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A question every investor should ask: What happens if the world doesn’t end?

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Learn to harness your fear

Remember a few months ago when the economic news was so bad that optimism seemed naive?

Well …

Markets the world over made solid gains in January.

Have a look at this recent article. Negative investor sentiment is occurring at the same time as the best January in the markets since 1987.

The markets often climb significant walls of worry. Sometimes, it pays to focus on bad investor sentiment and use it as a contrarian indicator.

In “Wait a minute. There’s some good news re the markets?” I blogged about how investors often miss the good news flying below the radar.

Many people have been burned by the excesses of credit mania, culminating in the market implosion of the financial crisis.

Humans in all walks of life sometimes give in to greed. Exuberance and fear are flip sides of a coin forged at the beginning of time.

I posted some stark stats in “Why you should consider new investments now”.

Why post negative stats? Because, while end-of-the-world scenarios might sell bytes of information in the short-term, they don’t do much for the average investor who’s trying to be strategic about long-term investing.

The starkness of information can be helpful.

Ask yourself a simple question:

When the market takes a substantial dip, generally, is there more chance that it’ll rise or keep falling on average?

Bad news gets the big, black ink (or bytes)

There are always going to be onslaughts of bad news. Good news rarely gets the big, black ink of the headlines until the story’s over. In between, you need to manage your fear.

You need to think strategically.

In “Don’t Panic”, I went into greater detail about managing fear while investing. Learning to harness your fear as an investor will go a long way toward helping you create an intelligent plan of action when it comes to investing and financial planning.

Again, in “The grand parade of future dividends “, I discussed how corporations were increasing dividends (good news for investors) and ended with the question:

“What happens if the world doesn’t end?”

While Canada is experiencing higher unemployment, the U.S., recently written-off as a basket case, just posted strong employment numbers.

What people keep forgetting, is that business, economic news, and the process of investing is fluid. Some get so used to bad news that they forget good news exists.

Until January, there wasn’t a big focus on the positive. But whispers of good news were there if you read between the lines (or read more than just the headlines).

Now, was it really a good idea to sit on the sidelines as an investor during all that bad news? And is the bad news over?

Well, here’s the thing:

We’ve come through a tough time. We’re not out of the woods yet, but if you’ve been sticking to a sound investing plan, you’ve taken advantage of the weakness in the market.

The bad news about being an inactive investor in 2011

If you’ve been sitting in cash only:

  • You’ve missed a very nice rise in the bond markets

and

  • A great opportunity to reallocate investments to stocks

Risk applies to low-paying GICs just as much as it does to equities or real estate.

In this case, low-paying GICs weren’t much of a safe haven when compared to the Altamira Income Fund, or even the broad Globe Fixed Income Peer Index.

Sitting in GICs can cost you.

So, when you consider the past year would’ve been:

  • A great time to buy equities at lower prices

and

  • That bond funds significantly outperformed the GIC index *

… it pays to ask this question again:

What happens if the world doesn’t end?

The case for bonds against ...

... GICs. (Over five years)

Click here for more about bonds and fixed income investments.

Click below for more about asset allocation and reallocation strategies:

Get the balance right

A simple way to arrive at the right asset allocation for your portfolio

Plan like a pension fund manager when it comes to your investment portfolio

Let’s think about assets

Asset allocation: Diversification is king

* Many criticize bond funds for their higher fees as compared to ETFs, but for many average investors they are the easiest way to get a diversified bond portfolio since not every investor has a trading account.
* You should also note that since bonds have significantly outperformed, they may not perform as well over the next few years. A balanced portfolio is the best way to ensure consistent outperformance while minimizing risk.
Note: Fund/funds used here are only for illustrative purposes.
Chart source: Globe Investor

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Part Two — Bonds: Why you should love the unloved investment

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Count bonds. Forget about sheep.

5-year chart comparing Canadian government bonds and the S&P/TSX 60

In the two years before the financial crisis, government bonds underperformed. Stock markets were hitting all-time highs and few investors were interested in bonds. However, as the risk premium for stocks was rising and stock indices in Canada and the U.S. were hitting highs, shrewd investors were reallocating their portfolios to include more bonds.

Bonds were unloved, but they were cheap, and when stock markets came down in a hurry, bonds acted like the buffers they are: they rose while stocks were coming down in portfolios.

The case for bonds in a portfolio as a permanent asset seems pretty solid. Let’s take a look at the last six months.

6-month chart comparing Canadian government bonds and the S&P TSX 60

Over the last six months, stocks have finally gone into a correction. Stocks have been incredibly buoyant since the bottom of the 2009 crisis and have performed very well. But corrections are a normal part of the investing landscape. Corrections are healthy since they clean out the speculative element in the market periodically. Investors, on the other hand, especially average investors, aren’t huge fans of volatility.

Looking at the chart over the last six months, we can see that government bonds turned up as the markets headed down. Bonds are doing what they do, once again: smoothing out returns by acting like insurance in your portfolio.

Equities hit home runs, but bonds keep you from crashing into the catcher’s mitt and getting called out at the plate.

Equities should outperform bonds in the next few years because bonds have made out well recently, but good diversification together with prudent asset allocation suggest the average investor should have some bonds in the asset mix. Recent news has shown us how commodities and stock markets can change direction in a hurry.

The debt situations in Europe and the U.S. illustrate the importance of having Canadian bonds in a diversified portfolio. Canadian bonds are in a good place when it comes to quality these days.  Just when many were saying Canadian bond returns had peaked and there was no future investing in them, boom, sovereign debt issues exploded in the media – again. Both recent history and the last few days are excellent reminders of why bonds have a place in the average investor’s portfolio.

Canadian government bonds may not work in a get-rich-quick scheme, yet when it comes to your portfolio, it pays to think. Think of bonds as insurance. Think of bonds before you go to sleep. In times of volatility, count bonds and forget about the sheep.

Part One is here.

Update: Foreign investors are also loving the unloved investment in Canada.

Bonds: Why you should love the unloved investment

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Over the last couple of years bonds have been unloved. Interest rates have bottomed. Equities are historically cheap. The economy’s getting better.

Why debate any of the above? Surely, there’s some truth to these statements, and if you pay any attention to the financial news, you’ve heard them all.

Despite the lack of love for bonds, here are some reasons to hold bonds close to your heart through thick and thin, but especially through thin.

In 2009, when it seemed the earth had opened up and was swallowing investors and their portfolios whole, what did bonds do? They did what they’re supposed to do. Bonds acted like investment insurance. Bonds digested the increasingly bad news and turned that news into concrete returns. Interest rates plunged as governments moved to respond to economic fears, some rational, others less so.

Bonds or GICs?

How did bonds do vs. GICs?

The chart compares the Dex All Government Bond Index with 1-year GICs. Over three years, the bond index outperformed GICs by about 14 per cent. That’s roughly seven times the return. If you were invested in an ETF or a mutual fund holding Canadian government bonds, you would have made out well. And your investment would have been more liquid since GICs generally tie-up your money for the period you’ve agreed to invest for.

Stocks or bonds?

Bonds vs. equities

Over four years, if we compare bonds and stocks using the Dex Bond Index and the S&P TSX 60 Total Return Index, which includes dividends, we see that bonds outperformed. Of course, considering that the correction of 2009 was one of the deepest since the depression era, this isn’t much of a surprise. Bonds returned about 22 per cent while the S&P TSX 60 returned about three per cent over that period. It was an excellent period of outperformance for bonds.

The last few years, the financial media has been full of stories about why bonds won’t be the best of investments in the future. True. Bond prices are historically high at the moment, but every story should include that bonds tend to insure a portfolio – and they should always be part of a proper portfolio. Because they outperform, as demonstrated by the charts, when the stock market gets beaten down (see the financial crisis of 2009), bonds should always have their place in your portfolio.

No bonds? Your tolerance for risk had better be high. Bonds outperform when times are tough, and as bond assets rise they take some of the edge off the equities that are falling in your portfolio.

Why does this bond outperformance happen? Because during tough times, investors put their money in high quality investments like government bonds. Governments also tend to lower interest rates during times of financial turmoil. When interest rates go down, bonds become more valuable because the rates of interest they pay are more valuable when compared to new issues carrying lower interest rates. And that’s exactly what happened over the last four years. Bonds went from underperforming equities to outperforming them as jittery investors jumped into the asset class, and governments lowered interest rates in order to provide liquidity during the crisis.

Want to see a great infographic about bonds? (Somewhat U.S.-centric but still educational.)

111702-MINT-BOND

Stay tuned for Part Two.

Infographic: mint.com

Bad news, gold and dividends: When it’s pouring through the roof – what’s pouring into your portfolio?

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In “Gold Riot”, I wrote about gold , discussing how it might be overvalued. My post was a little early.

We recently saw a couple of interesting days in the gold market while silver corrected heavily. It’s rarely a good time to take a position in a commodity after an enormous run up. After all, when investments get sold off, there are some powerful players out there, and they can cause some big price movements. For example, Goldman Sachs.

Some investors are now taking positions at better prices, still, the behaviour of gold and other metals has melted some hearts. Newbie investors heavy on silver must have had some palpitations during the spectacular volatility.

With everyone talking about gold, and with it seemingly pouring bad economic news at the moment, how do dividend stocks fit into the picture?

My focus is more on average investors than speculators, and the average investor generally has less of a stomach for volatility. Many investors aren’t even aware there’s quite a difference between gold stocks and gold bullion and how they both perform. There’s a lot more volatility in gold stocks, and gold stocks’ performance is based on the outlook of the underlying companies. (For more on this, see the above link “Gold Riot”.)

While silver was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons, dividend-paying stocks have outperformed. “Get paid to wait” is the mantra of investors in dividend-payers. During difficult periods of volatility, those dividends are smoothing out some of the volatility in price movements. When comparing the iShares Dow Jones Canadian Select Dividend Index to gold as a commodity, gold still did pretty well if you bought early, however, many bought very late — rarely a good thing. It would have been better to wait for a correction.

iShares Dow Jones Canadian Select Dividend Index Fund, S&P TSX Global Gold Index and XIU (nearly a proxy for the S&P TSX 60)

Many investors don’t have the time or don’t want to spend the time glued to the markets. While nothing is ever guaranteed with any investment, dividend-paying stocks will give you a little more comfort. The highs may not be as high, but the lows are also not quite as low.

When news is uniformly bad, remember that stream of dividend payments pouring into your portfolio. The managements’ of dividend-paying companies believe enough in their businesses to share some of the wealth with you.

So how did these asset classes make out? Dividend-paying stocks returned more than 10 per cent while gold stocks were down 15 per cent over the last year. Gold stocks have disconnected from bullion for now as regards performance. It happens.

Bullion had a good return at about 18 per cent but with a lot more volatility than dividend-payers. Gold stocks are potentially even more volatile. My target audience is more the average investor, so I won’t over complicate this — gold bullion has had a lot of its recent increase because of bad economic news — this is a bit of a simplification. More is involved in the price of gold, but does the average investor need complication? What is important is that if the news outlook changes, so might the performance of gold.

Remember, if you own a broad-based Canadian equity fund, it probably has somewhere between 15 – 20 per cent of its holdings in gold or other mining stocks. How much gold do you want?

Better yet, how much gold does a proper weighting allow for? If you’re not a speculator, keep your gold holdings manageable at 5 – 10 per cent of your total portfolio. A good fund manager has a lot of intelligence when making decisions on gold stocks. Do you? If you’ve decided to hold a significant weighting in gold stocks or bullion, you have become a speculator. Do you have time to watch your holdings with the eye of a fund manager or a speculator? Probably not.

An investor holds shares in a business and shares in business ownership. The average investor would do better thinking like a business owner rather than a speculator.

Success in succession planning

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Planning is the key

 

There is no Superman.

If you’re in business, you need to plan for the worst. What would you do if your partner in business died or became disabled? Your business would feel it. A key player is gone or unable to contribute to the business. How might this affect your business, income, retirement?

Worth thinking about, isn’t it?

A thoughtful business

First of all, a well-crafted buy-sell agreement is crucial. You need a set of ground rules in case of conflict. You need a buy-sell agreement so that you can engage in a mutually beneficial relationship with your partner. You and your co-owner need to set down the rules of your business. That way there will be little to surprise you. Protected by identical rules in case of the unforeseen, you’ll both be secure in that eventualities will have been thought of, and a system will be in place to deal with them.

An accord

Within a buy-sell agreement, there are clear rules for succession whether due to death or other events. The agreement will benefit the interests of all shareholders. Without a buy-sell, your business, your income and your family could face difficult circumstances. A buy-sell establishes secure commitments and responsibilities for buyers, sellers and heirs. With a proper agreement, you can feel secure that provisions have been made for triggering events.

Death, disability, divorce, retirement, bankruptcy or discord between co-owners are all critical life events affecting a business. Plan and you will grow.

Insure there are no “what ifs”

Your partner dies. Now where do you get the funds to acquire his part of the business? What if there are many partners? You may have enough money to buy the outstanding shares, but is your money liquid? What if you had to sell assets at a bad time?

As you can see, it’s important to have options. Borrowing money is a possibility, but you’ve got to pay the loan back with interest. After tax dollars that can’t be deducted are rarely the best way to go.

Insurance policies provide many empowering options. They are a fairly inexpensive way to have the funds on hand. The policy will guarantee that there is cash available in a lump sum when the triggering event occurs.

Assuring continuity

If your buy-sell agreement is funded by insurance, you will be liquid at the exact time you need to be. Your business survives the loss that can occur due to forced liquidation, death or disability.

The buy-sell provides direction to remove the risk of friction from surviving owner(s) or heirs, and provides for continuity in the operation of the business. Furnishing life insurance to diminish business debt or offsetting a shortage in sales because of the death of a co-owner or other key person in the business can be structured into the agreement.

Planning is fundamental. Why wait for a catastrophe? Get effective insurance protection. Eliminate insecurity.

There is nothing to fear, but the lack of planning and preparation.

Gold riot

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Warren Buffett’s thoughts on gold or how looking at the return on gold might reduce the glitter

The riot over gold has calmed down a little, however, there is still significant interest in the metal. An interesting perspective on gold comes by way of value investor par excellence, Warren Buffet.

Will all the gold that glitters glitter less?

There is no denying gold has had a great run. What people forget when gold performs spectacularly is that it has often caused investors an enormous amount of pain as well. Gold is volatile. It soars, but it has also come down very hard throughout its history – part of the reason that most recommendations limit gold to about 5 per cent of a portfolio (in order to smooth out volatility).

Gold has performed very well this year and over the last few. The S&P/TSX Global Gold Index has doubled the S&P/TSX 60 this year. But gold’s performance comes with a lot more volatility. The fact that gold is such a big sector within the Canadian stock market has been advantageous this year. Gold often kept the Canadian market buoyant when other stocks turned downward. It acted as kind of a built in hedge. However, should gold turn south in a significant way, it will also hold the Canadian market back because of its large weighting. In fact, by just holding an index fund or ETF tracking the S&P/TSX 60, you have about 20 per cent exposure to the materials sector, and, a large portion of that is in gold. The broad Canadian market has a lot of gold exposure already.

Unfortunately, gold is on everyone’s tongue lately.

But what does Buffett say about gold?

Gold just sits there

Buffet has become wealthy by being a value investor. He believes in goods and services and buying the undervalued companies that deal in them.

If you don’t listen to Warren Buffett at some level, you’re odd. Whether pundits agree with him or not, his opinion is focused on and respected. Buffett says there is no place for gold in his portfolio – intriguing, because, unlike Canadian investors who have seen appreciation in their currency, Americans have been dealing with a declining dollar, resulting in the rush to gold as a hedge against devaluation. Throw in the troubles in the world economy, the devaluation of the Euro, etcetera, etcetera, and the rush to gold isn’t exactly surprising.

Buffett’s logic on the metal is definitely interesting. He thinks gold is useless.

That’s right. Useless.

Buffet on gold:

“(Gold) gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.”

Ah, the Ziggy Stardust gold analysis …

In Fortune, Buffett recently said:

“You could take all the gold that’s ever been mined, and it would fill a cube 67 feet in each direction. For what that’s worth at current gold prices, you could buy all — not some — all of the farmland in the United States,” Buffett said. “Plus, you could buy 10 Exxon Mobils, plus have $1 trillion of walking-around money. Or you could have a big cube of metal. Which would you take? Which is going to produce more value?”

A very, very interesting illustration …

Buffett has stayed consistent with his messaging on gold.

  • Expensive to store
  • Has no practical use
  • Doesn’t generate income

Of course, some of the large players that mine gold do generate income, but Buffet’s talking more about buying the metal itself.

The S&P/TSX Gold Index has done very well in the last ten years. It has returned about four times the S&P/TSX 60. However, during the dog days of the financial crisis, it collapsed along with everything else, and that collapse wiped out all gains since about 2002. Gold has recovered spectacularly since then though not without some equally spectacular volatility. Without a doubt, placing a big bet on gold increases risk immensely. If you’re looking to steer away from volatility, putting more than 5% of your portfolio into gold could leave you with a nasty surprise.

Gold stocks, because of their leveraged positions with respect to gold perform even better than the metal, generally, yet that outperformance goes the other way in a hurry at times. So, gold stocks can be a great hedge, but they also have some explosive volatility built into them – volatility which can go either way faster than most people can monitor.

The big question is which way will gold go in the near future? And, how much has the risk premium for holding gold increased?

For Canadian investors, this question doesn’t hinge on a declining currency. Our market has a huge piece of gold already. If you own the broad market, you’re already exposed to gold. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. In the last ten years, it’s been a great thing, but all good things come to an end. Are we closer to the end of gold’s aggressive increases or is there still room to shine?

For the average Canadian investor, if you just own the broad market you have exposure to gold and its advantages. At the same time, should gold have a significant correction, you’ll feel it.

Buffett’s comments on holding gold bullion (even though it’s easier to do with ETFs now) bear some thought. Expensive to store. No practical use. No income.

Looking for value makes one a big fan of dividend-paying investments. Canadians already have exposure to gold. Would you take a flyer on gold at these prices? Such an idea may have lost its sheen.

If you are a trader, that’s one thing, but if you are an investor, polishing gold may leave less of a glimmer lately.

Now, if there were a significant correction in gold, that would change things, but right now gold looks like its bumping its head on a ceiling. Whether that will be temporary or longer lasting depends on many different interconnected moving parts within the economy.

The questions it’s prudent to ask yourself with every investment are:

  • Am I likely to get the same return on my investment next year?
  • Will I get even half of that return?
  • Am I using sensible portfolio approaches regarding the construction of my investment portfolio?

A portfolio of gold stocks I was looking at recently has returned over 70 per cent year-over-year. The broad market has returned less than a third of that. Over 50 per cent of that return has come in the last six months. Recently, this portfolio has pulled back 6 per cent – and it is a broad portfolio that has increased over 800 per cent over the last ten years.

Is it cheap? Does a correction of 6 per cent add much value? …

Not exactly a huge pullback.

Every Canadian investor who holds the broad market holds gold. Loading up on gold may not be the best of all portfolio moves. At this point in time, Canadian investors find themselves in a different situation compared to their American counterparts.

The gold rush may not be over but there certainly are a lot of people panning in the stream.

 

For an update on gold stocks, gold bullion and dividend-paying stocks click here.

Asset allocation: Diversification is king

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The king and you

Invest in different asset classes, across geographies, sectors and styles, and the impact of any one investment on your portfolio is diminished. Most investors, especially new investors, worry about poor performance but forget about the importance of diversification.

For example, if your only investment is your house, then you’re not very diversified. Ask anyone who was overloaded in U.S. residential real estate about how lack of diversification can negatively affect your portfolio.

These days diversifying is easier than ever. You can invest in real estate, international stock and bond markets, emerging markets and commodities. You don’t have to simply depend on domestic stock and bond markets as much as investors once did.

But what is important is considering the risk/reward features of these asset classes. You don’t want to invest too little or too much in any one asset.

The challenge of asset selection

The number of investments available today is truly staggering. Individual stocks and bonds, mutual funds, ETFs and managed accounts are only a few of the types of investment options. If you want to manage risk well, you have to evaluate how each investment will impact your portfolio.

Benchmark indices help financial professionals gauge the performance of their assets under management. Some investments are designed to very nearly track these indices. Many exchange-traded funds seek to offer investors nearly the same performance as indices.

Individual securities or actively managed funds hold out the potential to outperform the indices they are based on. However, these investments rarely do outperform. And they often carry higher risk and higher management fees that are a detriment to an investor’s overall portfolio depending on the extent of an investors understanding of markets, and the level of advice she may need.

Determining the level of risk you are comfortable with is crucial. Mixing index and active investments into your portfolio will benefit you when it comes to the end result of achieving your objectives.

Rebalancing

Rebalancing your investments is key. Periodically, investors should review their portfolios and re-assess their investments and long-term goals. Often, this requires selling your best-performing investments along with the discipline to execute your plan.

“Buy low and sell high” may be the mantra investors want to follow, but for many, it’s easier said than done. Risk management best practices suggest that an investor must pay just as much attention to selling high as buying low. Getting overly greedy after a good run in the markets is dangerous to your portfolio.

By rebalancing, you can stay on track. Proper asset allocation helps you stick to your risk/return objectives. Although this sounds easy on paper, it’s not. Systematizing the rebalancing process is one of the most important processes of a sound investment plan.

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