t naturally good investors and being encouraged to buy an investment like an ETF exclusively on cost alone opens up all kinds of other problems for people who find that the market makes them nervous, or may be closing in on retirement. The passive nature of an ETF may be right for some people, but that decision will rarely depend solely on the cost of the product.

The hype for ETFs is therefore more comparable to buying a car exclusively on price based on the argument that all cars function the same way. But depending on your needs there may be multiple aspects you want to consider: size, safety, speed, etc. Investments are similar, with different products offering different benefits its important not to let greed set all of your investment designs. Investing is typically about retirement, not about maximizing every last dollar the market can offer. Reaching retirement is about balancing those investor needs with their wants, and frequently providing less downside at the expense of some of the performance is preferable to the full volatility of the financial markets.