Portfolio review 2009 and market outlook for 2010

Portfolio review, 2009

The portfolio performance in 2009 can only be described as a home run. Using a crude adjustment for withdrawals and deposits (i.e. assuming they were all made on January 1, 2009), 2009 was a +104% year. If I used a proper method (i.e. a net asset value system) this percentage would be higher.

The TSX in the same period was up 41%, while the S&P 500 was up 28% in 2009, so I suspect a lot of people that have stayed in the market in 2009 will be feeling a bit better – especially if they had made purchases in early March, they would have been up about 70% or so if they did so in March and held on until the end of the year.

What I find particularly more stunning about the portfolio is that the bulk of these gains were accumulated through fixed income transactions, which are lower risk securities than investing in equity indexes. The bulk of the portfolio gains were accrued through debt purchases between March and May.

There was little leverage employed in the portfolio – at no point in time was margin (loaned money) was ever more than 10% of the entire portfolio value. I would estimate that average margin employed was roughly 2-3%, quite a conservative figure. I distinctly recall thinking of aggressively going on margin in April, but decided against it. It makes you look really good when it works, but it also does a good job of bankrupting you the markets turn the other way. If I had cranked up my leverage up to about 20-25% margin, it would have had a disproportionate effect on my returns (I would have been able to goose up my returns to around 150% for the year) but this is complete retrospect thinking – every good trade wants to be larger.

The portfolio is ending the year with a 4% cash balance, and that will go to around 10% when my Harvest Energy debenture sale transaction finally settles (January 2010). Adjusting for this, the portfolio is roughly 25% short term debentures (maturing in less than 2.5 years), 27% long term corporate debt (maturing in approximately 20 years) and 37% equity/income trusts. My currency exposure is roughly 75% Canadian, 25% US. The current yield is slightly under 9%.

Just as an interesting side note, in 2009, I spent 44% less than what I spent in 2008 on trading commissions. In terms of percentage of assets, it is slightly above what you would pay for a cheap index fund, but leagues below your typical actively managed Canadian fund (around 2.5% when I last checked).

There is also a lot in the portfolio for the Canada Revenue Agency to be happy about – in the form of unrealized capital gains. These represent future tax liabilities, but it also gives me some flexibility to smoothing out the income for the future. Hopefully they will still be unrealized gains instead of realized losses when the time comes to sell the investments or see them mature.

Financial Outlook for 2010

I do not believe the portfolio performance of 2009 will be repeated for a long, long time. I would be delusional to think otherwise. The market, however, can remain irrational longer than anybody expects, and this is the feeling I get going into 2010. It makes proper positioning much more trickier than in 2009 where it was a very easy decision to pile into bonds.

The economic numbers for the first half of 2010 will look good, but they are being compared to against very adverse 2009 numbers. I tend to think most of the equity rally has successfully priced in the recovery, but markets rarely stop at rational valuations – they overshoot it. In some cases, like Amazon, they have likely overshot by 50% or so. It is very difficult to determine where market sentiment will take prices. On the balance of probabilities, however, the market appears to be heading higher for the early part of the year. People will see the index funds delivering very good performance on equities, compared to fixed income, so money will likely flow toward the equity portion.

Not helping the case for bonds is that yields have been compressed significantly from last year – they are not quite at 2007 levels where they were trading a few pips above government, but bond yields today are significantly less compelling. Just as an example, 6% 38-year General Electric senior bonds were trading at 48 cents on the dollar in early March. An investor at this time could have collected 12.5% annual interest payments, year after year, as long as GE did not go bankrupt. Today, that same bond is trading for 97 cents, which means you will be collecting a paltry 6.2% instead.

There are too many examples of this type in the bond market to go through in detail. Suffice to say, the huge screens that I had that prompted me that I should be investigating the purchase of the entire bond market in March of 2009 is now telling me that there are only a couple of instruments in fixed income that could be considered for purchase. They still come with higher risk.

The bonds that I picked up in 2009 will get closer to maturity and will subsequently trade closer to par if there is no credit crunch looming. I can settle for this and just collect coupon payments in the meantime. Even if I make 7% on something trading at par, it is better than nothing to keep my capital parked there while looking for superior returns elsewhere.

A theme of 2010 will be “chasing yield”. Smart investors will avoid chasing yield – it is exactly the trap that Canadian income trust investors got into during the last period of very low interest rates. Chasing yield is to be avoided at all costs – although short term cash will earn you at most 2%, it is a far better option to hold cash than it is to lose money when yields rise due to increasing uncertainty. For example, I look at something like Rio-Can – right now your yield on their trust units is 6.95%. If you had to throw your money at something, it is almost better to bite the bullet and invest in those General Electric bonds mentioned above with respect to the risk vs. reward equation – taking equity risk in Rio-Can for an extra 0.75% doesn’t seem worthwhile. What I find amazing is I can see investors bidding up Rio-Can to 6% ($23/unit from $19.85 currently). But to trade on this is pure gambling – and I would feel more comfortable gambling at a casino than the stock market.

My advice would be – if you want to park cash, park it in cash. Don’t park it in a proxy investment for an extra percent or two since it is likely not going to be worth the risk of principal. If you must, go up the seniority chain – to preferred shares if you want better tax treatment or better yet, senior bonds.

In any event, the Bank of Canada is going to likely increase interest rates in July from the basement level of 0.25%. My guess is they will use the four meetings remaining in the year to raise rates 0.25% each meeting, leading to a year-ending rate of 1.25%. While this is still lower than historical rates, it will be soon be somewhat more rewarding to hold cash.

The topic of gold comes up occasionally. At US$1090 per troy ounce, there is no compelling reason for me to look into it. If the price did correct some 30% from present as the survivalists retreat back into the woods (to roughly US$750) I might look at it, but I am always very aware that the marginal costs of extraction are below this value. Crude oil is my commodity of choice – as long as I see airplanes flying (despite terrorists trying to do otherwise) and cars driving, the black liquid will continue to be the true gold – at least you can use it, while with gold bars you just store them in a safe area. Unfortunately, others seem to share a similar opinion about crude and while I think the major Canadian oil companies are strategically in the right space, their valuations reflect this. Looking at some of the smaller players will be worthwhile.

On the balance, I do not see a compelling investment environment for equity – while I suspect the equity markets will rise in the first half, the current valuations we see are already assuming a significant recovery in earnings. One can snipe away at individual (smaller) issues and probably do well, but I will remain skeptical of the broader indexes. I also still see a low interest rate environment and do not see long term bond valuations increasing too much, nor do I see the threat of inflation coming on this year. The theme, as I see it right now, is raising cash and concerning myself with inflation-proofing later.

The situation is very fluid and continuing to watch it is the most prudent course of action. I am always vigilant to look for specific opportunities (mainly on the equity side) but I am not finding anything that screams at me. My current estimation is that I would be very lucky if my existing portfolio delivered me more than 9%. Still, this is healthily above the risk-free rate.

An inflation-protected investment

This does not scale up beyond a couple hundred dollars, but if you are planning on sending a large quantity of first-class letters across Canada, investing in some stamps is not a bad method. Currently stamps are 54 cents and are marked as “permanent” which means that the face value of the stamp will increase as prices increase. Stamp prices will increase to 56 cents in 2010 and 58 cents in 2011.

Implicit in this price increase is a 3.7% protection against price increases in the future. Since interest rates are currently well below this figure, there is a minor amount of inflation-proofing available to buy stamps now for the next few years.

Ability to remain irrational longer than ability to remain solvent

John Hempton at Bronte Capital writes another high-quality piece about how having superior information doesn’t necessarily translate into stock market returns. It is just like people that shorted the stock market in 1999 because of insanely high valuations (or shorting Amazon in 2009 at $100/share!) – even though they might be correct, the market can remain irrational longer than your ability to remain solvent.

It is always frustrating in markets to be right, but to get the timing incorrect. This is why option markets are always so brutal to those don’t get the element of market timing to be correct. It is also an indication that even when betting against the majority, you will only be able to win if some of that majority decides to see the world your own way – this process can take years, just like it did for the former Dow Jones Industrial stock Eastman Kodak, or for the poor fellow (Alfred Wegener) that developed most of the geological theory on plate tectonics – he was completely correct, but ridiculed in his own scientific community and died before he was proven correct about 40 years after he proposed the theory.

You can also see other stocks that are on their death throes, such as nearly anything involved in newspaper or paper-based publishing. It also makes you wonder what industries today that aren’t visibly dead will be on their deathbed in the next 20 years – look around you and see what you use today, and wonder if it will be replaced with some substantial technology innovation that is just in its infancy today. Maybe this is why Amazon is trading so highly – maybe they will be exterminating conventional retail shopping?

I remember back in the late 90’s, back in the days when I started investing and didn’t know too much other than technology companies, that I did a lot of research on flat panel displays. Back then, 17″ CRT monitors were still about $500, but it was imminently clear to me that flat panel displays would be the way of the future – if anybody tried lifting up a 21″ CRT monitor you would end up breaking your back trying to move the thing. It lead me to two companies, Genesis Microchip, which did semiconductors in FPDs, and Photon Dynamics, which made diagnostic and factory equipment for the manufacturing of FPDs.

Both of these companies didn’t skyrocket like I anticipated them to and I never even invested in them, but it was worth noting that despite the fact that flat panel displays became the future of computer displays, I never was able to financially capitalize on it in the marketplace.

Fact checking on charities

In Canada, charities that are registered with the federal government enjoy certain benefits that other non-profit organizations do not. In exchange for being compliant with multiple government regulations, they have the ability of issuing tax receipts which equates to a refund of income taxes of 20.06% for the first $200 donated, and 43.7% for anything above that, using BC rates.

One of the items that a registered charity has to comply with is reporting to the Canada Revenue Agency so there is a degree of transparency where people can see where money is raised and spent within a charity. You can access this on the CRA Charities Listings site.

It is very important to know when an executive of a registered charity says that “We do not receive any government funding” that you check lines 4540 to 4560 on the return; if you see revenues there, the management is lying to the public. In addition, they are implicitly receiving government funding due to the value of the tax refund from charitable contributions. For example, if you were to donate $1,000 to a charity, your after-tax cost is actually $610.28. The federal and provincial government are essentially donating the other $389.72 in the form of an income tax refund.

Also there is the well-known issue of having a high percentage of money wasted on administration expenses. If line 5010 (Management and Administration component of total expenditures) and 5020 (Money spent to raise more money) are high compared to total expenditures in a charity, I would look at it as probable that they are not being efficiently run.

My advice would be to donate only to registered charities that you know at least one of the directors of, and your opinion of the director is positive. At least if they incompetently squander your money, you’ll be able to grill them in person and keep them accountable.

Present cost of portfolio insurance

I am noticing that the implied volatility of the S&P 100 is below 20% right now, which is the lowest it has been since when the financial crisis really picked up steam (September 2008). At the peak of the economic crisis this was around 80%.

The concept of portfolio insurance is simple – buying put options represents a form of insurance. You can play with these options and come up with some concepts that can be translated into English for less financially sophisticated people.

Let’s pretend you owned $100 of the S&P 500. If you wanted to insure your portfolio against any further downside for the rest of 2010 (i.e. you wanted to guarantee that you could sell your $100 of S&P 500 for $100 at the end of 2010), how much would it cost you? The answer is about $9.89 given closing option prices on December 24, 2009. This sort of insurance is good if you anticipate a possibility of the market declining, but you still want some “skin in the game” in the event the S&P 500 goes up between now and the end of the year.

We can repeat the same thought experiment, except asking ourselves if we wanted the right to sell your $100 of S&P500 for $90 by the end of 2010, a 10% loss. This insurance will cost you $6.14 to purchase.

The difference between these two values are $3.75.

What this practically means is you can bet the following ways (again, note I am indexing the value of the S&P 500 right now to 100 for the purposes of this post):

1. You can bet that the S&P 500 will not drop at the end of 2010. Reward for getting this right: $9.89 for $100 notional risk. Punishment for getting it wrong: $9.89 minus $1 for every $1 that the S&P goes below $100 at the end of 2010.

2. You can bet that the S&P 500 will not drop more than 10% at the end of 2010. Reward for getting this right: $6.14 for $100 notional risk. Punishment for getting it wrong: $1 for every $1 that the S&P goes below $90 at the end of 2010.

The “bets” to describe the results of predicting an S&P 500 level of 90 to 100 are a little more complicated to explain, but they can be done with portfolio insurance as well. Essentially you can feed any probability distribution into a model and have it crank out the optimal purchases/sales of options to correspond with your crystal ball forecasting.

Since I can’t forecast indexes, I’ll leave this to the gamblers. That’s what most option markets end up being. Right now, the option markets are saying that they expect volatility to be low, which keeps option prices low. This generally favours people that have strong beliefs that the markets will go rapidly in one direction or another.

Canadian government firing a warning shot on real estate

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty made a statement on December 18, 2009 regarding maximum amortization periods and down payment rates. While I don’t have a copy of the statement or speech made, the National Post has a fairly good summary.

The salient detail is that the finance ministry might change the guidelines and decrease the maximum amortization period of a mortgage (currently 35 years), and increase the minimum downpayment (currently 5%). It would be likely that 30 year mortgages with 10% down payments will be the new rule.

The federal government is probably realizing that the CMHC has guaranteed a ton of debt and in the event of a Canadian real estate meltdown that it would have to pay a very heavy bill as people begin to default on underwater mortgages – this would occur when incomes do not rise to match rising interest rates. Most of the Canadian banks would get away with the financial damage, while CMHC would be paying the bill.

CMHC does collect a one-time insurance premium, according to this schedule:

Loan-to-Value Premium on Total Loan Premium on Increase to Loan Amount for Portability and Refinance
Standard Premium Self-Employed without third Party Income Validation Standard Premium Self-Employed without third Party Income Validation
Up to and including 65% 0.50% 0.80% 0.50% 1.50%
Up to and including 75% 0.65% 1.00% 2.25% 2.60%
Up to and including 80% 1.00% 1.64% 2.75% 3.85%
Up to and including 85% 1.75% 2.90% 3.50% 5.50%
Up to and including 90% 2.00% 4.75% 4.25% 7.00%
Up to and including 95% 2.75% 6.00% 4.25%* *
90.01% to 95% —
Non-Traditional Down Payment
2.90% N/A * N/A
Extended Amortization Surcharges
Greater than 25 years, up to and including 30 years: 0.20%
Greater than 30 years, up to and including 35 years: 0.40%

So let’s pretend you buy some Yaletown condominium for $400,000 and decide to pay 5% down and a 35-year amortization.  Your insurance premium, with a verifiable income, is 3.15%, or about $12,000 for the right to have your bank protected in the event of you defaulting on the $380,000 mortgage.

If the rules change to 10% down and 30-year amortization, the CMHC premium goes down to 2.2%, or about $7,900 on a $360,000 mortgage.  Strictly looking at the premiums, it would suggest that changing to a 10%/30-year system would reduce defaults by 30%.

The problem deals with correlation – if one mortgage defaults, it is more likely that others will in a cascading line (mainly because CMHC will have to sell the property in order to recover as much of the defaulted loan as possible, depressing the market, and likely causing other strategic defaults).  It doesn’t matter what caused the default, but my prime hypothesis is when people go and get their 2% floating rate mortgages, when the Bank of Canada starts to raise rates in the middle of 2010, people will be facing double interest payments when they haven’t properly budgeted for it.

There is also the batch of people that got low 5-year fixed rate mortgages facing renewal – right now 5-year fixed rates are still at relatively low rates (3.8%) but the party will end.

The finance ministry is just trying to make sure the party ends slowly (by people paying off their high-leverage loans over a long period of time), instead of the cops coming in and storming the house (if people can’t pay the interest on their high-leverage loans and cause a cascading default).  Jim Flaherty probably knows this is a financial time bomb that can potentially go off if the wrong circumstances hits the economy, and is taking preventative medicine to do so.

CMHC mortgage bonds currently trade like fixed income government securities.  You can see a chart of mortgage bonds outstanding on this chart.

Should you take CPP at age 60?

Canadians that have been employed and contributed to the Canada Pension Plan currently have an option whether to take their pension at age 60, or wait until later before they start drawing benefits.

The general rule is that if you worked 35 of 42 years of your working career (i.e. from age 18 to 60 minus 7 low income years) at a full level of CPP contributions (in 2009 this implied a $46,200 salary) you will receive approximately $11,210 per year at age 65 as your CPP pension.

If you decide to take CPP when you hit the age of 60, you will be penalized 0.5% per month, or a 30% total sum; this will reduce your annual take-home to $7,847 per year. The advantage is that you get to collect $7,847 a year for five years, while in the scenario of taking CPP at age 65, you would receive nothing until reaching that age.

If you wait until you reach age 61, your penalty goes from 30% to 24% and this is not a 6% increase in benefits; it is actually (0.3-0.24/0.7) or a 8.57% difference.

Most commentators on this issue do a “breakeven age” analysis of CPP. While this is mathematically correct, even if your life expectancy is expected to be longer than 76.7 years (which is the breakeven age between taking CPP at age 60 vs. 65), there are two very relevant factors to take into consideration:

1. The guaranteed income supplement (GIS). If you have no other expected income at the age of 65, you will effectively be taxed on CPP income at the rate of 50% because for every dollar of CPP you earn, you will have your GIS reduced by 50 cents.

2. If you take CPP, if you ever work again, you no longer have to pay CPP, which is a 4.95% savings on your paycheque.

3. A dollar earned at age 60 is more useful than a dollar earned at age 65 simply because of the probability of dying goes higher and because money is easier to spend while (relatively) younger. This “quality of life” factor is almost never discussed.

The only reason one would want to delay taking CPP beyond the age of 60 is because they are expecting to make enough other supplemental income where the GIS clawback no longer becomes a factor and also that they have enough bottled income stashed away (i.e. through RRSPs) that they are in no need of money at the present moment. In this case, the expected lifespan of the individual becomes the primary determinant of when to take CPP.

All of this discussion does not discuss the rule changes that will be taking place for people taking CPP in 2012 and beyond. I have analyzed this previously. The rule changes will discourage people from taking CPP early.

Harvest Energy debenture liquidation

I noticed in my accounts today that the “D” series of Harvest Energy (6.4% coupon, maturity October 31, 2012) has been sold at 1.015 on the dollar. I set the order about a month after the takeover announcement.

At this price, the debentures have a current yield of 6.31% and an implied capital gain of -0.51%.

There is a floor price of 1.01 on the dollar because of the obligation of KNOC to purchase all debentures at this price; my sense of risk suggests that I should be liquidating them on the open market higher than the 1.01 repurchase price. I don’t want to wait two and three-quarters years to collect my money since I can probably reinvest the proceeds at a rate better than 5.8%.

The “E” series of trust units is a little trickier; its coupon is 7.25%, maturity on September 30, 2013. Right now it is at 1.0175 which is implying a current yield of 7.13% and a capital gain of -0.46%. It is priced relatively lower than the D series. If you assume the same yield valuation on the E series, you get a price of 1.045 on the debentures (current yield 6.94%, capital gain -1.15%) but the debentures will never trade that high. My liquidation point for the E series is between 1.015 and 1.045 and we will see if it gets there.

Harvest “G” is the longest duration and highest coupon (7.5%, maturity May 31, 2015) and it is trading at 1.026 currently. This is an implied current yield of 7.31% and a capital gain of -0.67%.

I will be happy to receive a premium over the 1.01 floor price and be rid myself of the debentures, preferably in the new tax year. I don’t like liquidating gains at the end of a tax year, but the price offered was too attractive. Fortunately, this liquidation also included my TFSA, which is now sitting at $13,000 for the end of this year.

I am also relatively pleased I can liquidate these things for a premium on the open market, mainly because if I had to submit instructions to my broker (in this case, Questrade), I have a sinking feeling that they would screw up the tendering or otherwise cause me to lose liquidity.

Harvest Energy takeover finalized

Harvest Energy has finalized their takeover with KNOC, so their units will be delisted as follows, per the press release:

As a result of the acquisition the Harvest trust units will be delisted from both the Toronto Stock Exchange (“TSX”) and the New York Stock Exchange (“NYSE”). The NYSE has advised that the trust units will cease trading on that exchange on or about December 23, 2009 and the TSX has advised that the trust units will cease trading on or about December 29, 2009.

This is an interesting delisting schedule, mainly because if you own the Canadian version of the units, you have a tax election. If you are sitting on unrealized losses, you want to liquidate the shares immediately so that way you can claim the capital losses on your 2009 tax return. If you are sitting on capital gains, you can defer capital gains taxes to your 2010 tax year by selling the units on December 28, 2009.

(Update: I had failed to account for the fact that December 28, 2009 was a statutory holiday in Canada and the exchanges were closed this day, but the trust units were still traded on December 29, 2009, which means the election above was still available.)

Canadian tax rules about year-end selling – Trade date vs. Settlement Date

(Update on the text below: IT-133 has been removed from the CRA’s website. Please read the December 31, 2012 article for further information.)

When you purchase or sell shares on a stock exchange, the current date is called the trade date. However, the actual transaction (the exchange of shares and cash) is processed in three business days, which is known as the settlement date. So for example, if you bought shares of something on Tuesday, December 8, the transaction is settled on Friday, December 11.

Computer networks and electronic processing of share transfers have made the three day requirement antiquated, but nobody has bothered to amend the rules.

One practical consequence of the three day settlement rule is determining which year a transaction was processed with respect to capital gains taxes. Take the practical example of selling shares for a $100 capital loss on December 30, 2009, with a settlement date of January 5, 2010. Do you report your $100 capital loss in your 2009 or 2010 tax filing?

The answer is 2010. Most financial publications out there correctly advise people that they have to dispose of their shares by December 24, 2009 in order to be able to book a capital loss (or gain) in the 2009 year. The trade will settle on December 31, 2009. A trade made on December 28, 2009 will settle on January 4, 2010. The reason is because both Christmas Day and Boxing Day are considered to be non-business days in Canada.

Most financial publications do not quote the source of the rules which governs this issue, mainly CRA Interpretation Bulletin IT-133. The rules using the settlement date was codified in this bulletin in 1973, which has survived to this very day.

As a final note, the USA uses a different system. For people filing with the IRS, they consider the trade date to be the year of disposition. The USA exchanges do not use Boxing Day as a non-business day, so trades performed on December 28, 2009 will settle on December 31, 2009.