Entries from March 2014 ↓

Real men invest

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Pathetic. The previous post was about Millennials, and how they’re screwed. Worse than their parents, in fact. Mostly because they’re wusses.

Eric summed this up nicely when he wrote me after reading the blog:

‘Risk on’ definitely resonated with me. I’m 29, university educated, big bank employee, no debt, no desire (or capabilility) to even kick the tires on real. My girlfriend (low income, big student loan) and I live in my sister’s basement.

RRSP – $15K conservatively invested in a low fee mutual fund and $5K just sitting in cash. TFSA – $32K that was sitting in a “high interest” saving account. I know. Delusional. I moved it to my brokerage account (TFSA), but sadly still sitting in cash.  Cash – $28K “high interest” saving account. Still delusional.

Net worth: About $80K

So, given the current pricy market and your comment: “Nothing goes up forever”, what should I do? My gut tells me that the TFSA should be the ‘Risk on’ growth vehicle. I am trying to be a do-it-yourself investor, but can’t make a decision. The excuses are numerous: my money is precious, the bull market is getting old now, a correction will come soon and so on.

See what living in your sister’s basement with an indebted woman does? Your manhood shrivels from lack of light, while constant dankness permeates your faculties. You awake one day amid the bugs, spores and rodents only to discover you’re impotent – incapable of making a decision or crawling out of the clingy womb of cash. Your net worth grows more stagnant than your hormones. Soon, it’s over. You take your tablet into the bathroom and Google ‘ING’.

Once again, it all comes down to financial illiteracy. Most people have no idea what inhabits the wide landscape between a savings account and high-flying stock markets. They accentuate risk, get their investment facts from the bank or doomer websites and usually end up buying real estate because mom endorses it. (Ironically, the US experience was that young homeowners were trounced in the housing correction far worse than their parents, thanks to their extreme leverage. In any correction here, expect the same.)

Millennials (and their parents) should understand the future will belong to those who are liquid. Nobody really needs to own a house. But everyone needs income. And burying your wealth in a ‘high-yield’ account or GIC paying less than inflation is a crime against nature. Does this mean opening an account at Waterhouse and diving into Tesla stock? Hardly.

There are but three things to remember when it comes to comfortable, low-volatility, non-cowboy investing that will still make women swoon. I’ve elaborated on these points previously, but you might not have been born then.

Balance. Having all your money in GICs or a savings account is unbalanced. So is owning only stocks (or a condo). The best way to build liquid net worth is to have multiple asset classes which don’t all react to events in the same way. That means they are not ‘correlated’ or even ‘negatively correlated.’

For example, when stock markets fall investors look for safety and often buy secure assets like bonds. So bond prices rise as equities dip. That’s negative correlation. By owning both safe stuff (called ‘fixed income’) and growth assets in the same portfolio, you mitigate against declines and create your own hedging effect. For example, in 2008 when the Dow crashed 55%, a portfolio with 40% fixed income in it declined only 20% and then rebounded in one year (it took the Dow seven years to recover).

Diversification. Incredibly, 70% of Canadians who own stocks only have Canadian ones. Others own just three or four individual equities. Or they buy a single mutual fund and put it in their TFSA and RRSP and non-registered account. Fail. It’s a volatile world. You need both balance and diversification.

Fixed income might include government bonds (3%), corporate bonds (5%), high-yield bonds (3%) and inflation-indexed bonds (6%), along with preferred shares (18%). If your portfolio’s large enough, buy the assets. If not, buy relevant ETFs. BTW, cash is okay, too. But max it at 5%.

Growth assets could include real estate investment trusts (5%), Canadian equities (large cap 8%, small cap 4%), US equities (10% large, 8% mid and small) plus international stocks (10% large cap, 8% emerging and small cap). Obviously, unless you have seven figures to invest, you need to use ETFs (not expensive mutual funds) to achieve this diversification through index investing.

Rebalancing. Most people buy what goes up and sell what goes down. Bad idea. Do the opposite, and do it regularly – like three or four times a year. This is called ‘rebalancing.’ For example, if you want to have 8% exposure to Canadian stocks and the TSX bloats, pushing it to 12%, then sell off 4% and use the money to buy something that’s dropped, like the small cap ETF or preferreds.

You may think you’re Zeus, but you probably have no idea where any of this stuff is headed, so best to own it all – but in sane proportions. Remember, the fixed income side of the portfolio will pay you continuously to own it in the form of interest and dividends, while the growth side yields mostly capital gains. Obviously, since interest is taxed the most, the assets producing it should be sheltered inside an RRSP. Best to earn dividends and cap gains in a non-registered account. And put the hot stuff (emerging markets, small caps) in the TFSA.

There’s more to learn. Like which of the thousands of ETFs, bonds or preferreds to buy. But there’s a start. If Eric was smart enough to get a degree and seduce a bank, he should be able to figure this out.

But will he have the guts? Stay tuned.

Risk on

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A fav topic here is risk. Childbirth is risk. Spending seven years at university is risk. Marriage is risk. Driving is risk. Borrowing is risk. Raising kids is risk. Yet people happily embrace such things, thanks to hormones and social pressure. Like kids buying houses, even without savings and virtually 100% debt. Society says that’s a good thing.

In contrast, a TD Ameritrade survey found when it comes to money, Millennials (especially) are insanely conservative. Almost 45% believe the best way to prepare for retirement is a…get this…savings account. Barely more than one in ten would go near the stock market.

Why are we growing children with the brains of 75-year-olds? Simple. Five years ago the kids saw stock markets temporarily fall, heard their parents moan about losing mutual funds, and learned bad things about ‘investing’. Then, for the last four years, real estate has romped higher on the back of cheap mortgages, lax lending and parental house lust.

Here’s the result: a HuffPost analysis has found that a quarter of Canadian cities are now unaffordable for average families when it comes to buying a home. Apparently this is news to these guys. Among those out-of-reach places are Markham, Mississauga, Burnaby and Surrey (as well as Toronto and Vancouver, of course). Four others – Calgary, Edmonton, Brampton and Victoria – are considered borderline.

How was this determined? Using a median household income of $87,000, current mortgage rates and 5% down, a family with no debts could borrow $460,000. So the Huffsters concluded anyplace with house prices averaging $100,000 more than this amount are beyond the means of normal people, a.k.a the middle class.

Of course, this is meaningless. That’s because most folks consider real estate to be riskless, and so find all kinds of ways around such financial barriers. A third of first-time buyers (40% in Toronto and Vancouver) expect gifts from their parents to throw at real estate. Banks are still financing 0% deals with cash-back mortgages. Developers will sell you a condo in return for your used car, or 2% down.

At the heart of this madness is financial illiteracy, which is all about how we perceive risk. Most people’s worst fear is losing money (80% of marriage breakdowns are financial). Because stock markets are revalued daily and the price of assets there can fluctuate a few percentage points every week, the Google generation can’t handle it. In a world brimming with job instability and flaky parents, it’s all too much.

Risk to them means any kind of loss, even transitory. Money is precious because they don’t have any. But debt is a romantic construct, entirely acceptable because it means you can get free stuff. Like a condo. In fact I think almost every young person buying real estate today with massive leverage never actually plans on paying it back. It’s cool to have debt roll through life, financing things you want, especially since (like their folks told them) houses always inflate!

The lessons yet to be learned: interest rates rise. Nothing goes up forever. Debts must be settled. Houses get illiquid. Life’s greatest risk is running out of money. And that’s why you never bet on just one thing, especially when everybody else is doing it.

Last year Canadian house prices increased, on average (says CREA), about 10%, on flat sales. The Canadian stock market gained 9.6%, the Dow advanced 30% and a balanced portfolio (no stocks, no mutual funds) grew about 11.5%. A 25-year-old who can find $100 a week to put into a TFSA, invest in assets like that and keep doing it until age 60 will have (at just 7% average return) $785,000.

And on that almost-eight hundred grand, there will be no tax. More importantly, there is no attached debt. There were no interest payments necessary to achieve it. No condo fees. No property tax. No land transfer changes and no commission.

If the hundred bucks weekly inhibits hipsters’ ability to buy a condo box or a saggy semi in a debauched but gentrifying hood, then they’re fools to take the plunge. Given that real estate markets are growing increasingly unaffordable even for people with average incomes, no debt and cash downpayments, it’s inevitable volatility and correction lie ahead.

But, as I said last week, I’m just one little whizz in the face of a hurricane. Each generation has to learn through its own mistakes, especially when the previous one lost its way.

Risk on, kids.