America Is In Great Shape; Be Afraid!

markets_1980043cAll year people have been expecting a correction in the US Markets. For most of the year I have listened to portfolio managers discuss their “concern” about the high valuations of American companies. I have also listened to them point out that America remains the strongest economy and the most likely to see significant growth in the coming year.

Flash forward to late-September, early October and the markets have finally had their corrections. At the bottom every market was negative, including the TSX which had given up all of its YTD high of 15%. That was the bottom. The recovery was swift, money flowed back into the markets, and hedge fund managers managed to make a mockery of some otherwise nervous DIY investors. Now the markets look strong again, with the S&P 500 reaching new highs. Nobody is happy.

All of this comes on the news that US GDP was up 3.9% in the third quarter, a full .5% above analyst expectations (that sounds small, but it’s worth billions) while energy prices continue to decline, manufacturing is highly competitive and US consumers look poised for a significant Christmas bonanza. So what’s wrong with this picture? Why are both the Globe and Mail and the Financial Times worried about the US stock market?

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The answer is a combination of fear, data, and the insatiable need for stories to populate the media everyday. First is the fear. Stocks are at all time highs. The problem is that “all time high” isn’t some automatic death sentence for a stock market. The stock market always hits new highs all the time, and a by-product of that is that corrections can really only happen after a high is reached. Look at the history of the S&P 500 since 1960:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 11.02.50 AMAs you can probably tell, there are a lot of “new highs” that had occurred over the last 40 years, but each new high did not automatically translate into some automatic correction. There were legitimate reasons why the economy could continue to grow, and in the process make those companies in the stock market more valuable. That isn’t to say that the stock market can’t be “frothy” or that their aren’t problems in the stock market today. It merely means that setting a new market high isn’t proof of an impending collapse.

The second issue is data. We live in an age of Big Data. Data is everywhere and there is so much it can be hard to separate the useful data from the useless. Some of the data is concrete, but much of it takes time to understand or even become clear. The first analysis of the higher than expected GDP numbers seemed great (more economy, Yay!) but upon closer inspection, there are reasons to be cautious. While the GDP was higher than expected, it was largely due to growth in government spending, not consumer spending. In fact consumer spending was lower quarter over quarter. In addition there are a number of concerns about how corporations are spending their profits and whether that is sustainable. Many of these concerns, when taken in context, seem to be the same from earlier in the year.

The third factor is the insatiable need to write something. Content is king in the news world and providing insight (read: opinion) means that you must constantly produce new stories to publish. That means that there is a need to be constantly suggesting that things are about to go wrong (or more wrong than they already have) to create a compelling story. It isn’t that these stories are wrong, just that constantly saying the stock market is going to go down isn’t insightful, since at some point we can expect the stock market to correct for one of a number of reasons.

So is America frothy? Are we poised an some kind of financial collapse? I don’t know, and nobody else does either. We are no more likely to correctly know when the market might correct again than we are to guess the future price of gas. The best response is to diversify, and remember some core elements of investing. Buy low and sell high. With that in mind sturdy investors should probably start giving the beat-up and maligned Europe a second look…

Russia’s Entire Stock Market is Worth Less Than Apple Computers

Let's just call this what it is. Awkward.
Let’s just call this what it is. Awkward.

A few days ago a bizarre inversion took place. A single company was suddenly worth more than the entire investable market size of a major economy. While I like Apple a lot and applaud the incredible profitability of the company, this is more a story about how badly the Russian economy is doing.

Back when Russia was first inciting dissent inside the Ukraine following the ouster of the quasi-dictator running the country, it had banked on the idea that it’s continued escalation inside the borders of a sovereign nation would go unchallenged as few countries would wish to risk a military skirmish over a single, marginal country in Europe.

Vladimir Putin miscalculated however when he didn’t realize how precarious the Russian economy was. Sanctions were implemented and what followed was a largely hollow trade war that did more to identify Russia’s weakness than strength. But the most recent blow to Russia has been the change in the price of oil.

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 12.31.04 PMNow that the price of oil is under $80, Russia is suffering severely. Like many oil rich nations, oil exports substitute for taxes. This frees autocratic rulers to both pursue generous social programs while not having to answer to citizen complaints about high taxes. It’s how countries like Saudi Arabia  and Iran get by with little democratic input and a relatively passive population with little to no public disobedience about democratic rights (mostly).

This relationship though means that there are actually two prices for oil. First the breakeven price for extracting oil from the ground, and second break breakeven social price of oil. Those prices are different in every country. In Alberta for instance, tar sand oil is usually quoted at $70 a barrel for breakeven. But to cover the costs of running the government the price is much higher. For Russia the slide in price from $109 a barrel to $80 has meant wiping out it’s current account surplus.

Combined with the falling rouble (now 30% lower than the beginning of the year) and the growth of corporate debt sector, Russia is now in a very precarious situation. I’m of the opinion that energy, and energy companies have been oversold and a rise in price would not be unexpected. But whether the price of energy will bounce back up to its earlier highs from this year seems remote.

This is a stock photo of a guy thinking. Could he be thinking about where to invest his money? He could be. It's hard to tell because he was actually paid to stand there and look like this and we can't ask him.
This is a stock photo of a guy thinking. Could he be thinking about where to invest his money? He could be. It’s hard to tell because he was actually paid to stand there and look like this and we can’t ask him.

Over the last few months I’ve been moving away from the Emerging Markets, and while the reasons are not specifically for those listed above, Russia’s problems are a good example of the choices investors face as other markets continue to improve their health. If you had a dollar today that could be invested in the either the United States or Russia, who would you choose? The adventurous might say Russia, believing they could outlast the risk. But with more Canadians approaching retirement the more sensible option is in markets like the US, where corporate health is improved, debt levels are lower and markets are not subject to the same kind of political, economic and social instability that plagues many emerging economies.

 

How To Invest In Energy When You Hate Volatility

***This post will refer to both a mutual fund company and a particular fund. This post should not be construed as endorsing that fund. We always make sure that we cite our sources and in this instance our source is a fund company, and we are not suggesting in any way that you should invest in or purchase this fund. If you are interested in any fund, please consult with your financial advisor first for suitability, especially if that financial advisor is us!*** 

frackingSince the price of oil dropped there have been lots of reasons to be excited. First the price of gas at the pumps is so low that I don’t hate going there anymore. Second, investments in energy have suffered since oil lost close to $30 in value.

WTI price over the last 6 months. From NASDAQ.com
WTI price over the last 6 months. From NASDAQ.com

And while energy stocks have recovered somewhat from their low points, they are still way off where they were earlier in the year. I’m not going to get into the finer points about the nuances of energy producers and the various types of oil and  costs of production. It’s a worthwhile article, but will take up too much time here. Instead I wanted to focus on a different way that Canadians can participate in the energy sector.

Commodities can be volatile but also a valuable element of a portfolio. So how can Canadians play the energy sector while being mindful of the risks associated with it?

The answer may be by investing in what is called “Midstream MLPs”. Midstream MLPs (Master Limited Partnerships) are American operators that transport energy from the producers to the consumers. It’s a capital intensive business that is federally regulated but traded on the stock market. It therefore provides consistent cash flow while offering liquidity to investors. But Canadians already have opportunities for energy infrastructure, so why should they care about this in the United States?Midstream2The answer has everything to do with the rising levels of oil production in the United States combined with what federal regulators are willing to do to encourage new growth.

That brings us to the growth of the shale revolution in the United States. Newly discovered reserves (of significant size), improved technology and a dropping costs of production have set the US on a course to be the largest global energy provider in the coming years. This combination of efficiencies means that the United States is going to continue to increase its oil production over the next decade, while dropping the cost of extraction for each additional barrel. But each barrel produced has to go somewhere.

Projected Oil Growth in the United States
Projected Oil Growth in the United States

In the United States, Midstream MLPs are responsible for moving that oil. But it’s a sector that also must grow. Infrastructure to move oil efficiently from shale producers doesn’t exist yet, and regulators are eager to get MPLs in place with new development. New infrastructure is costly, and while the business model for an MLP doesn’t require a high price for energy to be profitable, it does need assurances about the consistency of the volume of oil to be moved. To encourage that growth regulators are allowing the price that MLPs charge to rise at a rate faster than inflation. Why are they doing that? Much of the shale oil is having to be shipped via rail to get to its right home. This causes price disparities that reduces producer margins and rankles federal governments.

 Pipelines in the US. Most of the pipelines direct energy to Texas, which isn't set up to handle the ultra light crude from shale projects. that energy, coming out of North Dakota, needs to get to New Jersey. The lack of pipelines means it is being shipped by rail to Chicago and then via pipeline.

Pipelines in the US. Most of the pipelines direct energy to Texas, which isn’t set up to handle the ultra light crude from shale projects. that energy, coming out of North Dakota, needs to get to New Jersey. The lack of pipelines means it is being shipped by rail to Chicago and then via pipeline.
The various prices of oil. Oil from Canada is sold at a discount while Brent crude is sold at a premium to WTI. Improving infrastructure would rectify this problem and equalize prices. (The WTI price is listed from the summer). Click on the image to see it larger.

 

Currently there is only one fund option in Canada that we are aware of for investing in MLPs. We had an opportunity earlier this week to meet the managers of this fund and were greatly impressed by what they had to show us. I am already a big believer in the growing Shale Revolution, and am particularly pleased by the arrival of new opportunities for investment. Growth in the Canadian and American energy sectors is good news for not just investors, but also citizens. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and a host of other despotic and semi-despotic regimes have been able to get by on the high price of oil. Now they are feeling the pinch of a decreasing price that has the benefit of bringing jobs back to North America while weakening their influence. In all, this is a good story for everyone.

Want to talk oil? Send us a message!

 

 

The Debt Ceiling Is Pointless

From the Washington Post, Tuesday February 11, 2014
From the Washington Post, Tuesday February 11, 2014

It would seem that the Republicans in the United States have been largely de-fanged when it comes to using the debt ceiling as a political lever. Yesterday Republicans agreed to a ‘clean’ debt ceiling vote, meaning that there were no poison pills for Democrats to swallow, and that political fighting and decisions would have to happen without the threat of a total global economic meltdown.

But the debt ceiling need not exist at all. As you may know, there aren’t any other major economies that have “debt ceilings” – instead the debt ceiling was a by-product of America’s involvement in the First World War, when Congress (the group authorized to allow for debt) needed to give the treasury room to borrow. The solution was the Debt Ceiling that we know today.

But the debt ceiling isn’t helpful and doesn’t do any of the things that people intend it to do. For instance, as a way of stopping or limiting borrowing it doesn’t work. Most of what the treasury is paying goes out automatically, like paycheques and benefits. Stopping borrowing doesn’t eliminate the debt obligation, it just puts you in default.

As a method to improve the financial health of the United States its hard to see how breaching the debt ceiling would improve the American economy. Far more likely it would tank the US and much of the global markets.

As a tool to fight for social change it is dangerous and undemocratic. The financial responsibilities of the United States sit on both party’s shoulders, not just one.

Lastly, the debt ceiling has prevented more useful conversations about how to help the American economy where both parties had something to offer. Have a look at this video by historian Niall Ferguson from 2011. The economy has improved since then and the economic outlook is better than before, but it is telling that the debt ceiling offers us little and distracts people from more useful political solutions.

It’s time to get rid of the debt ceiling.

It’s Official, Young Canadians Need Financial Help

I thought I had more saved!It must be terribly frustrating to be a twenty-something today. It’s hard to find work; you probably still live with your parents and a whole culture has developed around criticizing your generation. But beyond the superficial criticisms directed at twenty somethings, there are structural shifts going on within the economy that are making paupers of the next generation.

Some of these shifts do extend from things like a lack of good paying jobs in manufacturing and an increasingly reliance on service sector jobs. There are many university graduates that now find themselves in work that they are overqualified for and underpaid in. But some of the changes also come from an increasingly high cost of living that is making it financially untenable to move out of a parents’ home. This phenomenon has been dubbed “boomerang kids”, or “boomerang generation.”

The challenge that the Millennial generation is facing is that costs are rising as a proportion of their income. Consider the cost of a house in Toronto. In November of this year the average cost of a home sold in Toronto was $538,881, up 11.3% from November of last year. Assume you make the minimum downpayment to get a home, 5%, your downpayment would then be $26,944 (roughly).  Your monthly payment on a 25 year fixed rate mortgage would be $3,077 per month, or close to $36,924 per year. If we factor in real-estate tax and an average heating cost, that would bring annual costs to roughly $43,000 a year. That would mean that to qualify for the mortgage with a bank you would need to be earning at least $134,375 before taxes. The average income in Canada is $47,000.

We can quibble about how accurate these numbers are, but it would still amount to the same end. It costs a lot today to be like your parents. Buying a house for the first time is incredibly expensive and forces young people to make different choices about how to spend their money. For many millennials this has meant “postponing” growing up, financially as well as spiritually. But what today’s young generation actually need is a working budget that lets them get a big picture of their spending and allows them to set and reach financial goals. There are free services, like Mint.com (which I am very much in favour of), but even better is that young people should be encouraged to seek out professional financial help. People with a small amount of savings often feel discouraged about seeing a professional, but getting this guidance early on can lead to significantly better financial outcomes, comfort with the markets and wiser tax efficient planning!

Want to discuss your future planning?

From the Desk of Brian Walker – In Retirement Go Small

ImageFor many people approaching retirement, there may be mixed feelings about their house. Perhaps not their house, but their home. Homes are where important things happen for families and for many soon-to-be retiring couples there is sometimes some question about whether you should sell your home, or keep it in retirement.

While you may have lots of fond memories about your home however (and while your children may never forgive you for turning their room into a train model city) selling your family home in retirement can be liberating, financially and personally. Downsizing in retirement can represent an exciting new phase of your life, providing you with more leisure time, additional funds for travel and a considerable reduction in the amount of manual household chores.

I speak from experience, having recently moved from a country home of nearly 4,000 square feet and three acres of grounds to a modest 1000 sq ft condo in downtown Toronto. But deciding to make the move was difficult. I knew the benefits of parting with my home, the extra money I would have and the lack of physical work, etc. But I also recognized that I would also have to part with many things I had acquired in my life. In the end what finally drove my decision was the realization that caring for my home was now more a burden than a joy.

In most cases you will never be as healthy, or as in good shape as we are today. Retirement is no longer about spending your remaining years in your slippers. I have a bucket list of things I’d like to do, trips I’d like to take and a granddaughter I enjoy playing with. Your retirement should be about what you want, and while the decision to downsize our houses and change our lifestyles can be difficult, we shouldn’t be squandering our active years shackled to our homes.

It took me a year to make up my mind that it was time to downsize. Ultimately a pro and con list really helped crystallize my choice. There was lots of work to do, lots of emotion and stress associated with the move, but after six months in my new home I know I made the right decision.

All Time High Doesn’t Equal Bubble

iStockphoto 046On more than one occasion I have been quizzed about the future of some stock market-or-other to the lack of satisfaction of the quizzer. Invariably the conversation goes something like: “What with all the money being printed and the new highs of the stock market, shouldn’t it all come down?” And my answer is usually, “No.”

This is frustrating for people because there is a real feeling that the stock market in the United States should not be doing as well as its doing. Some of this comes from the incongruity of negative media reports about the US economy and the ever growing stock market, some comes from the lingering shock of 2008, and some from an intellectual class that feel that our economic future is built on sand.

But a large reason for my belief in future growth is in looking past the fear of “big numbers.” When the stock market has a correction it’s often pointed out that it had just reached new highs. But this doesn’t mean that all new highs equal a market correction. The subtext is that there must be some limit to the growth in the market and that a new “all time high” must transcend this natural barrier, creating a bubble.

This is a populist understanding of market bubbles and has little to do with reality. The market should grow and reflect a burgeoning economy, and while the American economy has struggled its companies have continued to post substantial profits and many of them have either continued to grow in the slower market, or have begun to offer or expand dividends, making them more attractive. 

The simple truth is crashes happen at market highs, but not because of them. Bubbles are not simply a quickly growing market, but represent a detachment between market fundamentals and a rapidly rising price, fed by the enthusiasm for rapidly growing prices.