The Financial Challenges of Being a Young Canadian

Meanwhile, at Starbucks
Meanwhile, at Starbucks

It is a common enough trope that people do not save enough, either for retirement or just generally in life. We are a society awash in debt, with some estimates showing Canadians carrying an astonishing $27000 of non-mortgage debt and an average of three credit cards. This financial misalignment, between how much we spend (bad) and how much we save (good) is a source of not just economic angst, but denouncements of sinfulness and failings of moral behavior.

This isn’t an exclusively Canadian problem. Pretty much everyone across the developed world has been accused of both not saving enough and carrying too much debt, and the remedy is usually the same, save more and spend less. Underneath that simplistic advice is the nuance that goes into managing money; the importance of paying down debt, of saving some of what you earn on payday (so you don’t see it) and a host of other little things that define good money habits.

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This TTC Subway car is built in Thunder Bay. Because Toronto needs more subways, because it is a desirable, albeit expensive place to live.

But for young people trying to save and spend less they may find that the struggle is far greater than anticipated and the advice they are given can be frustrating in its obtuseness. For instance, one of the first solutions financial gurus give is “cut back on the lattes”. In one of our first articles we ever wrote was about the “Latte Effect”, (That Latte Makes You Look Poor) and how the math that underlies such advice, while not bad, isn’t going to fund a retirement.

In fact cutting costs is extremely difficult. Vox.com recently offered some advice for saving more. Pointing out that big ticket items are more useful in cost cutting than small items, the article made the improbable suggestion to “consider moving to a cheaper metropolitan area” if you are finding San Francisco or New York too expensive. Seriously. As though living in cities was a choice exclusively connected to cost, or that Minneapolis was simply New York with similar opportunities but cheaper.

In Canada this advice falls even flatter. While you can live many places, not all offer similar opportunities. Living in Windsor means (typically) making

As a financial advisor I am required to spit on the ground and curse when the subject of credit cards comes up.
As a financial advisor I am required to spit on the ground and curse when the subject of credit cards comes up.

cars. Thunder Bay offers both lumber production and a Bombardier plant. But if you are part of the 78% of Canadian GDP that is connected to the service sector, either through banking, finance, health services, government, retail, or high tech industries you are likely in one of four major cities, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary or Montreal. It should be no surprise that young Canadians, facing ever increasing house prices haven’t actually abandoned major cities for “cheaper alternatives” since most of the jobs tend to be concentrated there.

full-leaf-tea-latteSo for young Canadians the challenge is quite clear. Cutting back on your expensive coffees could save you between $1000 – $2000 per year, but that won’t get you far in your retirement. Serious changes to costs of living are challenging since the biggest cost of living in cities is frequently paying for where you want to live. In between these extremes we can find some sound advice about budgeting and restraining what you spend, but it is fair to say that many young people aren’t saving because they enjoy spending their money, but because they don’t yet have enough money to cover their major costs and maintain a lifestyle that we generally aspire to.

It’s worth noting that most financial advice is pretty good and sensible, even things like watching how much you spend on coffee. Credit cards, lines of credit and overdrafts are all best avoided if possible. A solid budget that allows you to clearly see your spending habits won’t go amiss. And if you do choose to spend less on the small luxuries, it isn’t enough that the money stays in your purse or wallet. It must go somewhere so it can be both out of reach and working on your behalf or you risk spending it somewhere else.

At university and have no income? How about a credit card?
At university and have no income? How about a credit card?

But it is financially foolish to assume that people don’t want to save. The Globe and Mail recently ran a profile on the blogger “Mr. Money Mustache” – a man who retired at 30 with his wife and claims that the solution to retiring young is to wage an endless war on wasteful spending. And he means it. Reading his blog is like reading the mind of an engineer. From how he thinks about his food budget, to what cars you own, his advice is both sound and confounding. It might be best summed up as “live like your (great) grandparents”. Sound advice? Absolutely! Confounding? You bet, since the growth in the economy and our standard of living exists precisely because we don’t want to live like our grandparents.

There is no good solution or answer here. Young Canadians face a host of challenges on top of all the regular ones that get passed down. Raising a family and buying a home are complicated by financial peer pressure and inflated house prices. Choosing sensible strategies for saving money or paying down debt (or both) often means getting conflicting advice. And young Canadians have no assurances that incomes will rise faster than their costs, nor can they simply relax about money. They must be vigilant all the time and avoid financial pitfalls that are practically encouraged by the financial industry. Finding balance amidst all this is challenging, and young Canadians should be forgiven that they find today’s world more financially difficult than the generation previous.

Super Cool New Device Won’t Fix the Economy

Apple just unveiled its new watch (called the Apple Watch no less) and briefly I watched the stock price climb quickly as the promise of Apple’s great new thing came to life. But before Apple had its big webcast yesterday, I was actually having a look at this nifty thing called NAVDY.

NAVDY seems like a great idea and its one of many many great things that is regularly and constantly being developed by an increasingly connected world that funds great ideas through websites like kickstarter.com. But like many new great things that I see, most of them won’t dramatically change the economy in any significant way. Specifically, none of these new businesses will create a great number of new jobs.

This may seem like a small point to quibble over, however when we look through the prominent industries that tend to occupy the business sections of newspapers, like Apple Computers, you begin to realize that very few of these businesses do much in the way of employment. Improvements in productivity, automation and robotics continue to eat away at an industrial base that forces young people into retail sectors, and an older generation into early retirement.

More people are employed in Canada year-over-year, however it has involved net losses in high employment sectors combined with net gains in high-education sectors.
More people are employed in Canada year-over-year, however it has involved net losses in high employment sectors combined with net gains in high-education sectors. Many of the jobs that employ lots of Canadians present opportunities for automation. Click on the image to view a larger version.
From Stats-Can - the widening gap in unemployment spells. Being employed in manufacturing meant you could be out of work longer in Canada than in non-manufacturing based jobs.
From Stats-Can – the widening gap in unemployment spells. Being employed in manufacturing meant you could be out of work longer in Canada than in non-manufacturing based jobs.

Where there were once middle class factory jobs for thousands of Canadians they are now increasingly rare, and often exist through substantial subsidization from the provincial or federal government.

This story isn’t new. In fact it’s so old now that the first real impact of it dates back to the 1980s. But as time marches on and we are increasingly numb to this reality it may have escaped our attention just how great a challenge this is posing to our society.

For instance, today, Vox.com posted an article about “Why you need a bachelor’s degree to be a secretary“, focusing on how many jobs are “up-credentialing”.

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Industrial decline also plays an indirect role in rising housing markets in cities. It’s easy to see that falling employment in traditionally well paying blue-collar sectors may contribute to higher crime rates and stagnant wages, but it also tells us where it makes the most sense to live. Young Canadians finishing university are unlikely to move back to Windsor when the best jobs are now in Toronto, fuelling a condo boom while raising housing prices across the city to the point of being unaffordable to new families.

From the Economist, January 18, 2014: Briefing: The Future of Jobs - Retail services continue to grow as other market sectors decline.
From the Economist, January 18, 2014: Briefing: The Future of Jobs – Retail services continue to grow as other market sectors decline.

All of this speaks to a larger and more looming issue for Canadians, which is that continued improvements in automation place long term pressure on things like infrastructure and wealth distribution and raise other questions about middle class viability. In other words, we seem eager to introduce new technologies into our lives, but each of these technologies doesn’t just reduce jobs, they reduce jobs that employ lots of people. The January 18th, 2014 Economist ran a frightening story about this kind of automation and that up to 47% of existing jobs could come under pressure by new forms of cost effective robotics and computers.

It’s often hard to see changes that are incrementally slow, but changes are occurring, and over the coming years and decades these changes will likely shake out in ways that we aren’t expecting. But for Canadians looking to save and retire in the future, many of these trends are coming together in worrying ways. In the form of higher educational costs, more limited job opportunities, higher costs of living and potential unemployability, and sadly the new industries and businesses we are quick to promote won’t likely be enough to stave off a society that is undergoing a significant shift in how it employs people.

All of this is a lot to explain in a single article. But if you’d like a simple video that does a good job of scaring you, please watch this video by Youtuber CPG Grey, whose excellent video from a few weeks ago got widely picked up and shared on the web. Otherwise, if you’d like to talk about getting set-up with a savings plan, either for yourselves and kids please give me a call!

Why The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Made Economic Sense

This week it seemed that much of the media hype around the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge died down as it gradually became eclipsed with other news. In case you somehow missed what this viral sensation was, it went something like this. What started as a youtube video of someone giving $100 to an ALS charity instead of having a bucket of cold water dumped on your head, spread quickly into having a bucket of cold water dumped on your head and also giving money to an ALS charity, followed by the donator/victim challenging several other people. These were filmed and placed on Facebook and youtube and people have been following it.

For the several charities that raise money for ALS research, the challenge has proved to be an enormous windfall, netting more than $100 million in donations in excess of their normal annual fund raising. But all of the cheering and success  brought in the professional cynical class of journalists. There must be a downside, and by god they would report it.

I’m not going to go into the details of the criticisms here, but here are some articles you can read if you are so inclined. Instead I want to show why the economics of which charities we give to makes more sense than critics often believe.

The standard argument goes something like this: We contribute far more money to diseases that won’t likely kill us than the ones that do. Humans are clearly illogical and if they had any sense we would direct all our money into charities that dealt with the things most likely to wipe us off the planet. This misalignment of money versus danger is similar to why we are so scared of terrorists than swimming pools, even though you are far more likely to drown in a swimming pool than be killed by terrorists.

Donating.vs.Death-Graph.0

Except that it’s all wrong! People give money to the charities that matter most to them because they understand something about diseases that kill you better than people who just look at statistics.

For instance, Heart Disease is the number one killer in almost every western country, with (I believe) the exception of Portugal. So why aren’t we more scared of heart disease? Because it typically doesn’t kill you until you are already old. While your odds of getting and dying from heart disease start to rise significantly when you reach 60, since 1952 the cardiovascular death rate in Canada has dropped by 75% and nearly 40% in the last decade due to improvements in medicines, surgical procedures and prevention efforts according to Statistics Canada. In other words we’ve already made great strides in reducing unnecessary death from heart disease, and reducing the likelihood that heart disease will strike early is as easy as simply eating a healthier more balanced diet.

Cancer on the other hand isn’t fully understood. We don’t know why some people get it, and why some do not. We don’t know why some people have cancer go into remission and why some do not. If you have survived cancer you have likely been through a hell of an ordeal, as almost every known treatment is as bad as the disease you are fighting. If you’ve watched a loved one pass away from the disease you know how difficult it was and had to watch someone slip away, often in pain and great discomfort, losing control of their bodies and losing even their sense of self.

The mistake that the statistics cover up is this. You must die of something. People do not simply get old and die. They get old, weaker with time, and finally susceptible to something far more likely to kill them. Increasingly heart disease is something that you die of when you are old. Cancer by comparison can strike you down in the prime of your life. You can get cancer in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s. Its a difficult disease to overcome, survivors are acutely aware that they have a high chance of reoccurrence and people who have lost a loved one feel the pain of a prolonged illness. In that context we give money to charities that fight diseases that leave a strong emotional scar, like cancer or in this case ALS, and that does make economic sense.

We took a little time off this week following labour day. We’ll be back next week with regular postings!

Russia’s Trade War Shows Europe to be The Better Economy

Putin-SmirkSince I first wrote about the Ukraine much has happened. Russia has been unmasked as a bizarre cartoon villain seemingly hellbent on destabilizing the Ukrainian government, assisting “rebels” and being indirectly responsible for the murder of a plane full of people. All of which came to a head last week when it appeared that Russia might have just started a war with the Ukraine (still somewhat indeterminate).

Russia’s moves with the Ukraine may have more to do with challenging the West, and some of the other recent militaristic actions show that may be its real intent. Russia announced in July that it would be reopening both an arctic naval base and a listening post in Cuba built back in the 1960s. Combined with many heavy handed tactics at home including essentially banning homosexuality, Putin is making a brazen attempt to assert its regional dominance and stem the growth of Europe’s influence in the most aggressive way it can. To some extent this seems to be working with his own population, but it isn’t making him popular globally.

Europe’s response to Russia has been to hurt it with economic sanctions, which since the Ukrainian situation first began have been escalating in severity. Two weeks ago Russia responded in kind. How? By banning food imports from sanctioning nations.

If you don’t know much about the Russian or European economies this may seem like potent response from one of the BRIC countries and major global economies. But Europe is a big economy, and agricultural exports don’t make up a significant part of GDP, with the same being true for the United States. And while sanctions targeted at farms can be politically dangerous (farmers are typically a well organized and vocal lobby) the most interesting thing about these sanctions is what it tells us about the Russian and European economies respectively.

First, Russia imports a great deal of food, mostly from Denmark, Germany, the United States and Canada. So sanctions imposed by Russia are really going to hurt the Russians as food prices begin to rise and new food suppliers (expected to be from Latin America) have to ship food farther. But more interesting is the sanctions Russia chose not to impose. Europe is heavily dependant on oil & gas for its energy needs. So why not really make Europe feel the pinch and create an energy crisis? Because Russia needs oil revenue.

16% of Russia’s GDP is made up from the oil and gas sector. Beyond that oil and gas make up more than half of Russia’s tax revenues and 70% of it’s exports. In other words Russia can’t stop selling its oil without creating an economic crisis at home every bit as severe as in Europe. Banning imports of food and raising the cost of living may not be the ideal outcome from sanctions you impose, but it is mild in comparison to creating a full on catastrophe.

By comparison Europe starts to look very good, and it’s a reason that investors shouldn’t be quick to write off Europe and all its recent economic troubles. It’s a large and dynamic economy, filled with multi-national companies that do business the world over. It is backed by stable democracies and a relatively prosperous citizenry. By comparison Russia is a very narrow economy, dependent on one sector for its economic strength run by a (in all but name) dictator with an incredibly poor populace. A few years ago it was quite trendy in the business news to write off Europe as a top heavy financial mess, and while I wouldn’t want to dismiss Europe’s problems (some of which are quite serious) it’s important to have some perspective about how economies can rebound and which ones have the flexibility to recover.

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.