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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Quitting the equity market at a time like this is like running away from a sale

The current renewed volatility in financial markets is reviving unwelcome feelings among many investors—feelings of anxiety, fear, and a sense of powerlessness. These are completely natural responses. Acting on those emotions, though, can end up doing us more harm than good.

At base, the increase in market volatility is an expression of uncertainty. The sovereign debt strains in the US and Europe, together with renewed worries over financial institutions and fears of another recession, are leading market participants to apply a higher discount to risky assets.

So, developed world equities, oil and industrial commodities, emerging markets, and commodity-related currencies like the Australian dollar are weakening as risk aversion drives investors to the perceived safe havens of government bonds, gold, and Swiss francs.

It is all reminiscent of the events of 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the sub-prime mortgage crisis triggered a global market correction. This time, however, the focus of concern has turned from private-sector to public-sector balance sheets.

As to what happens next, no one knows for sure. That is the nature of risk. But there are a few points individual investors can keep in mind to make living with this volatility more bearable.
  • Remember that markets are unpredictable and do not always react the way the experts predict they will. The recent downgrade by Standard & Poor's of the US government's credit rating, following protracted and painful negotiations on extending its debt ceiling, actually led to a strengthening in Treasury bonds.
  • Quitting the equity market at a time like this is like running away from a sale. While prices have been discounted to reflect higher risk, that's another way of saying expected returns are higher. And while the media headlines proclaim that "investors are dumping stocks," remember someone is buying them. Those people are often the long-term investors.
  • Market recoveries can come just as quickly and just as violently as the prior correction. For instance, in March 2009—when market sentiment was last this bad—the S&P 500 turned and put in seven consecutive of months of gains totalling almost 80 percent. This is not to predict that a similarly vertically shaped recovery is in the cards this time, but it is a reminder of the dangers for long-term investors of turning paper losses into real ones and paying for the risk without waiting around for the recovery.
  • Never forget the power of diversification. While equity markets have had a rocky time in 2011, fixed income markets have flourished—making the overall losses to balanced fund investors a little more bearable. Diversification spreads risk and can lessen the bumps in the road.
  • Markets and economies are different things. The world economy is forever changing, and new forces are replacing old ones. As the IMF noted recently, while advanced economies seek to repair public and financial balance sheets, emerging market economies are thriving.1 A globally diversified portfolio takes account of these shifts.
  • Nothing lasts forever. Just as smart investors temper their enthusiasm in booms, they keep a reserve of optimism during busts. And just as loading up on risk when prices are high can leave you exposed to a correction, dumping risk altogether when prices are low means you can miss the turn when it comes. As always in life, moderation is a good policy.
The market volatility is worrisome, no doubt. The feelings being generated are completely understandable. But through discipline, diversification, and understanding how markets work, the ride can be made bearable. At some point, value will re-emerge, risk appetites will re-awaken, and for those who acknowledged their emotions without acting on them, relief will replace anxiety.

1. World Economic Outlook, IMF, April 2011.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Thinking in Real Terms

Since the onset of the financial crisis in late 2007, the Federal Reserve has used interest-rate cuts and other policy tools in an effort to fuel economic growth. Economists can debate the effectiveness of these policies, but everyone can agree that today’s low interest rates are a two-sided coin.
Consumers, businesses, and government all benefit from low borrowing costs. But on the other side, savers and investors earn almost nothing on their cash balances. This has been the case in most months since 2008, when the Fed cut short-term interest rates to near zero. Worse yet, investors are actually losing wealth in real terms. The inflation-adjusted yields on short-term Treasury securities have been negative in most months since October 2010. (Nominal yields reflect the stated interest rate, while real yields are adjusted for inflation.)
Earning negative real yields on short-term fixed income is not unprecedented, as shown in Figure 1. In fact, inflation has exceeded nominal interest rates in several post-war periods. This graph plots nominal and real yields of one-month Treasury bills, which are considered the equivalent of cash. The gap between the two lines is the inflation rate.
Figure 1: One-Month Treasury Bills
Nominal vs. Real Yield
April 1953–June 2011












The real (inflation-adjusted) yield is computed using trailing 12-month changes in the Consumer Price Index.
Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data
Negative real yields have occurred during periods of high interest rates (early 1980s) and during periods of low interest rates (2010–11). Regardless of the scenario, negative real yields cause investors to lose purchasing power. Keep in mind that the graph shows yields only and not total return, which also would reflect price changes resulting from interest rate movements.
You may note that some negative real yields have occurred during recessionary periods, when the Fed was cutting interest rates to spur a recovery. These times also may be when investors are most tempted to flee the capital markets for the perceived safety of cash. Investors may have a host of reasons for their flight—some might want to avoid economic uncertainty or stock market volatility, while others might fear that impending higher interest rates will cause bonds to lose value.
This is the case for many individual investors and professional money managers today. They are reportedly shifting their portfolios to money market funds and other cash instruments with the intent to return to stocks and bonds when the economy shows signs of improvement.1 The problem with this strategy is that no one can consistently time markets, and the signs are never clear. So while investors sit in cash, their purchasing power quietly erodes.
Investors may have good reasons to hold cash—for example, to keep a portion of their assets liquid. But they should understand that holding cash has a price in real terms. Investors ultimately may lose wealth even as they try to protect it.

Endnote:
1. Jonnelle Marte, “The New Cash Hoarders: Smart or Not-So-Smart?” SmartMoney, June 29, 2011.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Seven Headlines to Beat the Gloom

Debt crises, sovereign risks, double dips and banking strains: Page One headlines can make for depressing reading these days. But being a smart news consumer—and smart investor—means keeping an eye on the lesser headlines. Here are seven you may not have seen:
  • Robust Growth in Germany Pushes Prices—Analysts see a strong chance that German inflation will head towards 3 per cent by the end of the year against a backdrop of robust growth in Europe's biggest economy. (Reuters, July, 27, 2011)
  • Brazil Domestic Demand Still Strong—The Economist Intelligence Unit says economic growth in Brazil surprisingly picked up speed in the first quarter, challenging the government’s efforts to cool the expansion. (EIU, July 6, 2011)
  • Japan Retail Sales Top Estimates—Japan's retail sales rose 1.1 per cent in June, exceeding all economists' forecasts and adding to signs the economy is bouncing back from an initial post-disaster plunge. (Bloomberg, July 28, 2011)
  • No Fear in China—Traders betting on gains in China's biggest companies are pushing options prices to the most bullish level in two years. The Chinese economy is projected to grow by 9.4 per cent in 2011. (Bloomberg, July 28, 2011)
  • Southeast Asia Booms—Southeast Asian markets are the world's top performers in 2011 thanks to strong economic and corporate fundamentals. Thailand's index hit a 15-year high in July and Indonesia's a record high. (Reuters, July 22, 2011)
  • Australian Boom Keeps Rate Rise on the Agenda—The Australian dollar hit its highest level in 30 years in late July as traders looked to the prospect of another rise in interest rates on the back of a resource investment boom. (WSJ, July 27, 2011)
  • NZ Bounces Back—The New Zealand economy has grown more strongly than expected after the Christchurch earthquake, helped by improving terms of trade. The Reserve Bank signals it may raise interest rates soon. (Bloomberg, July 28, 2011)
Standing back from all this, the picture that emerges of the world outside North America and southern Europe is of robust economic conditions. If anything, policymakers in many parts of the world, particularly in Asia, are seeking to pull back demand, rather than stoke it.

Australia, for instance, is enjoying its best terms of trade in more than 50 years. An unprecedented investment boom in mining is injecting extraordinary wealth into the economy and has helped to push the Australian dollar to levels not seen since it was floated in the early 1980s.

Likewise, China, India and much of South-East Asia are seeing strong investment flows and worrying more about over-heating than anything.

This is not to say that all is right with the world. The aftermath of the global financial crisis has created severe problems, particularly in terms of public sector debt and deficits. But we know that that news is in the price. Meanwhile, economic activity in much of the world is thriving.

For equity investors, that means opportunities for wealth building are increasing, not decreasing. Moreover, the global economy is becoming multi-polar, rather than overly dependent on the US, which means the potential benefits from broad diversification are even greater.

That's why focusing too much on the day-to-day headlines with the US debt ceiling or European sovereign issues risks missing many of the good stories out there.

Sometimes, the best advice is to read the newspaper from the inside out.