Category Archives: Great Upload of 2013

Very amateur investing, yellow-tinted glasses edition

(originally written Oct 2, 2011.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

I find it amusing that, while many of my fellow Vancouverites are attending places of worship this Sunday morning, I’m taking a break from work to muse about money, that root of all kinds of evil.  :)

Right now, the stock market is a relatively cheery (I said relatively) topic for me, since I’ve fared so badly in my first few attempts at Fate of the World, a computer game in the “Civilization” genre where you, at the head of a UN-like agency, attempt to prevent catastrophic global warming.

Designed in conjunction with climate researchers, you need to shrewdly manage your budget by enacting effective climate legislation, while appeasing locals on each continent just enough that they don’t kick you out and pursue their own path.  :)

In addition to the well-known options like cap-and-trade, renewables, biofuels, nuclear and efficiency policies, you can do more exotic things like legislate organic farming, enforce a vegetarian diet (cows burp a lot), spray aerosols to reflect sunlight, or use a Tobin Tax on financial speculation to raise funds.

Meanwhile, back in Reality…

While the planet (or at least, Texas) burns, stock markets hit an important milestone recently, with dividend yields from American blue-chip companies surpassing the yields on US gov’t bonds.  This hasn’t happened for a very long time, and is a signal that in several years, the price of most stocks (relative to earnings) will reach the point where even your financial advisor can invest your money for a decent rate-of-return.  ;)

This is due to the fact that — for whatever reason — stock market prices tend to cycle between too-optimistic (1929, 1966) and too-pessimistic (1947, 1980).  We came off a too-optimistic high around 2000, so one would reasonably expect that after about five more years of investment purgatory, stock price trends will slant upwards again.

In the absence of catastrophic global warming, that is.  :P

Gold

Gold feeds off stock market pessimism, so one would expect that maybe sometime between the next two Winter Olympics, it will spike upwards in a manner that dwarfs the frenzy that happened in August.  I guess I’ll insert yesterday’s Dilbert cartoon here:

Dilbert Oct 1 2011

Gold has properly dropped for the past month, but past precedent has such hangovers lasting two.  Too many enthusiasts are still humming “don’t stop believing”.  ;)

The corporate locusts known as gold mining stocks didn’t go up much earlier this year, and as such are likely to enjoy a big run-up through next spring.  [note from 2013: this totally didn’t happen.  By which I mean, the absolute opposite happened.]  The main reason is that companies’ profit margins have now gone through the roof, which means they’ll increase dividends, which in turn will attract pension funds and other big money pools.

It’s worth wondering why the stocks would rise with the metal in winter but not in summer.  The most plausible explanation I’ve encountered, is that when a commodity price rises to unprecedented levels (as gold did in the summer) no one thinks they’ll stay there for long.  After all, it’s unprecedented…!

A Tim Thomas tangent

Taking a hockey example, goalie Tim Thomas had a great year in 2008-2009.  But since he was 35 at the time, and had never really shone before, a lot of people thought it was a fluke.  Especially since he had a ho-hum year in 2009-2010, even losing the starting goalie position to Tukka Rask.

But if a commodity starts creeping upwards a second time to hitherto-unprecedented levels, stock analysts start revising their price assumptions upwards; companies get valued much more richly; and thanks to stock options, mediocre executives get valued most richly of all.  ;)

Back to hockey, Tim Thomas did the impossible and put up better-than-Dominik-Hasek numbers in 2010-2011; what with his 2008-2009 performance, everyone now expects him to the best goalie in the league, and he was probably the first goalie picked in every hockey pool this fall.  This, despite the fact that at 38, he can’t have that many good years left in him.  Such are our human foibles.

On Expert Foxes and Hedgehogs

We recently covered a book (Future Babble) in our work book club about the uselessness of expert predictions for the future.  The author argued that experts who present themselves (over)confidently — that is to say, expert “hedgehogs” — are more likely to be wrong than the ones who hedge their predictions (expert “foxes”).  A good pairing here would be that of Dennis Gartman and Richard Russell.  …and the argument holds!

Gartman, a bombastic investment newsletter writer, made the mistake of enabling skeptics (such as me) to follow his performance, by allowing an exchange-traded fund to follow his instructions.  It was outperformed by 98% of mutual funds in 2009, and 82% of funds in 2010.  I’m looking for a three-peat come December.  :)  [note from 2013: I think Gartman actually did above-average in 2011 among mutual funds.  But not compared to the index, of course.  :)  ]

Richard Russell has been writing his financial newsletter writer almost as long as Elizabeth II has been the Queen of England.  Apart from beating his drum about decadal trends, he doesn’t claim to know much about where things are going.  But he takes subscribers’ money anyways.  ;)

He’s credited with recommending buying stocks at the bottom in 1974, switching from gold to stocks in 1980, and then switching back in 1999, all of which were prescient.  I remember reading something he wrote around 2003, suggesting that by the time gold finished rising, one ounce would almost buy the Dow.  Emphasizing his reluctance to predict the number, he suggested that if absolutely forced to guess he’d say $3000, but that he wasn’t confident in it.  (It was about $300/oz at the time.)

At the time I thought, “must be nice to have rich-person problems”.  Actually, come to think of it, I still do… :)

The Black Swan’s Thanksgiving Turkey

(originally written Nov 24, 2011.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

It came to my attention that Naseem Nicholas Taleb, who authored The Black Swan (surprisingly, not about a ballet dancer, but about financial crises) discussed other avians in his book, among them the Thanksgiving turkey.  Per the Wikipedia page, he seems to’ve co-opted the idea from a turkey anecdote by philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose atheism doubtless led antagonists to brand him cuckoo.  ;)

The abrupt change in the turkey’s situation is part of an argument that it’s ridiculous to project present trends very far into the future, because, well, things change.  Hockey-wise, the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s inspired a high-scoring decade for the NHL.  This was followed by a low-scoring decade inflicted on fans by the New Jersey Devils’ success with the neutral-zone trap in 1994-1995.  (As per the viral video most of you’ve doubtless seen, the Tampa Bay Lightning are going retro with their 1-3-1 system.  Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was part of the Red Wings team the Devils upset in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals.)

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The world (of investing) according to Dante

(originally written Oct 21, 2011.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

It seems like the financial markets will have an “upwards bias” for the next few months, despite the circling-the-drain quality of the macroeconomic picture, which inspired this magazine cover from the Oct 1 issue of The Economist magazine.

20111001_CNA400[1]

If there’s anything I’ve learned over my years watching stocks (and, to be perfectly honest, there isn’t  ;) )  it’s to do the opposite of what The Economist says on its cover, a phenomenon known as the magazine cover indicator:

  • you’d’ve tripled your money in Ford in about two years by buying them after the July 2009 “Detroitosaurus Rex” issue
  • a couple months prior to that, the cover story “The Jobs Crisis” coincided with the bottom of the stock markets
  • of course, their timing is occasionally off; they did an oil-barrel cover in May 2008, and the price increased several percent into July before plummeting.

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Whatever foresight is, it’s not 20/20…

(originally written Jan 3, 2012.  Part of my Great Upload of 2013.)

Come December’s end, the nervy among us like to review what they got right in the past year. The nervier like to predict what’ll happen in the New Year. Ever the blithe contrarian, I figured I’d visit the Ghost of Predictions Past and see where I got things wrong.**  :)

I do this taking comfort that Great Men, like me, make mistakes sometimes. (Oh, it was tempting to “forget” those commas…!)

Take the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius — he almost ruined his reputation as an enlightened philosopher-king when, fed up with a particularly quarrelsome ethnic group, he set out to exterminate the… Germans. (Ha! Betcha didn’t see that coming! :) )  Historians also dock him points for leaving the Empire to his sadistic son Commodus, whose death the lightly-factual chopumentary “Gladiator” got wrong. Among many, many other things, Joaquin Phoenix should’ve died in his sleep. Strangled by a bodyguard, sure, but in his sleep none the less. ;)

Probably my biggest mistake in 2011 was thinking the Fukushima nuclear disaster wouldn’t be as catastrophically epic as it became. While there are no directly attributed deaths*, it’s estimated that the clean-up will take decades — at great cost of time, money, and confidence in Japanese public and private institutions. In conceitedly thinking that a serious nuclear accident would never happen “here” in the First World, I overestimated human knowledge and underestimated human nature. We do have a genius for corruption and corner-cutting…!

Overestimating human knowledge

A back-in-the-day Canadian example of overestimating human knowledge is that of the Dryden Chemical Company, which was responsible for an outbreak of mercury poisoning among the Grassy Narrows First Nation. The company made chlorine to bleach paper, using mercury in the reactors. Tonnes of mercury made their way into the lake over the years, probably with an engineering justification to the effect of “well, methylmercury is the bad stuff, but we’re dumping inorganic mercury, which is safe enough to drink. So it’s not ideal, but there’s no real problem”.

Not being biologists, the engineers would not have realized that some shellfish metabolize safe inorganic mercury into unsafe methylmercury — meaning that any mercury dumped in the lake became unsafe mercury, in short order. And remember, that’s just the techno-hubris of forty years ago; we’ve since moved on to bigger things!

Underestimating human nature

A recent American example of underestimating human nature is that of Monsanto’s Bt corn, engineered to produce an insecticide toxic to the corn rootworm, but harmless to most other species. Apparently rootworms are developing resistance to the insecticide faster than expected — in part because farmers aren’t following the recommended usage instructions. (I bet they don’t decrumb their toasters every six months, either.)

The rootworms will become resistant to the insecticide anyways (because the only rootworms having rootworm babies will be the Bt-tolerant ones) — it’s just that the rootworms are ahead of schedule because the engineering solution didn’t accommodate enough end-user misuse.  A definite lesson for us technically-minded folks.

Up next!  (maybe)

Next time: more Klippensteinian hubris, as we look at rising oil production!  Falling gold prices!  (Both temporary, I’m sure. ;) )

Or maybe I abandon this thread and muse about more interesting going-forward stuff, like the probability that activist groups will soon follow the example of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (beefed-up radio-controlled model airplanes with decent cameras) to monitor their opponents.  Which also makes it likely that corporate interests will soon do the same every time there’s a protest.  Now, if I could just find a stock whose business plan consists of renting aerial drones to all parties…  ;)

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* A couple anti-nuclear campaigners (Mangano and Sherman) recently came out with a calculation that there were 14,000 excess deaths in the US in the weeks after the disaster, but they put the data through enough Cirque-du-Soleil contortions to earn a PhD in BS.  And not for the first time; in the summer, they’d alleged baby deaths in the US Pacific Northwest spiked after the meltdown…  conveniently ignoring data showing that death rates were even higher three months before the accident.  Which doesn’t exactly add credibility to reality-based concerns about the effect of persistent, low-level radiation exposure.

** alas, unlike conversations, my mailouts are checkable…  :)

Dilbert Jan 3 2012

The millionaire tax, American- and French style

(originally written Apr 19, 2012.  Part of my Great Upload of 2013.)

The American “millionaire tax” plan

At the moment, Obama is facing stiff resistance from his proposal to tax all income above $1,000,000 per year at a rate of 30%.  This, despite the support of one-time world’s-richest-man Warren Buffett, who wondered in a NY Times editorial last year why he, a billionaire, paid a lower tax rate than his secretary.

(Answer: most of Buffett’s income comes in the form of capital gains taxed at 15%, which is lower than income tax rates paid by all but the lowest-paid labourers.  A similar situation exists in Canada — capital gains are taxed at half the rate of actual work.)

The French “millionaire tax” plan

As has become the regrettable pattern, Obama’s proposal sounds nice on the surface, but pales in comparison to others being bandied about.  A French economist suggested his country raise the top rate from 40% to 60%; and, not to be outdone, Francois Hollande, the leader of France’s Socialist Party, proposed 75%.  :)  And get this — with the election imminent, Hollande is topping the polls!!

Of such things, the new leader of Canada’s NDP, Thomas Mulcair, can only dream.  ;)

France being France, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for Hollande to win the election and runoff.  In 1988, the year after Reagan gave his famous “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin, and with Glasnost and Perestroika in full effect in the Soviet Union, France re-elected a Socialist as President.  Yessir, the French rabble takes marching orders from nobody.  :)

In May 1968, student protests there went viral and culminated in a general strike by two-thirds of the working population, causing President de Gaulle to flee the country, fearing revolution.  (Not an unreasonable fear; in the prior two centuries, the country had gone through four revolutions and two empires, and was on its fifth republic.  They even found the time to restore the monarchy once!)

In the snap election a few weeks later, in a display of that characteristic French je ne sais quoi, voters gave de Gaulle a landslide majority, having decided that he was actually better than the alternative, after all.  (When they say a week is a long time in politics, kids, this is exactly what they mean!)

Millionaire surtaxes in general…

In broad terms, surtaxes on the very highest incomes tend to be difficult to implement, because the 0.001% who live in “Richistan” tend to move between countries in a game of tax whack-a-mole.  Aiming at the top 0.1% or even 1% is probably more productive, as they’d be more likely to look for tax loopholes, than move to the Cayman Islands.  And that at least creates jobs for accountants and lawyers.  Plus, there’s more of them.  ;)

This makes me wonder if, for all the global advantages English brings us internationally, it becomes a disadvantage, here: Canadians can move to most parts of the US without suffering much culture shock.  Britain and Australia would be bigger cultural leap, but most of us would still have “home-language advantage”.

For the uberrich Swede, Norwegian, German or French person to emigrate to a lower-tax zone though, they’d have to leave their social circles, adapt to a new culture, and manage day-to-day in a different language.  And if they wanted to stay close to home, their selection would mostly be limited to countries they’ve historically invaded, or countries which have invaded them.  (It’s awesome, the kinds of elaborate theories you can come up with, when you don’t bother to back them up with data!  But in this case the Wall Street Journal provides some cover for the idea that even if the well-off say they’ll leave, they usually don’t.  Reminds me of a certain someone at work, actually…  ;)  )

On this side of the pond, no one really raises a fuss about our cousins’ invasions (1775, 1812) or the fact that we burnt their White House in revenge (1814).  So for well-off Canadians, border-hopping mainly means cheaper home, gas, dairy, phone, TV and internet costs.  ;)  That, and having to put up with heathens who don’t know that some words aren’t meant to be pronounced “abowt”.  ;)

Goodness, the biggest bull market in history is about to begin — eventually! :)

(originally written May 8, 2012.  Part of my “Great Upload of 2013”)

There was a great article in the Globe & Mail investment section about one John Maudlin’s predictions that after the stock market moves down for awhile, it will move up.  Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is brilliant stuff — blindingly insightful.  Worth every penny!  (Mainly because his online newsletter is free.  :)  )

Alas, as much as I’d like to skewer his ideas, there’s a maddeningly good chance that he’ll be right.  If stocks actually start rising “for good” five years from now, there will have been a 17-year period where the stock indexes stayed flat, finishing at roughly the level where they started (2000-2017).  This was preceded by an 18-year period where stocks kept moving up (1982-2000) which was itself preceded by a 16-year period of relative flatness (1966-1982) which was preceded by a 17-year period… well, you get the picture: tide goes in, tide goes out.*

With this kind of self-reinforcing 17-year cycle, you would think the stock market’s mascot would be a cicada.  But no, they inexplicably chose a bull and a bear; about the only thing they have in common, is tapeworms.

Of course, bold predictions don’t always turn out well, as gold mutual fund runner Charles Oliver found out last month.  Having bet his hair in April 2008 that gold would hit $2000 by last month, he now sports the Lex Luthor look.  Mercifully declining to go double-or-nothing, he maintains a confidence that gold would hit the big 2-0-0-0 by year’s end.  As of this morning [in May 2012], he’s “only” got $400 to go.  ;)

I’d imagine the two aforementioned predictions will interrelate, because bad times float gold’s boat, while in good times it drops like the rock it is.  (And that generally means platinum gets cheaper, so yay, fuel cells!)  Dr. Evil above foresees ongoing misery pushing gold upwards, and Mr. M sees it keeping stocks down.  But whenever we go through the looking glass to prosperous times, gold is likely to lose its allure.  So I plan to be decidedly dismissive towards the stuff from roughly 2017 to, let’s see… 2034.  ;)

Good times ’til the mid-twenty-thirties would be nice for guys like me, who would be pushing sixty; it would imply that our retirement savings could be in reasonably good shape — even if the retirement age will be something like 80 by then.  :)  (I wonder how long until London Life changes its product name to “Freedom 65”?)  Of course, this all depends on one’s being in the position of being able to save money, something that commentators often forget, because that’s generally not their problem.

Upon achieving crotchety old geezerdom, I for one am particularly looking forward to regaling young-folk with boring stories about how much better things were when I was young — once you factor out the lesser technology, widespread poverty, appalling injustice and environmental wreckage.  ;)

Of course, I’ll want to emphasize how much tougher we were as kids.  For example, we attended seismically unsound schools: the Vancouver School Board recently announced plans to raze my earthquake-vulnerable elementary-school alma mater, L’Ecole Bilingue, and replace it with something a bit less crumbly.  Of course, having been built long before bilingualism — back in 1912, when BC was led by Premier Dick McBride (seriously) — for the first few decades it went by its maiden name, “Cecil Rhodes School”.

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* there’s nothing magical about 17 years, except for the fact that since it’s happened a few times before, enough people are likely to expect it to happen again, causing a self-reinforcing cycle.  More mundanely, if the stock market is still at current levels five years from now, dividends and profits are likely to be attractive enough that “value investor” types come out of hibernation and shovel gobs of money into stocks, eventually driving them upwards.  :)

Dinner with the Overclass (II) (“Great Upload of 2013”)

(written April 10, 2012 – part of my Great Upload of 2013)

So I got special, spousal dispensation to go to a mutual fund dinner the other night.  As a thank-you for generating a lot of fees for the company, attendees got dinner (including drinks — pity that I don’t), a pen, paper pad, mints, and chocolate wrapped up to look like a silver bar.  (Milk chocolate; they didn’t spring for the good stuff.  Even financial houses have their limits, I suppose.)  I guess it’s kind of like how some credit cards offer a cash-back option, which kicks back a fraction of the interest their victims clients pay them!

I met my account representative for the first time, as well; and discovered to my great pleasure that I’m taller than him.  (There’s a complex in there somewhere, I’m sure of it. :) )  The funny thing is, I think he was assigned to me because the company thought I was Jewish — the tip-off being when they sent me a New Year’s greeting last September, in time for Rosh Hashanah.  I wonder whether, given the economic strength of the Chinese ethnic minority in south-east Asia, financial advisor types over there send Lunar New Year cards to clientele with Chinese-sounding last names?

Goooooold

Summer came early to many parts of the US this spring; in March, record high temperatures outpaced lows by a 35:1 margin, and a couple states even broke their month-of-April temperature records!  It also came early to the precious metals markets, starting with a suspiciously-instantaneous $50 drop in gold on Feb 29.  (What self-interested seller would unload so much product so suddenly as to crater the prices they can get for it?)  Up ’til then, copper’s curiously-coveted cousins had followed their usual pattern of floating upwards until roughly summertime blockbuster-movie season, leaving me sitting giddily (and smiling Cheshire-ly) in the catbird seat.  Two months on, it feels more like a litter-box.  :)

A couple weeks back, things got so aberrationally low that I even sold the company stock that I bought last year, netting a vanishingly small profit of about $120 after fees.  (Timbits for everybody!  Whee!)  The money was reallocated to a gold-related mutual fund, which promptly moved… floor-ward.  (Timbits offer postponed.)  As pleasing as it is to get stuff on discount, there’s always a twang of regret when you see a lower clearance price, later!  Of course, there’s nothing much to do but wait for the “sale” to end, and regular prices to return.  Such is the nature of the “long game”.  :)

(Note: “buying and waiting for the sale to end” is an astonishingly poorly-advised strategy when it comes to individual companies, but works fairly well on an index-of-companies basis.  While individual companies are prone to bankruptcy, stock indexes tend to bounce back: they tend to include not just weakened companies going out of business, but the stronger ones driving the weak ones into extinction!)

How to miscalculate debts owing…

During the evening, one of the gold-pushing, silver-tongued speakers made a cringe-worthy comment to the effect that the US has a $12 trillion economy, but had outstanding obligations of $100 trillion.  This meme has been making the rounds, and the reader/listener is generally supposed to conclude either that the US dollar is doomed (so they should stampede into gold as a store of value), or that the welfare state is doomed (and so we have to cut taxes on the rich.  Wait, what?).

Here, the magician’s trick is to compare the size of this year’s economy, with the cumulative cost of every expense reaching decades into the future.  It would be as if we told Leo, “our household annual income is X; the cost to raise you for the next 18 years is way bigger, so here’s a copy of Oliver Twist, keep in touch”.  Similar chicanery is used in “tax freedom day” calculations, which overlook the fact that the yin of taxes paid is matched by the yang of public services.

Of course, I shouldn’t be overly critical of the low-taxation philosophy pushed by right-wing American think-tanks and their Canadian franchisees (e.g. the Fraser Institute).  If a recent book is to be believed, one of the reasons Canada even exists today is that when the Americans tried to manifest their destiny in the War of 1812, American hawks refused to raise taxes enough to pay for a proper army, making it possible for a combination of British soldiers, Canadian militiamen, First Nations warriors, and Laura Secord, to repel them.  :)

A toast to low taxes … in America, that is!

So, this coming barbeque season, on the bicentennial our southern cousins’ northern invasion, feel free to raise an occasional glass to toast the role that low taxes — another country’s low taxes — played, in the history of how Canada came to be the nation it is today!  :)