Entries from July 2019 ↓

Debt’s embrace

As we count down to the first US rate reduction in ten years (this is a big deal), we gotta talk about bonds. And safe stuff. Why you need some.

First, what’s a bond?

Simply a hunk of debt. Governments or corps issue bonds to raise money. They give an investor interest until the bond matures, when she gets all the money back. The more secure the issuer (like the Government of Canada) the less risk, so the lower the interest paid.

But nobody buys a bond to get interest any more. Yields have been in the ditch since the GFC, when central banks crashed rates and bond yields followed. In fact there are trillions of dollars in bonds around the world paying negative returns. So, bonds are held to (a) offset fluctuations in stocks, since they tend to move in opposite directions and (b) to stabilize a portfolio, reducing volatility so you stop worrying about things you cannot control and drink less.

Now besides paying interest (or not), bonds have prices. The day a bond matures it’s worth $100 for every $100 you paid. If interest rates in general rise before the bond matures, it will be worth less and the price will go down – to maybe $95 – because investors can get a better deal with a new, improved bond which pays more. So the cheaper price compensates. But if rates fall before the bond matures it will be worth more – maybe $105, since a buyer gets the principal plus a higher-than-market return.

Finally, you should know that bond yields and prices are opposites. As yields go down (like we’re seeing now), bond prices go up – old bonds are worth more. When yields rise, bond prices plop. That happened last winter.

How to buy bonds? In an ETF. Some funds contain a mix of federal government bonds of various “durations” (length of time to maturity), while others contain provincial or corporate bonds (which generally pay more). You can also get “junk bond” ETFs which hold the debt of riskier issuers who pay a whole lot more interest.

These days about 20% of a balanced portfolio (40% fixed income and 60% growth assets) should be in bonds. That includes a little hunk of federal debt, with the rest in provincial and corporate bonds. Add 4-5% in a cash equivalent (we use an ultra-short-term bond fund for a higher return and no risk) plus about 15% in preferreds, and that makes up the 40%. The overall yield on that is around 4.6%, with the prefs delivering a dividend tax credit. Sweet.

Unlike GICs, this delivers (a) a better return, (b) less tax, (c) total liquidity and (d) the potential of capital gains from the bonds if rates fall or from the prefs if rates rise. Also (e) when stocks correct money flows out of equities into safer assets, including bonds. So in a balanced portfolio this gives investors a built-in shock absorber – a comfort since most people are busy living their lives instead of watching the shallow, soul-sucking wolverines on BNN.

Of course, all of the above is lost on those who fixate on preserving capital. They want no risk, a guarantee and think 3% is fabulous, even when inflation’s 2.5% and they’re fully taxed on interest. If you already have enough money to finance the rest of your life, GICs or a high-interest savings account might work. You don’t need growth. But that’s not most people.

So GICs with their high-tax profile, lack of liquidity, inadequate returns and inability to deliver a capital gain are a poor choice. The fact 80% of all TFSA money sits in GICs or cash savings says a lot about financial literacy and how emotion dictates finances. No wonder there’s a retirement crisis about to hit. People need to stop thinking with their pants. But won’t.

Once again, here it is. Stick this on the fridge. The GreaterFool credo: the biggest risk is not losing money, but running out of it. Especially if you’re a woman.

Now, Wednesday. The American central bank rate will drop a quarter point. There may be another one (or even two) after that by the time of the US election at the end of 2020. But this doesn’t mean rates are reversing and heading for zero. In fact, the Bank of Canada won’t even react this year. Maybe not in 2020, either. But the bond market has been pushing yields lower for some time. Canadian 5-year bonds have dropped from almost 2.5% to just 1.4% – a massive tumble. As that’s happened, bond prices have increased (I told you why) and so have the values of the ETFs that hold those bonds.

Given we’re in Year Ten of an economic expansion, it’s highly likely a recession could materialize before growth resumes. That’s a year away. Maybe two. Nobody knows. When it happens you can be certain central banks will pull the trigger on rate cuts, flooding the economy with liquidity and trying to stimulate  borrowing and spending. Bond yields will plop. Bond prices will rise. Bond ETFs will gain in value, likely as equity-based funds lose value. As in 2008-9, this will give balanced portfolios resiliency, a shallower dip and a faster recovery. And it will happen as GIC rates again sink to 1%.

So don’t be comin’ round here dissing bonds. Get some.

No guts

Let’s recap.

So far this year (it’s the end of July) the US stock market has gained 20.7%. In seven months. Once again it’s at a record level. Since last July the advance is 9.5%, including the big (and temporary, Trump-inspired) plop of late 2018.

On Bay Street the TSX had added 15.4%, is ahead 4% year/year and also in record territory. A balanced and globally-diversified, middle-of-the-road-risk-lower-vol-kinda-boring portfolio has advanced about 10% in 2019. Inflation is now 2%. Preferreds are paying 4.6%. Five-year government bonds yield 1.4%. High-interest savings accounts are in the 2% range. Since Christmas, financial market volatility has plunged 60%.

Hmm. What does this mean, and what’s it portend?

First, anyone who sold into the storm in Q4 of 2018 was a fool. You turned paper losses into real ones for no reason. The decision was emotional, not logical. At the time I wrote here about investors with millions who crystallized a loss and went to cash. They’ve now missed making hundreds of thousands in gains during 2019. Never, ever listen to your gut.

Second, as much as the weenies who flock here like to say, there is no disaster looming. Not even a hint of a US recession. Economic growth is okay, corporate profits are okay and consumer spending’s okay. The VIX is low because markets are cool – despite having Trump as the world’s most powerful guy, despite trade wars, regional conflicts, accumulated debts and Selena Gomez. Besides, 2020 is coming. As explained here a few times, you’d be unwise to bet against America before the next presidential election. Or after.

This is a big week on that front. Talks between the US and China take place to dial back that injurious trade war. And on Wednesday the Fed will announce a teensy interest rate cut, the first in a decade and one of two likely by the end of the year. But not to worry. The US central bank ain’t chopping the cost of money and throwing gas on the fire because the economy is retreating. Rather it’s (a) insurance against a slowdown after ten years of growth and (b) because Trump has been thumping on the Fed for months to cut and, yes, throw gas on the markets.

Odds are the Fed will be back raising rates in a year, erasing the half-point decline of 2019. And why not? The States has essentially full employment, wages have been rising and the threat is inflation, not deflation. The formula is for long-term corporate profitability, barring an asteroid strike, so investors would be smart to stay invested.

As for Canada, no rate cut now. Probably none this year. Maybe not for a long time to come. There’s just no reason for the Bank of Canada to ease, and a compelling reason not to – more debt. In a country with $1.6 trillion in mortgages and $300 billion in home equity loans, why would the bankers make money cheaper? Why encourage more borrowing? In the absence of a recession, why take the risk?

Having said all this, the current bull market is ten years old, just like the economic expansion. This is breaking records. It scares those who think things will go down just because they went up. It has analysts pouring over the latest data, looking for cracks, like weaker business investment. Meanwhile the effect of Trump’s big tax cut seems to have worn off, and the trade war’s higher input costs are reducing bottom lines while corporate debt keeps inching higher. So, yeah, there are risks. Volatility will return. What happened in late 2018 could return – a wrenching decline, followed by a crawl back.

That is exactly why most people – maybe all people – would be better off owning some fixed income along with growthy assets. Sure, bonds may pay only 1.4%, for example, but it’s sure nice to have some when equities decline and debt prices jump higher. That 40% safe-stuff component in a balanced portfolio mitigates against equity market drops, makes things less volatile, helps retain wealth and keeps you from repeating the mistakes of those who follow their guts.

Remember: not everything you own needs to go up in value at the same time. Bond ETF prices may decline when equity fund vales rise. And vice versa. Preferreds may lose altitude when rates fall, but churn out a low-tax dividend, pay you to own them and will rise again. Emerging market assets may plump when Trump stumbles and US markets follow. The point of investing is to preserve capital, as well as creating it. The three rules remain. Be balanced. Be diversified. Be liquid.

It’s the opposite, in other words, of owing an investment condo.

Note: If you read Friday’s post and the response that flowed from it, you know the decision on adopting threaded comments for the steerage section. Not. Happening. If you want to fight and bully, go to Reddit. Real men stay linear.