After Trump: The Persistent Discontent


Supporters of President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Jose Luis Magana

The shocking scenes of Trump supporters storming the capitol building on January 6th, sometimes jovially, other times with what seemed like murderous intent, may have permanently cemented Trump’s fate. He’s been impeached, again, and efforts are being made to prevent him from running for office in the future. He may also be facing multiple criminal charges and possibly even bankruptcy.

Explanations for the insurrection both over and under explain the problem. Yes, Trump is a demagogue and its true his supporters have been radicalized in a number of ways, including conspiratorial thinking and racist ideas about threats to white people and black lives matter. But as the saying goes, “the issue isn’t the issue”.

In a video about anti-vaxxers (people who promote ideas that are untrue about vaccines) the YouTube Channel WiseCrack pointed out that vaccine acceptance was highest during and just after the Second World War, a period of high confidence and trust in the government by the American citizenry. Today that confidence has ebbed to an all-time low, and that collapse in trust isn’t necessarily unwarranted. The rise of a managerial and technocratic elite has placed an unacceptable distance between citizens and their governments, while government failures seem never to lead to any improvements or accountability.

The cost of these mistakes remains high. In Europe it has led to Brexit, months of protests by “Yellow Vests” in France, the erosion of the center-left ruling party in Germany and a resurgent far right party, the decline of liberal democracies in Hungary and Poland, and a number of anti-establishment parties getting control of small countries like Greece and big countries like Italy.

Canada, forever looking reasonable and calm compared to other countries, is having its own struggles. Prior to the pandemic we had rail protests across the country, have shown a consistent inability to get large infrastructure built and continue to see the erosion of our manufacturing sector. Pandemic response itself has been a laughable mess, from overconfident and condescending pronouncements on the ineffectiveness of masks and accusations of racism about concern of the virus, to complete reversals of position. Vaccine acquisition and distribution has also been underwhelming. The federal government didn’t seem to get enough at the right time, and provincial governments have struggled to get the vaccine to those who most need it (This is nothing compared to the US, where health care workers are actually refusing the vaccine).

In this moment, China can make credible claims for being a useful alternative to the US and other Western countries in its growing sphere of influence. A competent dictatorship with substantial economic growth and a rising standard of living must seem appealing to autocrats and some global citizens alike.

There are other concerns too. The gap between Main Street and Wall Street has grown ever wider. During early months of the pandemic the collapse of jobs and business was mirrored by a resurgent stock market that began gaining steam even while the real economy was crashing. This disparity between the world of investing and the world we live in only heightens inequality concerns. Ownership of stock by Americans closely correlates with age, ethnicity, wealth, and education. For many people today, inequality continues to look like a political class consorting with a billionaire class that don’t play by the same rules that govern everyone else. In a pandemic Jeff Bezos gets rich, and you get fired.

This is obviously not universal. Different countries have different problems and the degree to which these issues are felt by individuals depends a great deal on background and government. But even if we assume that the American situation represents an extreme amongst Western nations, it should not blind us to the anger that people rightly felt when they learned of politicians and executives travelling outside of Canada while asking everyone else to cancel their Christmas dinners. Politicians of all stripes seemed to believe that they would be exempt from the restrictions they imposed on others and had a hard time fathoming that constituents would be upset.

Fixing these problems will not be easy. Technocrats, that is governing authority due to technical expertise, imbues our current leaders with a lot of confidence on issues where there may be no correct answers. They leave people blind to what they do not know and encourage authorities to rely on models and projections rather than real life.

Take for instance inflation. Governments and central banks are very concerned with inflation. Too little and the economy will not grow. Too much and the economy will stall while savings lose value. Inflation needs to be “just right” which is currently considered somewhere between 1% – 3%, with a target rate of 2%. According to Statistics Canada, the CPI since 2010 has been around 1.5%, just below the current 2% target. In other words, $100 in 2010 would buy roughly $85 of similar goods today.

But would it?

Inflation has been higher and felt more directly by lower income people. Using data collected by Statistics Canada (you can click the link below to download the spreadsheet with all these numbers and my calculations) for retail food prices between November 2010 to November 2020, we can see that many food staples have become more expensive in the last decade at rates in excess of core inflation. In that time, the price of beef has risen between 4% to 7% per year depending on the cut. Potatoes have risen in price over 10%, onions by 5.5% and carrots by 6.3% a year. Baby food rose by an average of more than 9% a year, and toothpaste by 8%. Almost none of the staple groceries tracked by Statistics Canada had price increases contained to the 1.5% official rate of inflation, instead many rose at rates double that or more.

Like real estate, another asset class that continues to defy gravity without an impact on inflation but a dramatic one on the population, a rising price of food that remains unaddressed only highlights the different reality Canadians seem to be living from our elected officials. Despite a great deal of lip service about the importance and risks facing the middle class, governments have yet to seriously tackle these issues, or make them central in elections. Instead we continue to deal with these problems in a patchwork of modest tax credits and empty rhetoric.

I, and I assume many others, would like to put the Trump era behind us and treat it as an anomaly. But to do so would assume that Trump had landed (as had Brexit and other populist movements) fully formed but alien to us, and that we had been taken by a madness that can finally be broken.

I think we know this is not true.

From the moment that Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “Deplorables” (or half of them at least) there has not been a clearer delineation between those that control the cultural zeitgeist, and those who have come to resent it. We have a similar divide in Canada too, with Alberta constantly at odds with more “progressive” provinces over environmental issues, and Quebec (doing as it always has) putting its historic/cultural/religious identity ahead of more multi-cultural aspirations of equality. Toronto and Vancouver may sit at the centre of Canada’s cultural output, but these two economic powerhouses do not share much with the rest of the country.

Our prolonged period of peace, wealth and stability has tricked us into believing that unrest, dissatisfaction, and failure are aberrations. But the history of Canada, the United States, Great Britain, and other European powers has been one of long periods of unrest. William Jennings Bryan, before being disgraced in the Scopes Money trial, had been a tireless campaigner for agrarian populism. In Canada we too had an agrarian populist movement (interestingly enough, similarly conservative and steeped in conspiratorial anti-Semitism, prominent in Alberta and Quebec) that only really started to disappear after the mid-60s and not totally until the late 80s. Political dissatisfaction can have long legs.

Five people died as a result of the assault on the capitol on January 6th, and one was Ashley Babbitt, a Q-Anon, MAGA loving Trump supporter who had breached four lines of security in an attempt to overthrow the government on behalf of Donald Trump. But while her motives and goals were deeply misguided, her past remains a window into a dispiriting world for many Americans. A fourteen year veteran of the United States air force, Babbitt now owned a pool supply business that was struggling, forcing her into a short term loan with a 169% interest rate. Medieval Europe had better rules governing usury than California. Or consider the North Carolina woman who took to social media because she couldn’t afford the $1000 insulin prescription for her son. Insulin, among other drugs in the United States, has been reported on multiple times for its rising price. Despite that, no government or corporation has been able to act in such a way to curb the rising price of a life saving drug that been around for a century.

All this is baked into America, and represents a growing risk for the future. Though the country has a more dynamic market, holds more patents and has some of the largest corporations, the failure to consider the effects of pushing up stock valuations at the expense of everything else will likely only deliver diminishing results in the future, both for investors like you, but also for the global liberal order that provides much of the stability we rely on.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Aligned Capital Partners Inc.

Some thoughts on the end of Donald J. Trump

President Trump, Evan Vucci AP

This was written on Friday, November 6th. Since then the election has been called for Joe Biden.

It’s Friday, November 6th, and Pennsylvania seems to be looking like it will go to Biden. With four battleground states showing narrow Biden leads, the math seems inescapable. Biden will be the 46th president of the United States.

The narrowness of this victory is unsettling. A record turnout for both Republicans and Democrats, the largest turnout since the 1960s of the electorate, the largest percentage of votes by visible minorities for a Republican candidate since Richard Nixon, only showed that American remains a polarized land. The hoped for “Blue Wave” as Americans repudiated Trump and his enablers did not materialize. The Senate will likely remain in the hands of Republicans. The House of Representatives may flip to Republicans too.

Even now, after all that has unfolded over the last four years, much of what brought Trump to power; anger at a failure of the establishment to protect jobs, uncertainty about the ethnic and cultural future of the United States, the erosion of the middle class, the simultaneous exhaustion of being THE global superpower while being blamed for being one. These issues linger, promised but unaddressed by Trump, ignored by his party and fueling alienation in the general populace.

Other, more persistent aspects of American culture have also been on display. Since Richard Hofstader first wrote his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1962 (He calls Eisenhower “conventional in mind, (and) relatively inarticulate” – cruel words for one of America’s best remembered Republican presidents) Americans continue to lament, often publicly, just how stupid they find one another. Whether it is over face masks, the environment, or conspiracies about “the deep state”, Americans remain shockingly divided, often down the middle.

But with Biden elected (presuming he survives all the legal attacks and mandated recounts) and once the final vote tallies are certified in a few weeks, a corner will have been turned. Trump, in his role as a lame duck president will likely shore up personal protections, lash out at allies that failed to defend him, denounce democratic institutions that have allowed for his failure, and presumably pardoning those in his close circle and looking to shield himself from any future prosecution. Biden will hopefully find some common ground in the Senate and House of Representatives that will allow business to proceed, but it seems safe to assume that the most ambitious parts of the Democrat’s wish list won’t make it into law. Similarly, hopes for a Trump sized stimulus package will now also be dashed by a Republican establishment always uncomfortable with Trump’s lavish spending but fearful of his wrath.

From the perspective of the investment world this seems to be a continuation of the status quo. Biden does not possess Trump’s unique skill at bullying, backed by the threat of his irate voters. Instead the hope will be that he can better negotiate with Republicans. But with the election leaving the GOP in a strong legislative position there will be little appetite for aggressive policy shifts. Instead we should expect tepid fiscal stimulus, continued strength in businesses profiting from the pandemic (like tech stocks) and a wider, more subdued recovery as we face the immediate economic uncertainty.

So often we think big things represent monumental shifts. The election of Trump was one such event, but in the end his legacy will be a great deal smaller, and I suspect better thought of, than we might guess now. His ignorance, narcissism, and sociopathy were critical flaws in a man that showed great skill in reading the American public. His few achievements, including peace between Israel and several Arab states, challenging China and striking some kind of trade deal, and boosting American military spending were not missteps. His useless forays into border walls and needless antagonism of American allies will not be missed. At the outset of his presidency he even had the foresight to surround himself with some accomplished and knowledgeable people. In the end Donald Trump’s biggest enemy was himself. Were Trump a more competent and less incurious man he could have been a formidable political force. Instead, his certainty in his own skill and inability to adapt made him an aspiring autocrat in search of a balcony.

To cultural observers, the election of Trump should be a reminder that small things that go unnoticed or ignored often prove to be bigger issues. The sudden mysterious outbreak of an unknown form of pneumonia in Wuhan at the end of 2019. The subtle shift in economic thinking by political leaders across the West. A demographic trend that sees a generation shrinking, maybe even incapable of marrying. The rapid economic growth of an often-overlooked part of the world. It may even be the surprising growth of visible minority voters for a candidate long believed to be their enemy. These quiet things, hiding in the corners, may be the issues that guide our future rather than the bombast of men like Donald Trump.

In 2015 I wrote that “You don’t have to love people like Rob Ford or Donald Trump, but their ability to change the political terrain, to question traditional assumptions about the electorate and undo the laziness of identity politics is healthy for a democracy, even when you don’t like the messenger.” Looking back on four years, I am only desiring a return to normalcy, but with so many of the issues that brought Trump to the White House still unaddressed I’m afraid that whatever normalcy Joe Biden can bring will be short lived.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Aligned Capital Partners Inc.

The Quest to be 30% Richer

*A quick note – next week I will be discussing the recent market events, but had this written already last week and didn’t want it to go to waste. 

** Performance numbers presented here all come from Questrade’s own website. They also represent the most recent numbers available.

Money Can 

Questrade is Canada’s fastest growing online advisory service that has built its business on the back of a catchy refrain: “Retire up to 30% richer”. There ads are everywhere and the simple and straightforward message has landed with a punch. The principle behind their slogan is that, over enough time, the amount of money you can save in fees by transferring to their online platform can be worth a substantial amount when that saved money is able to compound.

Competing on the price of financial advice has become common place, especially as people have become increasingly comfortable doing more online. Online “robo-advisors” dispense with all that pesky one-on-one business through your bank and have focused on providing the essentials of financial planning with a comfortable interface. Champions of lowering the costs of investing have hailed the arrival of companies like Questrade and Wealth Simple, believing that they would unsure in an era of low-cost financial advice.

Such a time has yet to materialize. For one thing, traditional providers of investments, like mutual fund companies, have learned to compete heavily in price, while an abundance of comparable low-cost investment solutions have given financial advisors a wider range of investments to choose from while being mindful of cost. Meanwhile, because internet companies have a business model called “scaling” which encourages corporations to rapidly expand on the backs of investors before they become profitable, its not clear whether robo-advisors are actually all that successful. Wealthsimple, one of the earliest and most prominent such services has broadened their business to include actual advisors meeting actual people, a decidedly more retrograde approach in the digital age.

Nevertheless, efforts to win over Canadians to these low cost model continue apace, and the market leader today is Questrade. So, what should investors make out of Questrade’s signature line? Can they really retire 30% richer?

Probably not.

First we should understand the mechanics of the claim. Looking through Questrade’s website we can see through their disclaimers that for each of their own portfolios they have taken the average five year returns for categories that align with each portfolio, the average fees for those categories and added back the difference in the costs. So, for their Balanced Portfolio they refer to the “Global Neutral Balanced Category” and the five-year number associated with that group of funds (the numbers seem to be drawn from Morningstar, the independent research firm that tracks stocks, mutual funds and ETFs).

Questrade assumptions
Figure 1 https://www.questrade.com/disclosure/legal-notice-and-disclosures/2018/08/08/questwealth-portfolios-calculator

Thus, they arrive at an assumed ROR of 6.21% for five years, and then project that number into the future for the next 30 years. They also calculate the fee of 2.22% (the average for the category) and subtract that from the returns. And using those assumptions Questrade isn’t wrong. Assuming you received the average return and saved the difference in fees, over 30 years you’d be 30% richer.

Except you probably wouldn’t.

Questrade actually already has a five year performance history on their existing investments, and we can go and check to see how well they’ve actually done. Unfortunately for Questrade, their actual performance in practice is not considerably better than the average return against the categories they are comparing. For the last five years, Questrade’s 5 year annualized performance is 4.92%, less than 0.3% better than the category average of 4.66%.

But wait, there’s more!

Questrade Balanced Portfolio Performance
Figure 2 https://www.questrade.com/questwealth-portfolios/etf-portfolios#balanced

Keep in mind that Questrade’s secret sauce is not the intention to outperform markets, merely to get the average return and make up the difference in fees, but when put into practice it isn’t even 1%, let alone 2% ahead of their average competitors. In fact, we could go so far as to say the Questrade is a worse than average performer since if we assumed the same fees were to apply, Questrade’s performance would be significantly below the average return. In fact, for the purposes of their own history the above performance is shown GROSS of fees. Yes, if you read the fine print you discover that Questrade has not deducted its own management costs from these returns, meaning that the real rate of return would be 4.54%, officially below the average they are trying to beat!

Questrade Extra Disclaimer
Figure 3 https://www.questrade.com/questwealth-portfolios/etf-portfolios#balanced

Fidelity Global Neutral Comparison
Figure 4 This has been taken from Morningstar and compares the B Series Fidelity Global Balanced Portfolio performance against its category, Global Neutral Balanced. Performance for the individual fund is better than the 5 year average of Questrade’s comparable investment, and ahead of the five year average for the category of 4.66%. This should not be construed as an endorsement of Fidelity or any investment they have.

There is a temptation towards smugness and finger wagging, but I think its more important to ask the question “Why is this the case?” The argument for passive index ETFs has been made repeatedly, and its argument makes intuitive sense. Getting the market returns at a low price has shown to beat active management over some time periods. So why would Questrade underperform, particularly when markets have been relatively stable and trending up? I have my theories, but it should really be incumbent on Questrade to explain itself. What does stand out about this situation is that if you are unhappy with your performance THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT! Questrade’s portfolios represent their best mix, and do not allow you to make substitutions or even really get an explanation for the under-performance. The trade off in low cost alternatives is all the personalization, flexibility and face to face conversations that underpin the traditional advisor client relationship.

Given all the regulations that surround investing, I remain surprised that Questrade is able to advertise a hypothetical return completely detached from their actual returns, but that is yet another question that should be settled by people who are not me. Questrade has some benefits, not least is their low fees, but investors should be honest with themselves about how beneficial low fees are in a world when there are many options and the cost of navigating those options represents their best chance at retiring happy and secure.

As always, if you have questions, need some guidance or just a second opinion, please contact me directly at adrian@walkerwealthmgmt.com

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

What’s Next? (And When Will It Happen)

economyis bad

Talk of recession is in the air and amongst my clients and readers of this blog the chief question is “when”?

Ever since Trump was elected, questions about when “it’s going to happen” have been floating about. Trump, an 800-pound gorilla with a twitter addiction, has left a predictable path of destruction and the promise of more chaos always seems on the horizon. It should not be surprising then that investors have been waiting with bated breath for an inevitable correction.

Those predicting imminent doom got a little taste of it last week when markets convulsed and delivered the worst day of the year so far, shedding a dramatic 800 points off the Dow Jones. Globally the news hasn’t exactly been stellar. Germany, Italy and France are all showing a weakening economic outlook, which is to say nothing of Great Britain. Despite three Prime Ministers and two deadline extensions, the nation has yet to escape its Brexit chaos and is no closer to figuring out what to do about Northern Ireland. China too is facing a myriad of problems. Trump’s tariffs may be making American’s pay more for things, but it does seem to be hurting the Chinese economy. Coupled with the persistent Hong Kong protests and its already softening market, last week the Chinese central bank opted to weaken the Yuan below the 7 to 1 threshold, a previously unthinkable option aimed at bolstering economic growth.

In all of this it is the American economy that looks to be in the best shape. Proponents of the “U.S. is strong” story point to the historic low unemployment and other economic indicators like consumer spending and year over year GDP growth. But this news comes accompanied with its own baggage, including huge subsidies for farmers hit by Chinese import bans and other trade related self-inflicted wounds. This issue is best summarized by Trump, who himself has declared that everything is great, but also now needs a huge rate cut.

Trump TweetThe temptation to assume that everything is about to go wrong is therefore not the most far-fetched possibility. Investors should be cautious because there are indeed warning signs that the economy is softening and after ten years of bull market returns, corrections and recessions are inevitable.

But if there is an idea I’ve tried to get across, it is that prognostication inevitably fails. The real question that investors should be asking is, “How much can I risk?” If markets do go south, it won’t be forever. But for retirees and those approaching retirement, now ten years older since the last major recession, the potential of a serious downturn could radically alter planned retirements. That question, more than “how much can I make?”, or “When will the next recession hit?”, should be central to your conversations with your financial advisor.

As of writing this, more chaotic news has led Trump to acknowledge that his tariff war may indeed cause a recession, but he’s undeterred. The world is unpredictable, economic cycles happen, and economists are historically bad at predicting recessions. These facts should be at the center of financial planning and they will better serve you as an investor than the constant desire to see ever more growth.

So whether Donald Trump has markets panicked, or a trade war, or really bad manufacturing numbers out of Germany, remember that you aren’t investing to do as well as the markets, or even better. You’re investing to secure a future, and ask your financial advisor (assuming it isn’t me) how much risk do you need, not how much you’ve got.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

Beware the Rally

*At the time that I wrote this markets had just finished several positive sessions, however by the time it was ready markets had once again changed directions!

US-STOCKS-DOW JONES-RECORD

I’m going to potentially embarrass myself and go on the record as saying we shouldn’t place too much trust in the current market rally, though the upturn is welcomed.

Rallies present opportunities for potential short-term gain, and with markets having shed roughly 10% over the month of October, there is certainly money to be made if you’re feeling sufficiently opportunistic and have a plan. For the rest of us, the rally is a welcome break the punishment the market has been delivering, and an opportunity to see portfolios stabilize and regain some ground.

S&P 500 Rally

The long-term viability of a rally, its ability to transition from opportunistic buying to sustained growth, very much depends on the fundamentals of that rally. Are markets sound, but oversold? Or are fundamentals deteriorating and represents more hopefulness than anything else?

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find out I have no set answer to this question. As always, “it depends”. But as I look over the news that has supposedly rekindled the fire in the markets much of it seems at best temporary, perhaps even fanciful. Up against the wall of risk that investors are currently starring down, the best news currently available is that Trump had a phone call with Xi Jinping and has asked for a draft to be prepared to settle the trade disputes between the two countries.

FGIS_fig_2

I’m of the opinion that a recession isn’t imminent, but it should be obvious that recessions happen and the longer we go without one, the more likely one becomes. That seems especially true in a world that is undergoing a seminal shift when it comes to international trade and multilateral deals. To take one example, in the last year U.S. soybean exports to China have dropped by 97%, with no exports for the last quarter. This is a trade war still in its infancy. Other market data is mixed. Even as job growth exceeds expectations it will also keep the Fed raising rates. Housing starts have dropped significantly below expectations, driven in part by rising costs.

image002_0

All this is to say that market rallies like the one we’ve just seen should be treated with trepidation. Investors should be cautious that a bottom has been reached and that this is a good time to rush into the market looking for deals, and we should keep an eye on the fundamentals. Rallies falter precisely because they can be based more on hope than on reality.

So what should investors do if they want to invest but are unsure about when to get into the markets? Come talk to us! Give us a call and help get a plan together that makes sense for your needs! Check out our new website: www.walkerwealthmgmt.com or give us a call at 416-960-5995!