Entries from June 2015 ↓

So much for that

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If the crazy Greeks did anything wrong, it was to borrow like they’d never have to pay it back. Kinda like us. Oops.

While stocks improved on Tuesday and the lefties leading euro’s G-spot started wavering, things got a bit worse here in Canuckistan, on the very eve of our glorious 148th birthday. In fact, probably a lot worse. Turns out we’re more like the Greeks than, say, the Germans – whose leader told Athens yesterday to piss off. Hey, nobody ever said leadership was pretty.

So last month we added a whole lot more mortgage debt, because loans were cheap and we’re not. The latest numbers show mortgage debt increased 5.5% in the last year, and Canadian households now owe $1.835 trillion, which is 1,835 times a billion. That’s an amazing amount of money for a country with only 12.4 million households. By the way, 70% of all debt is housing debt – mortgages. Talk about a nation of one-trick ponies.

This lack of diversification should alarm you, unless you’re part of the problem and think it’s reasonable to have a house, a mortgage and no liquid assets. The condo economy Canada has created over the last six years is, in its own way, as dangerous as the one they forged in Ireland, or Spain – where real estate bubbles burst and no recovery ensued.

In fact, did you catch the latest econo news? We are already reaping what we sowed. At the same time families plunged into new debt and houses in our bubble markets inflated further, the overall economy was contracting. The eggheads call it ‘negative growth.’

This is amazing given the fact interest rates have been in the ditch for years, the government has forked over billions on tax credits, infrastructure programs and giveaways, and collectively we’ve borrowed and spent hundreds of billions of dollars buying houses from each other and building enough condos to blot the sky. Meanwhile the US economy has shot into recovery mode while our dollar has faded – the perfect scenario when we send the vast majority of our exports south.

And still we’re negative. Economists were not expecting April would be yet another month of declines, nor that we’d all suddenly be talking about the possibility of a Canadian recession. This was the fifth losing month in the last six, suggesting the oil price shock may have given us more to regret than just socialists. Speaking of Alberta, wildfires there (did I mention climate change?) have caused some additional oil patch shutdowns, which may mean bad numbers lie ahead for the next few months.

So, we have a disconnect. The Bank of Canada said the economy should grow a feeble 1.8% in 2015, but so far we’ve shrunk 0.6%. Soon we might actually be told that the recession started in the spring, just about the time detached houses in the GTA averaged $1.4 million for the first time, and ditto for YVR digs at $2.2 million. This would also be during a period of record-low mortgage rates and robust borrowing.

Does this mean rates will fall further? Will the Bank of Canada panic again, as it did in January, and drop its key rate just as the Americans are preparing to raise theirs? Wouldn’t another rate cut torpedo the dollar by signaling we’re in trouble, desperate for another debt fix?

Some people think so. But where does Stephen Poloz, the guy in charge of our central bank, stand on the issue?

Well, he ain’t saying. But he sure isn’t talking up Canada on the world stage. During a presentation at the Bank for International Settlements a couple of days ago he compared our nation to a dying patient, and excessive debt to a post-surgical complication.

“If the doctor says you need surgery to avoid death, the side effects usually don’t deter you, you just go ahead and manage them somehow. Other issues must be subordinate and I think of them as side effects.” But in the bank’s own words, our household debt is a ticking time bomb, a “key financial system vulnerability.” And it begs the Greek question: how can you possibly continue to borrow your way back to prosperity?

Poloz had this zinger, too, admitting that he knows what his policies are doing to the real estate market: “When we cut rates to stabilize the economy we don’t picture some heavily indebted household going out and adding to their debt pile, rather we picture a household with no debt at all deciding finally to buy a house and taking out a mortgage.”

So, there you go. Our policymakers are intentionally encouraging people to borrow money and buy houses at their most bloated levels in history, using cheap money which will surely reset higher for all the decades of those mortgages. That’s bad enough. But it isn’t working. Sure, houses are now unaffordable and people are sautéed in loans, but the economy is also shrinking.

By the way, that same international banking body Poloz was addressing doesn’t agree with him. Cheap money is no fix, it says. It just makes stuff worse. “They in part have contributed to it by fuelling costly financial booms and busts. The result is too much debt, too little growth and excessively low interest rates. In short, low rates beget lower rates.”

Calling Canada a “small, advanced economy”, the BIS said our rates have already been too low for too long – creating a giant gasbag of a credit bubble that “far exceeds historic standards, paving the way for widespread pain once the central banks inevitably launch a new tightening cycle.”

I hope you get the picture. The economy’s shrinking. Jobs will be lost. Yet all your idiot cousin and the people at work want to do is buy houses. So they borrow. Because money is cheap. The guy in charge of rates says we’d be dead without the last cut. So he might cut again.

Too much debt. Too little growth. Nuts in power.

Our flag should have a pita in the middle of it.

The kneejerkers

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Planning a Greek holiday later this year? Cool. Book the flight now. But not the hotel or the car. Just show up with cash. Haggle your way to epic low prices. Pick up a villa while you’re there. And get used to the idea that all your gain is some Greek’s pain.

So stock markets laid a small egg Monday on news Greek banks shut, capital controls were imposed and people were restricted to withdrawing 60 euros a day to live on. The market decline was more pissed-offedness than panic. Lots of traders and bully investors took long positions last week when it looked like Athens would not be dumb enough to commit suicide. They were wrong. Monday was spanking day.

Of course, the doomers were all over this like mold. The mainstream media, which never reports a 300-point market increase, made this the lead story. That was all it took for DIY investors to log into their online accounts and start dumping perfectly good assets.

Sigh. Some things never change. People buy stuff that’s rising in value because it’ll obviously go up forever. They sell things in decline before they’ll go to zero. Amateurs pay too much and sell at a loss. It’s why the pros love them.

Most of the major banks took Monday seriously enough, however, to scramble out a message. TD sent a video. RBC’s Eric Lascelles circulated a hastily-written multi-page epistle which concluded: “We will know much more over the next seven to nine days. Greece is slightly more likely to remain in the eurozone than exit, but the risks are growing given the imposition of capital controls as well as a rising chance of a major uncoordinated default.”

What does it mean? Should you worry?

Yesterday I said Greece is old. There are better things to vex about than a small country (three million fewer people than Ontario) with a puny economy (0.5% of the global one) and a new socialist government willing to take it to the brink. We’ve seen this movie before. And in 2011 it was a lot scarier.

Since then a lot has changed. Hardly any international banks have exposure to Greece any more. Private investors long ago split. Despite Monday’s kneejerk reaction, global markets are vastly more prepared now for any Greek outcome than they were four years ago, when we had the last crisis. As portfolio manager Doug Rowat points out: “The Athens Stock Exchange is still more than 50% below its 2011 peak when local markets were completely caught off-guard by the developing crisis. European banks are also much more prepared now, having reduced their exposure to Greece from a peak of €128 bln in 2008 to €12 bln in 2013, effectively reducing systematic risk. We are also many years removed from the financial crisis of 2008–09 and major global economies, such as the US, are on a much stronger footing than they were in 2011 further adding to global market stability.”

Also don’t forget that Europe has been on a roll this year, thanks to a fat stimulus program by the European Central Bank – which has injected a trillions euros into the economy. That has richly rewarded investors with a globally-diversified portfolio, yielding double-digit gains in the UK and Germany so far in 2015. Prospects for the European economy have brightened considerably, with growth estimates seriously higher than six months ago.

It’s therefore hard to believe Greeks would be thick enough to vote themselves off this island. Polls show seven in 10 want to stay in Euroland, knowing full well the economy will turn to dust and life savings will vanish if the country is punted or is forced to come up with its own comic-book currency. Europe can afford to toss Greece, which makes up just 1.9% of the regional economy, but Greece cannot survive without Europe.

What about contagion spreading to other debt-pickled places like Portugal, Spain or Italy?

Unlikely. But if it started, the EU is ready. The European Stability Mechanism is a permanent rescue fund with enough money in it to buy three Portugals.

Finally, the world knows Greece’s unfortunate government is just playing politics. If it was serious about a referendum the question would have been, “Do you want to stay in Europe” instead of asking people to vote on a 4,000-word technical bailout-conditions document. The vote also would have happened before tomorrow, which is when the country had a key debt payment due. And it’s telling that the left-wing prime minister who cooked this up is now campaigning for the ‘No’ side. This is about ideology, not the people. Like all socialism.

Well, stocks went down on Monday, but bonds went up. So people with a balanced portfolio were, by design, somewhat shielded from this temporary silliness. The best possible defence, however, remains insufferable indifference.

The gold nuts can’t take that.