Robots have arrived on Wall Street

Last week marked the debut of an upstart fund called the AI Powered Equity ETF, an actively managed security that seeks to use artificial intelligence to beat the market. The exchange-traded fund officially launched last Wednesday so it is too early to measure how this fund will perform over the long term.

At its core, AIEQ ETF is powered by the big-data processing abilities of IBM’s Watson. It is responsible to develop a portfolio of stocks that will be able to offer results that are not only better than  human stock pickers  but also the overall market. Most ETFs are passively managed and follow indexes like the S&P 500, the Dow industrials or other sectors. In other words, your new portfolio manager is a computer program.

The fund currently is composed of 70 stocks, plus an allotment of cash, that are spread around sectors. Components are determined by “their probability of benefiting from current economic conditions, trends, and world- and company-specific events,” EquBot said in a news release.

The top five holdings by concentration are Penumbra 4.63%, Boyd Gaming 4.51%, Genworth Financial 4.45%, Mednax 3.8% and Triumph Group 3.52%, according to XTF.com. The turnover is expected to be high around 2% – 3% per day. The fund charges an expense ratio of 0.75%, which is slightly lower than the average expense ratio for actively managed ETFs.

The information explosion has made the jobs of portfolio managers, equity analysts, quantitative investors and even ETF builders more challenging. New technology in artificial intelligence could help solve those challenges. There’s still quite a range in AI models being used. There could be other quantitative groups that are looking at the same raw data but analyzing it in a different way, meaning the same input material can result in different insights and outcomes.

Another example of an unusual method for picking stocks is  Buzz US Sentiment Leaders ETF BUZ, an exchange-traded fund that selects its holdings based on positive chatter in social media and other online sources. The fund is up 17.2% in 2017, above the 13.9% rise of the S&P 500.

If the IBM’s Watson stock picking outperforms over the first quarter and money flows into the EFT, you’re going to see 20 competitors inside of six months.

This is a very gutsy structure, I am putting this ETF on my watch list. I am also going to monitor the top ten holdings of this ETF to get some stock picking ideas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My 200th post: Investing in the Second Machine Age

As a retired senior, I am having difficulty adjusting to ” the Second Machine Age”. The advances in technology are mind blowing. I would never have guessed that self-driving cars in science fiction movies like “Minority Report”  or “I Robot” could become available in my life time.  How about Elon Musk’s vision of offering a rocket ride of only 30 minutes to get to London from L.A., is that just science fiction or a potential reality?

China, the world’s biggest vehicle market, is considering a ban on the production and sale of fossil fuel vehicles in order to reduce pollution and boost the production of electric vehicles. The move would follow a similar ban by France and Britain but they have included a 2040 timeline. However, China has introduced draft regulation to compel vehicle manufacturers to produce more electric vehicles by 2020 through a complex quota system.

Some possible investments to consider

  1. Millions of dollars are pouring into the Global X lithium & Battery ETF (LIT). It has had a massive gain in value of 58% so far this year. It has also attracted short sellers who are betting on a pullback in price.
  2. For stock pickers, the top ten holdings of LIT include five U.S. listed companies, ticker symbols Tsla, FMC, SQM, ENS and ALB. A word of caution, some of these stocks have very high valuations and can be very volatile.

There is little doubt in my mind that advances in digital automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will change your living standards over the next decade. Just think how companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Apple have already influence our lives during the past decade.

A 2013 study by Oxford University’s Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will potentially be replaced by robots and automated technology in the next 10 to 20 years. Those individuals working in transportation, logistics, office management and production are likely to be the first to lose their jobs to robots, according to the report.

Some possible investments to consider to capitalize on this trend

  1. Robotics and Automation ETF (ROBO) which contains three U.S. listed companies in their top ten holdings. Ticker symbols, AVAV, HOLI and CGNX
  2. Global X Robotics & Artificial Intelligence ETF (BOTZ) which contains three U.S. listed companies in their top ten holdings. Ticker symbols: NVDA, ISRG and TRMB
  3.  Semiconductor ETFs like SOXX or SMH which include companies that provide key components for self-driving vehicles, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. The top ten holdings of these ETFs are places to look for individual names that could outperform the overall market.

There is also an interesting book that I am thinking about buying.

Synopsis: According to the authors, the book has three sections.

  • Chapters 1 through 6 describe “the fundamental characteristics of the second machine age,” based on many examples of modern use of technology.
  • Chapters 7 through 11 describe economic impacts of technology in terms of two concepts the authors call “bounty” and “spread.” What the authors call “bounty” is their attempt to measure the benefits of new technology in ways reaching beyond such measures as GDP, which they say is inadequate. They use “spread” as a shorthand way to describe the increasing inequality that is also resulting from widespread new technology.
  • Chapters 12 through 15, the authors prescribe some policy interventions that could enhance the benefits and reduce the harm of new technologies.

You can also search you-tube “The second machine age” to listen to the authors speak. 

 

Disclaimer: Do your own research, these investment ideas can be very volatile. 

Ignoring investment rules to achieve income

 

A few months ago, I asked readers for advice regarding a $300,000 inheritance. The couple are in their late fifties, debt free with little savings. Although, they are very fugal, they live paycheck to paycheck due to lack of steady full time work. Few companies want to hire older workers when they can hire young people for a lot less.

Being very good friends, they came to me for some free advice. After a few meetings, I realized that traditional investment strategies just wouldn’t work this couple. They have been dipping into their retirement accounts to pay bills. I recommended putting $100,000 back into their retirement accounts. The $200,000 into a joint investment account with a discount broker in order to split the income and save on fees.

Disregarding Asset Allocation guidelines

Based on their age and proximity to retirement, a 60% equities and 40% bonds mix would have been appropriate. However, investing in bonds with low interest rates, inflation and taxation doesn’t give them very much income.

Disregarding Diversification guidelines

Being Canadian, foreign dividends are taxed like interest payments similar to Canadian bonds. Plus, foreign assets are subject to currency fluctuations. The increased value of the Canadian dollar has wiped out all U.S dividends and most of the capital gains from owning U.S. stocks.

Disregarding suitability guidelines

This couple’s investment knowledge is very limited, their only investments have been in mutual funds with high management fees. After explaining how high fees will reduce their income, they agreed to take more risk in owning some individual stocks and exchanged traded funds.

Constructing a portfolio to maximize income and minimize risk

  1. I invested $61,418 in four Canadian Reits that generates $418.16 per month or $5,017.92 per year. The Reits income will be a combination of interest and capital gains. Compared to investing $120,000 in bonds yielding 3% per year or $3,600.00
  2. I invested $63,329 in three Canadian dividend stocks that generates $330.00 per month or $3,960 per year. Due to the couple’s low income, these dividends will be tax free income.
  3. I invested the balance of $75,253 into four covered call ETFs that generates $392.00 per month or $4,704 per year. The covered calls will produced capital gain income and the ETFs also has some dividend income in their monthly distributions.

Grand income total works out to $1,140.16 per month. The average annualized return on the $200,000 portfolio is 6.85% with a minimum amount of risk.  

This is only a temporary solution to achieve some monthly income until their work situation changes. Sometimes investment guidelines have to be broken because one size doesn’t fit all.

Why you should look under the ETF’s hood

A fund’s name might seem like a good starting point for gaining an initial understanding of how it is constructed. Unfortunately, names turn out to offer little help for evaluating funds. There is simply no universally accepted system in use by ETF providers and research to classify funds. For example “Infrastructure” would seem to have something to do with the amenities, roads and power supplies needed to operate society.

Names can be deceiving! To illustrate, I went to one of my favorite ETF provider’s web site to look under the hood. I was looking to find some discrepancies. It took some time but the geographic allocation in the fact sheet on the BMO Global Infrastructure Index ETF (ZGI) wasn’t global at all but had the majority of their holdings in North America.

  • 66.02% United States
  • 25.16% Canada
  • 6.71% United Kingdom
  • 1.56% Mexico
  • 0.56% Brazil

The top ten holdings also have a lot of pipeline companies who pay construction companies to build the actual  infrastructure.

  • Enbridge 10.07%
  • American Tower Corp 8.82%
  • National Grid Plc 6.71%
  • TransCanada Corp 6.68%
  • Crown Castle Intl Corp 6.07%
  • Kinder Morgan 5.87%
  • P G & E Corp 5.17%
  • Sempra Energy 4.25%
  • Williams Cos 96%
  • Edison International 3.82%

It takes years for pipeline companies to benefit from any new capacity to come on line. On the other hand, companies who specialize in construction & engineering like SNC-Lavalin or Aecon would see immediate revenue growth. I would recommend looking for another infrastructure ETF that had more global exposure with holdings of construction & engineering type companies.

Another example is the BMO S&P/TSX Equal Weight Industrials Index ETF (ZIN) which has a small discrepancy. The fact sheet says it has 26 industrial holdings but two of those holdings include airlines. (Air Canada 5.46% & Westjet 4.13%)  Now both of these companies buy industrial products but they specialize in transportation.

Here are some key steps all investors should take when evaluating ETFs:

  1. First, decide if you are going to be a do-it-yourself investor or work with an advisor. As their name suggests, ETFs are traded on exchanges, so they can be bought and sold like stocks through a discount brokerage.
  2. Make sure you understand the index underlying the ETF you are considering. Focus on how the index is constructed, what it tracks and how long it has been around. A longer record will reveal how the index responded to different market conditions.
  3. Check the fund’s fact sheet, are the underlying holdings and geographic allocation accurate? How does the exchanged traded fund compare with similar funds from other providers?
  4. Avoid ultra-short and leveraged ETFs, leave those to professional traders.

Ultimately, the proper implementation of ETFs in a portfolio requires, like all investment decisions, due diligence, caution and persistence. ETFs can offer many attractive features but their long-term value depends on how well they fit into an individual’s portfolio.

To evaluate an appropriate fit, investors have to be prepared to look under the hood.

 

 

 

A few suggestions on how to invest a $300,000 inheritance

Last week’s post contained a real life Canadian couple’s financial dilemma on how to invest a surprised inheritance. I asked writers and readers of financial blogs to email me their suggestions. This couple is in their mid-fifties and are hoping to retire in 8 to 10 years. They are debt free, have poor paying jobs and only managed to save $55,000 for retirement. Unfortunately, my bullet point list of Canadian tax info wasn’t very clear.

Additional clarification of  the Canadian Tax system

Canadians have three choices for saving for retirement if they don’t have a company pension.

Registered Retirement Saving Plan (RRSP)

  • Contributions are limited to 18% of working income (max. $25,370 investment income not included)
  • Tax deductible, refund based on your tax rate (lowest 20%, highest is 53%)
  • Tax free compounding, withdrawals are 100% taxable at your personal tax rate (lowest 20%, highest is 53%)
  • Government requires you to make withdrawals at age 72
  • Not usually recommended for low income families

Tax free Savings Account (TFSA began in 2009), geared to low income families

  • Personal contributions are limited to $5,500 per year, not tax deductible
  • Unused contributions are carried forward indefinitely
  • Tax free compounding, withdrawals are not taxable
  • No restrictions on withdrawals, money can be taken out and put back in the following year.

Taxable investment account

  • Interest income, foreign interest and foreign dividends are 100% taxable at your current tax rate (lowest 20%, highest is 53%) Plus there is 15% foreign tax withheld. If personal your tax rate 30%, foreign dividends of $100 minus  $30 personal tax – $15 of foreign tax = $65
  • Canadian Dividends have an eligible tax credit that increases the after tax yield. In theory, a Canadian could earn $40,000 in dividends tax free if they had no other income.
  • Capital gains has the lowest tax rate because only 50% of the gain is included in income, so only $50 of a $100 gain would be included. High income earners (53% tax bracket) would only pay 26.5%  in income tax.

I only received two suggestions and didn’t receive any input from any Canadian bloggers or readers.  So, I asked a financial planner who works at one of my local bank branches to weight in.

From the United States, Bear with the Bull offered the following:

I am not sure I am most qualified to be a financial adviser and I really do not know Canadian tax laws. I would think they might want a mix of income, bond, possibly cash, and growth stocks.  For my 401, I have about a 60/40 split of stocks and income/bond allocation. So if they are looking for more cash / income, maybe they would be more comfortable with something more 40/60 instead. 

They probably would look to a portion to be cash or bond fund that could be used to maximize yearly retirement contributions and or have readily available should they need it.  Since the Canadian real-estate market is seemingly doing well, how about investing in some Canadian REITs?  It would have a short term growth opportunity and dividends as well.  ETF’s also seem to be the latest investing vehicle and generally have lower fees than mutual funds.

  • The 40% equities ($120,000) 50% Canada 40% U.S 10% Emerging markets
  • The 60% fix income ($180,000) Perhaps a 1/3 split.  $60,000 Bonds, $60,000 Reits, $60,000 Cash

Realize that this response and $5.00 will get you a good cup of Starbucks so take it for what it is worth.

From Belgian, Amber Tree Leaves offered the following:

Here is a potential solution, as I am not sure to fully understand the Canadian system, I will skip that part.

General comment: As they have not yet accumulated a lot of assets, it might be tough to retire in the next 8-10 years. It is reasonable to expect a severe correction in that period. As it seems that they have little investing experience, it might be better to go for an approach that generates cash from dividend stocks. The assumption here is that it generates higher yields than ETFs. 

  • allocation: 70 % stock and 20 % bonds and 10 % gold.
  • The 70% equities 20% in Canadian dividend stocks, 50% world wide in dividend paying stocks

The gold is there as a hedge against the really bad times. It should be managed in a way that it needs to be sold and converted into stock/bonds when the price rises a lot. Timing this is hard, it is not the goal to get the absolute top.

Bank Financial Planner

First of all, I believe that money has different weights or “gravity” depending on how you acquire it.  Inheritance money seems to have the most weight as often people feel they “owe” a higher degree of care of duty to it and are less likely to deal with it the way they would a lottery win or an insurance settlement.

Obviously, the first thing I would need to do is get a better understanding of their situation and their time horizon and risk tolerances.  Let’s assume they are comfortable with a balanced approach. I would recommend 60% equity/40% fixed income.  ($180,000 in equity and $120,000 in fixed income.)

I would recommend they start by contributing fully to TFSAs, which would account for $102,000 between the two of them.  In the TFSA, I would use a ladder of market linked GICs to give them diversification, security of capital and the potential for higher returns than offered by traditional GICs.  This allows them their only chance to earn interest without paying tax on every penny of it.  It also means there are no fees to pay on almost one third of their investments. 

For the non-registered account, I would recommend a core holding of a growth ETF portfolio ($100,000 with additional positions in our Canadian ($30,000), US ($15,000 and International ETF funds $25,000), with a portion in our US Dollar ETF $15,000) for additional diversification on currency. 

After the initial investment occurred, I would want to have an annual strategy to move the maximum TFSA contribution for each of the clients.  This would involve selling a position of the non-registered investments (unless there are additional savings available) and reinvesting in the same fund inside the TFSA to maintain the balance in the overall account.   This would allow the gradual transition into the TFSA accounts, helping with taxes and probate fees down the road.  A portion of capital gains (or losses) would be triggered each year, smoothing the tax impact on the clients.

I am not sure if this inheritance is big enough to bail out this couple’s retirement plan. A key element is understanding after tax returns when investing.

 

 

 

Warning signs that oil prices are range bound for many years

The future price of crude oil is very important to the Canadian economy and to investors in the Toronto stock market (TSX). The Canadian oil patch represents a 25% weighting in the overall index. Over the past few months, we have seen a massive sell-off of oil sands assets by foreigners.

In March, Royal Dutch Shell and Marathon Oil sold stakes in the Alberta oil sands project to Canadian Natural Resources for $12.7 billion. Marathon sold its 20% stake in the project for $2.5 billion. Later in March, Conoco Phillips sold their partnership in the oil sands to Cenovus Energy for $17.7 billion.

Reuters reported last week that BP is considering the sale of its stakes in three Canadian oil sands projects.

“BP’s 50 per cent stake in the Sunrise project near Fort McMurray in Alberta, where Husky Energy Inc owns the rest and is the operator, is the most valuable of the three assets. It also owns a 50 percent stake in Pike, operated by Devon Energy Corp, which is still awaiting a final investment decision, and is majority-owner of the Terre de Grace oil sands pilot project.”

Also in the news is Chevron was exploring the sale of its 20% stake in Canada’s Athabasca oil sands project which could fetch $2.5 billion.

“Faced with a lower oil price environment and challenging economics, which include high cost operations and carbon taxes, global players are increasingly put off by the oil sands.”

Extracting oil from the vast majority of Canada’s oil sands is a very labor and capital intensive process. It requires much higher crude oil prices to justify the more expensive extraction method. Global players exiting their oil sands positions could be a warning sign that the price of oil getting above the $60 level is overly optimistic.

The upcoming IPO of Saudi Arabia’s state own oil company (Saudi Aramco) is another warning sign that the price of oil could be range bound. The company’s oil assets are valued around 2 trillion dollars. It begs the question; why would Saudi Arabia sell part of its state own oil assets to investors?

The simple answer is the Saudi’s need more revenue to pay for their government spending programs. I believe that this is another warning sign that the price of oil will stay lower for much longer. OPEC’s current production cuts are aimed at stabilizing the oil market so that the Saudi Aramco IPO will be successful in raising much need cash for Saudi Arabia.

The key question for the future of the oil market is for how long can a surge in U.S. shale supplies make up for the slow pace of growth elsewhere in the oil sector. The 5 year chart below illustrates the returns on owning two different oil ETFs. You would have lost money owning the Canadian oil ETF (XEG) and you would have broken even on the Spider ETF (XLE). 

In my humble opinion, long term buy and hold investors should avoid oil stocks. I have been bearish on Canadian oil companies for a long time because our oil and gas is land lock. Our only customer is the United States and they have already put a 20% tariff on softwood lumber. There are growing tensions around renegotiating NAFTA which could lead to a tariff on Canadian oil. Oil stocks are still trade-able but you need to be very nibble.

 

Do you agree or disagree? All comments are welcomed.

 

Disclaimer: This post is for discussion purposes only, do your own research before you invest.