If I Tell You This is Just a Correction, Will You Feel Better?

19_6_origA correction is typically defined as a drop of roughly 10% in the markets over a very short period of time. It’s often “welcomed” by investment professionals because it creates opportunities for new investments into liked companies that were previously trading above valuations considered appealing. Corrections are talked about as being necessary, beneficial and part of a normal and healthy market cycle, which all makes it sound somewhat medical. But in medical terms it falls under the category of being told your are about to receive 5 injections in short order and they are all going to hurt.

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S&P TSX From Bloomberg – October 2, 2014

For investors the past couple of weeks in the market has felt like many such injections. The US markets have had a significant sell off, as have the global, emerging, and Canadian markets. All of it very quickly. The sudden drop has erased many of the gains in an already slow year and eaten dramatically into the TSX’s return which had been one of the best.

From Bloomberg - October 2, 2014
Dow Jones Industrial From Bloomberg – October 2, 2014

For many investors any sudden change in the direction of the markets can immediately give the sense that we are heading into another 2008. As Canadian (and American) investors are now 6 years older and closer to retirement the stakes also seem much higher. So here are some reasons why you shouldn’t be concerned about the most recent market volatility, and what you can do to make them work to your advantage.

1. Everyone is nervous.

For several months people have been calling for a correction. Investor sentiment is neutral and consumer confidence has dipped, meaning that overall atmosphere is somewhat negative for the markets. But that can be a good thing. Market crashes and bust cycles typically show up when people are exuberant and feel euphoric about markets. Bad news is swept aside and the four most dangerous words in investing “This time it’s different” become the hallmark of the new bubble. It’s rare that negativity breeds an over exuberant market.

2. The Economy isn’t running on all cylinders.

There certainly have been encouraging numbers in the United States, and even recently Canada has had some improved economic numbers, but by and large there hasn’t been a big expansion yet in the economy. Unemployment is still high, especially in Europe and the labour force has shrunk (which can skew the unemployment numbers) while corporations continue to sit on enormous piles of cash, to their detriment. A market crash usually follows an overheated economy that begins to over-produce based on faulty views about future growth potential. That isn’t where we are yet.

3.  Corporations are really healthy, and so are investors.

Canadians may still have bundles of debt, but the US is a different story. American corporations and households have been heavily deleveraging since 2008. In fact corporations in the US look to be some of the healthiest in decades, showing better earnings to debt ratios than previously thought. Crashes have as much to do with over-production as they do with out-of-control borrowing. The two go hand in hand and both factors are currently missing from the existing economic landscape.

4. Energy is cheap. Like, really cheap. 

Remember when oil was more than $100 a barrel? High energy prices, and the expectation of future high energy prices can really put the kibosh on future returns and throw cold water all over the market. As we’ve previously said, energy is the lifeblood of civilizations and a steady supply of affordable energy is what separates great economies from poor ones. (Look, we tweeted this earlier! See, twitter is useful. Follow us @Walker_Report)

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/517604263493894145

West Texas Crude Oil Price over the last 3 months - from NASDAQ - October 2, 2014
West Texas Crude Oil Price over the last 3 months – from NASDAQ – October 2, 2014

The arrival and growth of American gas production combined with changing technologies and increasing efficiencies on existing energy use means that global demand is slowing, while global supply is increasing. In fact in March of last year, the head analyst for energy at Citigroup published a paper describing exactly this trend of improved efficiency with new sources as a mix for lower energy prices in the long term. Whether this proves true over the next two decades is hard to say, but what is true is that cheap energy helps economies while expensive energy hinders it. Since economies have already adjusted to the higher price over the last few years, a declining price is a tailwind for growth.

Does this mean that there aren’t any risks in the market? Absolutely not. Europe is having a terrible year as a result of persistent economic problems and Russian intransience, and many Emerging Markets are showing the strain of continued growth, either through corruption or exceeding optimism about the future. Those pose real risks, but taken in the grand scheme of things our outlook remains positive for the markets.

How can I make this all work for me?

So what can you do as an investor to make a correction benefit you? The first piece of advice is always the same. Sit tight. Dramatic changes to your investments when they are down tends to lead to permanent losses. Secondly, rebalance your account periodically as the market declines. On the whole equity funds will lose a greater proportion of their value than fixed income, leaving a balanced portfolio heavier in conservative than growth investments. Rebalancing gives you a chance to buy more units of growth funds at a lower price while adding greater potential for upside as the market recovers. Lastly, if you have money sitting on the sidelines, down markets are great opportunities to begin Dollar-Cost-Averaging. For nervous investors this is a great way to ease into the markets even as markets look unstable. You can read about it here, but I recommend watching the movie below for a nice visual explanation. Now, take your medicine.

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.