Op-Ed: I am less optimistic of a V shape recovery

It is difficult to write a financial blog when the death count from Corvid -19 keeps going up every day. However, the big question is when we will get back to normal? I think you have to look back in history at the Spanish flu of 1918 for some clues.

Policies used to reduce the spread of Corvid -19 are similar to what was done to reduce the spread of the Spanish flu. Unfortunately, isolation, quarantine of infected people, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings were applied unevenly. (Sounds familiar?) Back then, the Spanish flu came in waves and infected 500 million people, about a third of the world’s population. It lasted from Jan 2018 until Dec 1920 and somewhere around 50 million people died.

I fear that world leaders are more worried about keeping their jobs then doing their jobs. Their slow reaction of issuing stay at home orders for non-essential workers will prolong the spread of the Corvid-19. In my humble opinion, a V-shape recovery is overly optimistic.

 

The roll out of government programs to get money into the hands of individuals, small business and bailouts of large corporation will take a long time to be effective.

  • Many government websites are crashing from the number of requests for aid.
  • Many small businesses will go bankrupt before the relief funds arrive.
  • The aid to  businesses are in the form of loans which add extra operating costs, this will hider rehiring employees.
  • The United States had 16.5 million unemployment applications over the past three weeks which is just a small sampling of what is to come.
  • This is a world recession so leisure and travel will be impacted for a long time. Plus business travel, conventions and hotel stays will be limited.

The best case scenario would be a slow and cautious U shape economic recovery. What is needed is accurate testing of people who would be allowed to go back to work.  Also, a quick development of a vaccine and an effective treatment for people who are infected with the virus.

The worse case scenario would be an L or W shape economic recovery. Rushing to reopen the whole economy could cause a second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak, killing thousands of more people and shutting down businesses all over again.

I am not investing based on stock market experts who tend to be overly optimistic. I am listening to the doctors who specialize on disease control. Their timeline of a vaccine is 12 to 18 months away. Therefore this recession will probably last around 18 to 24 months. The chart below illustrates that happen to the S&P 500 during the last recession of 2008-09:

This chart illustrates the past two years of the S&P:

I am not an expert on charts but I think that there is a good chance that what we are seeing is a bear market rally. There is more bad news coming that hasn’t been priced into stock prices. I would suggest that you play it safe and sell into stock market rallies and hold on to your cash.

Save lives and stay at home. The life you save may be your own!

 

 

 

 

 

Should Trump should be charged with involuntary manslaughter?

If I was a U.S. prosecutor, I would charge Trump with involuntary manslaughter. In case you don’t know what that is; charges of involuntary manslaughter is defined as an unintentional killing that results either from negligence or recklessness. An example is a motorist driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs resulting in a deadly car crash killing another individual.

Trump realized that if the body count from COVID-19 in the U.S. reached pandemic levels during 2020, his re-election bid could be in serious jeopardy. On Jan 21, the first American was diagnosed with the virus. A day later in Davos, Trump was asked if he was worried about a global pandemic.

“No, not at all” he stated. “And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.

On Jan 30 during a campaign rally in Michigan, Trump provided an update on the spread of the virus in the U.S. to a rowdy crowd of supporters.

“We have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment with 5 and those people are all recuperating successfully.”

On Feb 2, Trump bragged about his China travel ban on Fox News. He told Sean Hannity and a national audience that:

“We pretty much shut it down coming from China.”

Trump wasn’t quite ready to give up on his number strategy throughout February as he continued to claim the situation was improving. There are plenty examples of Trump being irresponsible. Here are just a few:

  • On Feb 26, he said “We are going down, not up. We’re going very substantially down, not up.”
  • On Feb 27, he bragged: It’s going to disappear one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
  •  On Feb 29, he said a vaccine would be available “very quickly and very rapidly” He praised his administration’s actions as “the most aggressive taken by any county.”

The case for Trump’s negligence is the mishandling of the test kits that were sent to laboratories around the country that had a technical flaw and didn’t work. Trump and his team weren’t worried and ordered the CDC to find a work around. The Trump administration also didn’t turn to the World Health Organization for its perfectly functioning test, nor did it remove regulations that prevented hospitals and labs from developing their own tests. Why? Trump remained intent on keeping the U.S. body count low.

Despite mishandling the production of test kits, Trump continues to make dangerous false statements.

On Mar 6 Trump said “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.” 

I could go on and on but this sums things up:

The mishandling of this crisis is reflected in the raising death count that was in the hundreds and now over a thousand. Why hasn’t he used the Defense Production Act to force companies to produce masks, protective equipment and ventilators which are in short supplies? Does Trump even care how many Americans are going to die?  He just wants businesses to re-open in time for Easter hoping that a strong economy and raising stock prices will get him re-elected. He should resign!!!

All state and local governments should ignore Trump’s call to re-open businesses! If not, then what is happening in Italy is only a few weeks away from happening in America.

 

 

Why interest rate cuts won’t save the economy or the stock market

This week, after an emergency call with central bank leaders around the world, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates. A somewhat surprising move coming about two weeks before its next scheduled meeting. It was the first emergency rate cut by the Fed since the financial crisis in 2008 and a strong signal that the central bank is taking the threat of the virus seriously.

The problem is that cutting interest rates, which were already very low, isn’t likely to do much to solve the kinds of economic problems posed by a pandemic.

Think of it like this: if more people get sick, more people can’t work. Businesses become less productive and ailing workers without paid sick leave don’t earn money. (They might also go to work sick.) Meanwhile, others who are either sick or afraid of catching the virus stop going out and spending money.

Restaurants, movie theaters, hotels and airlines have already experienced less revenue. More workers will lose their jobs temporary, so fewer people will have money to spend. Its classic cause of an economic downturn since the U.S. economy depends on consumers’ spending money.

Crucially, all the people out of work will still need money for food and housing costs. The new record-low mortgage rates aren’t going to solve that immediate problem, especially not for renters. Nearly 4 in 10 adults would have trouble handling a $400 emergency expense, according to a recent study from the Federal Reserve.

An economic downturn is coming, the problem is no one knows how severe it will be and how long will it last. China’s economy took a big hit and government took some draconian measures that can’t be done here in North America.

Some precautionary financial steps

  1. Top up your emergency fund
  2. Living pay check to paycheck: then get a line of credit or increase the limits on your credit cards
  3. Start looking for day care services in case of school closures
  4. Don’t put any new money into the stock market until the coronavirus is contained. (Too early to buy the dips, however make an investment shopping list)
  5. Get ready to refinance your debt, but keep in mind that there could be more rate cuts.

Why you shouldn’t panic over a decline in stock market prices

The chart below illustrate what happen to stock market values during the financial crisis. (Jan 2008 until Mar 2011) The left side of the graph shows the market hit bottom in Mar of 2009 and recovered most of it losses by Mar of 2011. I not suggesting that this current market downturn will get that bad.

Keep in mind that the stock market has gone straight up since the market hit bottom back in march of 2009 with a few little blips. The chart below illustrates that the current downturn could be just another blip. This virus will only have a temporary effect on the economy and consumer spending will recover. People will travel again, visit theme parks, eat out and business will be profitable again.

Back in September, I wrote a post to reduce some of your risk and move some money into dividend paying stocks. I hope that you followed my advice.  Dividend income should help to offset some of the fall in value of your portfolio.

 

 

 

Opinion: The Fed cutting interest rates could be a big mistake

Stock market watchers are expecting a rate cut this week because they believe that the U.S. economy is experiencing a slowdown. Second quarter GDP growth was 2.1% which is lower than the 3.1% growth rate during the first quarter. However, consumer spending rose 4.3% despite the fact that tax refunds were smaller than previous years. The GOP tax cuts did increase the weekly take home pay for consumers which accounts for some of the strong spending.

Growth deceleration in the second quarter was due mostly to tariffs and a fear of a global slowdown.  China’s economic growth has slumped to its lowest level in nearly three decades due to the prolonged trade war with the United States. However, the biggest drag on the U.S. economy has been a slump in business investment which was down 5.5 percent.

It is hard for corporations to spend money with Trump’s tariff threats on most of its trading partners. The new NAFTA or USMCA hasn’t even been approved by Congress; then add the uncertainty of a smooth Brexit (Britain leaving the European Union) and you a recipe for a slowdown in business spending.  In reality the Trump administration is partly to blame for the slump in world economic growth.

In order for the Trump administration to win the trade war they need interest rate cuts in order to lower the value of the U.S. dollar so that their tariffs are more effective. China can easily lower the value of their currency compared to the U.S. because the Federal Reserve is an independent agency.

Why I believe that lowering U.S. interest rates is a bad idea!

  1. Trump has relentlessly used social media to criticize the Fed. To remain independent, the Fed has to resist political pressure.
  2. Unemployment is at the lowest level in decades; the economy doesn’t need more stimulus.
  3. Lowering interest rates will enable Trump to pursue a more aggressive use of tariffs which in turn will further slow world economic growth.
  4. Cheap money will allow corporations to buy back more of their shares adding debt to their balance sheet.
  5. Low interest rates will encourage more wasteful government spending, adding to the already large national debt.
  6. Pension plans will get less interest on fixed income investments making it more difficult to meet their monthly commitments.
  7. Consumers will get less interest on their savings accounts.

Conclusion: Cutting interest rates could make matters worse. It could prolong the trade war with China and enable the Trump administration to actually follow through with threats of imposing more tariffs on their other trading partners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blame Yellen and Trump for rapid raising U.S. interest rates

  

I believe that the former head of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, is partly responsible for rapid raising U.S. interest rates. Although, GDP growth wasn’t overheating during her term, she could have started to unwind the Fed’s balance sheet which had 4 trillion dollars’ worth of treasuries. Instead she bought more treasuries after they matured and expanded the balance sheet by buying more treasuries with the interest earned.

This kept long term interest rate extremely low and allowed corporations to borrow money at low rates to buy back their shares. The Fed’s lack of action has help fuel the longest bull market in history.

Sorry Trump supporters but your man is also to blame. His policies are inflationary!

  1. The trump’s administration decision to pull out of the Iran deal has cause oil prices to rise. One million barrels of oil a day is being taken off the market.
  2. Trump’s tariff war with China and other trading partners will force corporations to increase prices because their costs are going up. Costs could go up even higher if Trump increases tariffs on imports from China from 10% to 25% in January 2019
  3. The corporate tax cuts and government spending has juiced the economy causing unemployment to fall to the lowest level in nearly fifty years sparking fears of raising wage growth.

The Trump’s administration spin that the tax cuts will pay for themselves is simply not true. Both the Reagan and Bush tax cuts added to the fiscal deficit.

The new Fed chairman, Jerome Powell has a difficult job of unwinding the Fed’s balance sheet by buying less treasuries just as the federal government is issuing more debt to cover the Trump’s tax cuts. Trump will add another trillion dollars to the deficit. More supply of treasuries plus less buyers equals raising interest rates.

Trump blaming Powell for the massive drop in the stock market last week is ridiculous. No one knows for sure what caused investors to hit the sell button. Was it fear of raising interest rates, a forecast of slower global growth by the IMF, fear of an escalating trade war with China or fear of runaway inflation.

My guess is all or none of the above. Maybe the stock market was just due for a correction.

 

 

 

 

Why Trump’s zero tariffs & zero subsides is a pipe dream

Trump campaigned on getting better trading deals starting with the renegotiation of NAFTA.  The loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs is the main reason that the Trump administration has criticized NAFTA and other trade deals. According to the CFR, the U.S. auto sector lost roughly 350,000 jobs between 1994 and 2016. Many of those jobs were taken up by workers in Mexico, where the auto sector added over 400,000 jobs in the same period.

A few reasons why zero tariffs alone don’t work

  • Labour intensive manufacturing will tend to locate where employee wages and benefits are the lowest.
  • Local and federal tax rates are another factor when it comes to plant locations.
  • Input costs like regulations, transportation and power rates are just a few examples of factors in plant location considerations.
  • It makes economic sense to locate near the biggest market for the product or service.

Bottom line, can the Trump administration force China and Mexico to pay $25.00 a hour to assemble cars? Are American consumers willing to pay an extra $1,400 to $7,000 for a new car if Trump imposes 25% tariff on the auto sector? How about $3,000 for a new I-phone that is made in America?

For argument sake, I do believe that reducing tariffs among developed countries does make sense. However, the other problem is fluctuations  in currencies which governments in general have little or no control over. For example, only yesterday, President Trump doubled the tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum because of the drastic fall in value of the Turkish lira.

The hard fact is zero tariffs are not feasible and corporations are not patriotic. Corporate executives are more concern about keeping their shareholders happy and ensuring a very generous executive compensation package. Wage growth in the U.S. has been stagnant for many years and there are no signs that the corporate tax cuts have trickled down to employee wages.

Is eliminating government subsides even possible?

My short answer is no. The great recession of 2008-09 would have turned into another great depression if governments’ world-wide didn’t bail out their troubled banks. How many jobs would have been lost in the auto sector if the U.S. government didn’t bail out Chrysler and GM? (Does too big to fail, sound familiar)

Severe weather conditions make it difficult for governments to get rid of agricultural subsidies. Plus, governments can use subsidies to ensure that farmers produce the right amount of crops or meat to serve their population. There is also a safety issue and a cost benefit to using your own food sources rather than relying on importing food from other countries.

I could go on and on with other examples of industries that require some form of government help. Not all subsides are bad. Think about the millions of people who use public transportation. How expensive would it be, if it wasn’t subsidized by government?

All comments are welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Trump creating trade uncertainty to attract investment into the U.S. ?

Image result for king trump cartoon

The Trump administration has lifted exemptions for Canada, Mexico and the European Union on its punishing steel and aluminum tariffs. Former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge says the United States is deliberately creating global trade uncertainty to drive investment to its shores.

“The White House and the people around the president look at the world in a way that, if they can create uncertainty about investment elsewhere in the world, then both Americans and foreigners will come and invest more in the United States,” Dodge told BNN Bloomberg on Monday.

This strategy has partially worked over the past 18 months as unsuccessful NAFTA talks have caused companies to postpone or delay important investment decisions. Current Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz said in an interview with BNN Bloomberg last Friday that the ongoing NAFTA negotiations threaten to drive investment in Canada away for good.

President Trump is headed for a showdown with America’s allies at a Group of Seven summit today in Quebec, with the European Union and Canada threatening retaliatory measures unless he reverses course on new steel and aluminum levies. The EU has threatened to retaliate with duties on everything from American motorcycles to bourbon. Canada and Mexico have also promised to levy their own tariffs on U.S. goods.

The White House appeared unfazed by threats from allies. Top economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was “overreacting” in response to the tariffs, and said the blame for any escalation lies with the U.S.’s trading partners. He said Trump is simply responding to decades of trade abuse.

The president believes that the tariffs being charged against other countries would help to fund the U.S. government and also believes that the U.S. could not lose a trade war in an international climate where the rules were already stacked against American business.

In my humble opinion, Trump’s bullying tactics may have worked in real estate negotiations with contractors and financial institutions. However, it seems to me that world leaders are not going to allow Trump to win concessions without a serious fight.

This trade dispute has triggered one of the biggest crises in the G-7 since the group’s formation by Canada, France, Italy, Germany, the U.K., Japan and the U.S. In a rare rebuke of a member nation, G-7 finance chiefs said the U.S. duties could “undermine open trade and confidence in the global economy.”

Trump’s “America First” policy could turn into “America Alone” as trade tensions escalate with allies.  So far the world stock markets have not reacted to the fact that tariffs will boost the inflation rate. Leading to higher interest rates and slower global growth.

Lets hope that cooler heads prevail and the world avoids another great recession.

 

 

 

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Robo-advisor vs. human advisor

The robo-advisor platforms offered by companies like Wealthfront and Betterment are gaining in popularity. The low cost of investment management services is very attractive when compared to fees charged by human financial advisors. It leaves me wondering if financial advice from humans is on its way out.

Advances in artificial intelligence has already replaced some money managers at companies like Blackrock. Last October marked the debut of an AI powered equity ETF. The exchanged traded fund is run by IBM’s Watson, in other words, the new portfolio manager is a computer program. Most ETFs are passively managed and follow indexes or specific sectors in the S&P 500. The AIEQ ETF is an actively managed security that seeks to beat the market.

Here are four advantages that traditional advisors have over robo-advisors.

  1. Human emotions

Robo-advisors only have one job, to use algorithms to manage your investment portfolio. They are not designed to manage the emotional component of investing and building wealth. For traditional advisors, this is a daily role they fulfill. When markets decline or clients experience an important financial event, the traditional advisor is there to talk them down off the proverbial ledge and help them make a rational decision void of strong emotions.

  1. Accountability

Many people are capable of holding themselves accountable on their own but having someone else committed to helping you in the endeavor only ups your chances of success. Computers are certainly capable of creating tasks and sending you reminders but they have little to no flexibility in helping you devise an accountability system that truly works for you and is tailored towards your specific goals.

  1. Flexibility

Let’s face it; over time our lives can change quite drastically. You get married, have kids, buy a house or become unemployed. The list goes on and on. Each of these events creates what we call “money in motion.” When money is in motion, planning, adjusting and taking thoughtful action needs to occur in order to ensure a positive outcome. Over time, many discussions are required during this process and having a human expert helps you adjust and adapt as needed.

  1. One-size-fits-all vs. tailored service

Part of why robo-advisors are cheap, relative to financial advisors, is due to the fact that they are a streamlined, automated service. As great as this can be, it also creates a lot of limitations. Rather than being built and catered specifically to you and your current financial situation, robo-advisors are designed to serve the masses. This means a somewhat cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach in their offerings.

Traditional advisors, on the other hand, can tailor the services and investment management style they provide according to your unique financial situation. (Insurance coverage, debt reduction, tax plan & estate planning)

Having worked as a financial advisor, I am somewhat bias and prefer the traditional advisor over the robo-advisor. However, a robo-advisor provides a service to a select group of clients and financial advisors provide services to a different group. Each cater to the preferences of their unique clientele.

 

 

Why China will outlast the U.S. in trade war

In the political terms, President Xi Jinping runs a communist country that has just granted him the ability to rule for life. He enjoys advantages that may allow him to cope with the economic fallout far better than President Trump. His authoritarian grip on the news media and the party means there is little room for criticism of his policies, while Trump must contend with complaints from American companies and consumers before important midterm elections in November.

The Chinese government also has much greater control over their economy, allowing it to shield the public from job cuts or factory closings by ordering banks to support industries suffering from American tariffs. It can spread the pain of a trade war while tolerating years of losses from state-run companies that dominate major sectors of the economy. In addition, China is also sitting on top of about $3 trillion in surplus cash.

At best, the American actions could shave one-tenth of a percentage point off China’s economic growth. Not enough to force a drastic reversal of policies, given the enormous benefits that Chinese leaders see in the state-heavy economic model they have relied on in recent decades.

Chinese tariffs on the American agricultural sector is very influential in the Congress. Many states that have voted republican in the past will be hardest hit by these tariffs.

Hopefully the president is just blowing off steam again but, if he’s even half-serious, this is nuts,” said Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, “China is guilty of many things, but the president has no actual plan to win right now. He’s threatening to light American agriculture on fire.”

In addition to agriculture, China threatened to retaliate with tariffs on American cars, chemicals and other products. The 106 goods, many produced in parts of the country that have supported Mr. Trump, were selected to deliver a warning that American workers and consumers would suffer in a protracted standoff.

The mere talk of a possible trade war has sent investors on a rolling coaster ride of uncertainty. The six month chart of the S&P 500 below clearly illustrates increased volatility.

China also has the upper hand because it holds $1.2 trillion dollars of American debt. Trump’s tax cuts and infrastructure spending will require issuing more debt. The U.S. government has relied on foreigners to purchase treasuries to finance their spending because American saving rates are so low and they can’t participate fully. Add the fact that the biggest buyer of treasuries was the Federal Reserve which has started to sell it’s holdings.

What would happen to the bond yields if China doesn’t buy additional American debt?

The economic law of supply and demand dictates that more supply will cause prices to fall. If bond prices fall then yields will go up, causing interest rates to raise. Wage and price pressures are already rising, higher tariffs would only intensify these pressures forcing the Fed to raise interest rates even more.

A worst case scenario, the talking war turns into a trade war that could slow U.S. growth, tank the stock market and cause a U.S. recession.

 

President Trump is approaching this like does everything else, by talking tough and expecting his opponent to give in. Unfortunately for Trump, it’s not the 80s anymore. China was dramatically underdeveloped then and it wanted access to Western technology and manufacturing techniques. China is relatively mature today and it can easily obtain what it needs from other vendors outside the United States. While the U.S. market looked enticing a few decades ago, Beijing is more interested in newer emerging market countries.

Trump is not only gambling his political future but the financial well-being of Americans if he starts a trade war.

Trudeau is whistling by the Canadian graveyard

According to Wiktionary:  “whistle-past-the-graveyard” is to attempt to stay cheerful in a dire situation; to proceed with a task, ignoring an upcoming hazard, hoping for a good outcome.

In my humble opinion, this idiom describes our Prime Minister perfectly. The Canadian government missed a golden opportunity to respond to the Trump tax cuts in the February 2018 federal budget.  The United States, our largest trading partner, has made investing in the U.S. more attractive than Canada. Corporate tax rates in the U.S. are 5% lower than Canada and more important is the 100% deduction for new capital spending.

The Canadian dollar has fallen in value from $1.2586 at the end of February to $1.3079 today. A clear sign that foreigners are taking their money out of Canada.  The uncertainly regarding the successful re-negotiation of NAFTA is hurting our dollar and is also responsible for the lack of capital spending in Canada.

Our factors that make Canada less competitive than investing in the U.S.

  • Carbon taxes have increased energy costs.
  • February budget increased taxes for small businesses and individuals.
  • Canadian oil is being sold at a discount by $20 to $25 a barrel costing billions of dollars in lost revenue to Canadian oil companies and loss of tax revenue.
  • Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is being delayed by protesters.
  • Many LNG projects have been scrapped. Meanwhile, this sector is booming in the U.S.
  • The housing market is slowing down due to a 15% foreign buyer’s tax, tightening mortgage rules and higher mortgage rates.
  • Tariffs on softwood lumber, pulp & paper and solar panels. (Steel & aluminium tariffs could become permanent if Trump doesn’t like the NAFTA deal)

No surprise that the Toronto stock exchange is down 4% year to date while the S&P 500 is flat and NASDAQ is up 6%. The Trump tax cuts have already boosted employment and capital spending should kick in the second half of 2018. However, there are still are plenty of risks investing in the U.S. with the Trump circus in Washington. Possible trade wars leading to inflation and higher interest rates.

It is going to be very challenging to make money in 2018!

I am still a Canadian Bear