The implosion

Some months ago the fancy, trophy wife-owning, Porsche-driving, gay sock-wearing, omniscient portfolio manager dudes I work with (who are allowed to blog here occasionally, just to keep them real) had a message.

“We want to scale back on our US weighting,” they said. “Trump scares us.”

“But,” I said, waving the Amazons away from oiling my chiseled torso for a few moments, “the deplorables hanging out at GreaterFool love him. How can he be scary?”

“Risk,” they said. “We’re increasingly disconstructive on the realistic potential for his pro-growth, inflationary and GDP-enhancing expansionist fiscal agenda to actually be effected.”

“So, he’s screwing up?”

“Affirmative.”

And they disappeared back into their trading mosh pit, gold cufflinks glinting in the shards of light piercing the bank tower windows. The Amazons returned to peel grapes and buff toes.

So, exposure to American assets in our model portfolio was trimmed a few points, weighting to Europe was bumped up a little (“valuations are very tasty,” said Ryan) as was the ownership of maple (“relative strength analysis,” said Doug, “indicates a breakout.”). Of course this is not all about Trump, but he looms increasingly large in the minds of portfolio managers everywhere. In fact there’s a growing cadre of PMs who have recently reduced their US exposure to zero.

The reason is simple. After the 2016 election that shocked markets, stuffing Washington with Republicans and thrusting the unelectable billionaire into office, it looked like US public policy would turn on a dime. Trump was seen immediately as the Inflation President, goosing public spending, launching giant infrastructure projects, slashing corporate taxes, slicing through regulation and adopting an expensive, cost-goosing protectionist agenda of America-first. That looked bullish for corporations and profits, so markets rallied to record highs. Valuations went soaring. Investors rocked. And now markets are worth about 20% more than they should be.

Meanwhile, the president has choked – at least as far as many investors see it. No major legislation has passed. Even repealing and replacing Obamacare has proven impossible for a leader who can’t build coalitions. No budget has been enacted. No tax reform bill even drafted, let alone passed. No new bridges or airports built. And Trump has irritated key allies by walking out of the Paris Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and, maybe, NAFTA.

All that is making people wonder if the post-election Trump rally was fueled by expectation and may be dashed by news.

In the past few days, concerns have swelled. The investigation into the relationship between Russia and the Presidential campaign has widened to include Trump’s past business dealings with oligarchs and Russian corporations. His family members will be probed over allegations they embraced shady Ruskies claiming to have dirt on Hillary. The president fired the FBI director investigating him. He just dissed his Attorney-General who refused to stop the Russia probe. And speculation is mounting he may ape Richard Nixon’s suicidal moves and fire the special counsel leading the Congressional inquiry.

“I think,” says Ryan, “there’s now a 50-50 chance he doesn’t finish his term. So, how good is it that we’ve sold off our American small-cap position, and reduced our US weighing by 5%?”

Does this cautious stance mean everybody should run screaming for the exits? Are those professional traders who have opted for a 0% US weighting the smart ones? If Trump blows up, will be take the S&P with him?

Nope. Of course not. Donald Trump is not the USA. He does not run the economy. The data points coming out of America are solid and strong. Corporate profits have been robust and rebounding, with significant future growth forecast. Job creation has been on a multi-year marathon, with most economists now proclaiming the country has full employment. Expansion has been sufficient to withstand three interest rate hikes in the past seven months. The real estate market is stable and expanding. Consumer confidence is near record levels.

Of course (like in Canada) debt is vast and the wealth gap is growing fast. Trump was elected for a reason, and his base remains steadfast.  Should the Donald implode and America polarize, the political and social damage could be as monumental as the man’s ego. But having no exposure to the US in your portfolio? Naaah. Bad idea.

In conclusion: weird times ahead. Be balanced and diversified. Stay invested. Don’t be extreme. Avoid deplorables. They’re gonna be ripe.

The switch

“My mother,” Susan told me, “is CRAZY.” How could I not read the rest of the note?

“It isn’t just the young who are rushing to guzzle koolaid,” she explains, “My 82 year old widowed mother has rented a condo for the past 9 years.  Out of the blue the owners told her they wish to sell the condo for a crazy-ass price that made the entire Condo Assoc laugh. It is 14 years old and in all the time my mom has rented there have been no upgrades except a replacement of the living room carpet that is cheap, like the appliances.  There was no formal assessment done.  Mom went into a panic.  She does not want to move.

“So she agreed to her owners’ sale price.   Both realtor and her RBC advisor are thrilled for her and assure her that in the long run she will be spending less money to buy than to rent, condo fees not a problem either.  She has no intention of having anything checked out, no intent to negotiate for fear of a bidding war and her desire to remain in the building. And has begun to think about redecorating and painting.  Sigh.

“I reviewed common sense, buying at the peak, her age !!!!! newly inherited responsibility for repairs etc.  At least she didn’t scream that as usual I was more concerned about her dying to cash in what little money she has because I am so hard up for money, as she usually does.

“Moist millennials?  Goofy seniors?  Thought this would add to your example of how stupid is as stupid does.”

Yup, stupid. Given her life expectancy, buying at the top of the market, the age of the beater condo, the lost income potential of her capital, the condo fees, property taxes, maintenance costs and insurance she now shoulders, this was an irrational, emotional, confused decision. And let’s be frank – Susan had better options than to write a dodgy blog and bitch.

One might be to obtain a power of attorney for the old lady. There comes a time in the lives of many families when the parent-child relationship must flip. Suddenly adult children need to look out for aging parents, ensuring the decisions they make are reasonable, sound, rational and in their own best interests. Spending life savings in your eighties on a dippy condo isn’t one of them.

This is where a power of attorney comes in. It’s a legal document granting someone else (in this instance, Susan) the right to make decisions on property, finances, investments and other matters. In a perfect world, a parent would grant this right to an adult child on the understanding when marbles start to be lost, good decisions can still be made. It’s a common thing in the financial world for POA investment accounts to be set up so kids make the decisions, yet aging parents are the beneficiaries, still legally owning the assets.

A continuing power of attorney lasts for life, and can normally be invoked when a medical or legal professional determines Mom is losing it. That doesn’t only mean dementia or wandering in traffic, but can extend to big money-related decisions that will have long-lasting and deleterious consequences. Like being ripped off by the people who own your rented condo.

Susan, like every person with an 80-year-old parent, should have arranged for a POA in advance. And while granting a power of attorney to someone else to look after you may sound scary and open to abuse, it comes with clout. The POA holder has a fiduciary responsibility to the other party – that means, by law, Mom’s interests must come before those of the guardian. Whether mother likes the decision or not.

Every married couple should exchange POAs. Anyone losing a spouse should seek someone they trust and arrange one. Everybody with an eightysomething parent should get this is place.

After all, your Mom looked after you when you were an idiot. Your turn.

$        $        $

Imagine if last year the number of foreign buyers Hoovering up residential real estate in this country increased by 49% – a record. Now imagine if 10% of the value of all property transactions went to offshore dudes. Not just one in ten deals in a city that foreigners like, but a tenth of all sales everywhere. It would be huge. The comments section of this blog would be positively bloodthirsty.

Well that just happened in the US. Cheesy non-Americans snapped up 284,455 homes last year in places like Florida, Texas and California, which was a 32% increase over the previous level. In total, over $153 billion worth of dirt changed hands. And have you read a single negative story out of the US about foreigners taking over? Do any American states have a 15% foreign buyers’ tax, or a 1%-per-year empty houses levy?

The biggest surge in alien buyers of US houses last year? That came from Canada. Horny little beavers invading from the north snatched up $19 billion worth of properties, most of them in Florida, with suitcases full of cash. The average price of a Canadian-bought home hit $561,000 US – double the level of a year earlier. The median home value in Florida is $207,500. Without a doubt, we’re driving up prices for the locals.

Chew on that.