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Stocks, bonds and what? People need to learn more about investing

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Financial literacy or a pair of shoes?

Last year I blogged about financial literacy in Canada.

Statistics about kids and adults are a little worrying when it comes to financial literacy. From new data, Americans aren’t much different. Studies show people need to do a lot more to become financially knowledgeable.

Juggling the egg

I recently overheard this: “What’s in your portfolio?”

Blank stare, and then: “I own XYZ.” (One of the biggest stocks in the U.S.)

That’s it. XYZ. Nothing else.

But wait! XYZ’s done great! It should go up forever or even longer.

Hmmmm … The thing is:

Those are the two “it’s different this time” ideas that have humbled investors since stock markets were born. Short-term thinking … People forget that the XYZ’s of this world have been a long interchange of different companies throughout investing history.

Do you really want one egg dictating your financial future?

Investing without diversification is potential financial suicide. (Or at least financial Russian roulette.)

Momentum is a marvelous thing when it’s on your side. But your worst enemy when the tide changes.

Ask former RIM, Palm, Nortel, Enron, Lehman Brothers investors.

If this had been your only stock, how would you have felt? What would have happened to your portfolio?

Know what you know:

Find out what you don’t know

According to the Investor Education Foundation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s study in the U.S.:

  • 67 per cent rated their financial knowledge as “high”

but,

  • Only 53 per cent answered this question correctly:

True or false: Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.

I doubt that most of these respondents were momentum traders trading single stocks. It’s more likely that the majority had no idea that this is one of the most important rules of wealth creation: Diversification.

  • Only 6% got the above question wrong, choosing “True.”

But,

  • 40% said they didn’t know the answer, and 1% declined to answer

Ouch.

Maybe it was just an anomaly.

Let’s try again:

If interest rates rise, what will typically happen to bond prices?

Rise? Fall? Stay the same?

No relationship?

  • Just 28 per cent answered correctly

Yes, they will usually fall.

  • 37 per cent didn’t know
  • 18 per cent said bond prices would rise if interest rates rise
  • 10 per cent said there’s no relationship between bond prices and interest rates
  • 5 per cent said bond prices would stay the same
  • 2 per cent said they preferred not to answer

Becoming a statistic can have long-term complications

Looking at these stats shows there’s a lot of financial illiteracy out there.

It’s a crime that financial literacy is not taught in high schools.

— Michael Finke, professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University/co-developer of the Financial Literacy Assessment Test, part of Ohio State University’s Consumer Finance Monthly survey.

(In Canada, things are changing.)

Can teachers help?

When asked about six personal financial planning concepts:

  • Fewer than 20 per cent of teachers and teachers-in-training said they felt “very competent” to teach those topics
  • Teachers felt least competent about saving and investing

   — 2009 survey of 1,200 K-12 teachers/prospective teachers National Endowment for Financial Education

What do you do if teachers don’t feel competent to teach financial literacy skills?

Governments …

  • Need to focus on helping teachers get these skills

or

  • Need to bring in outside help to assist in improving financial literacy skills

Agencies are doing their part in both the U.S. and Canada to raise awareness around financial literacy. They can’t do it alone:

  • Parents need to teach their kids about debt

But parents need to understand the dangers they’re trying to warn their kids about.

The consequences to our economy and economic future of financial illiteracy are immense. Championing long-lasting positive changes for kids (and adults) is important.

Those shoes were made for walking (but they could really cost you)

Study after study has shown that adults will spend more time focusing on buying a pair of shoes (or other purchase) than they will on their financial future.

Is this the legacy we want to leave our kids?

Find out more about diversification:

You don’t need to listen to Warren Buffett (if you’ve allocated your investment portfolio properly)

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

Get the balance right

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

Asset allocation: Diversification is king

How to be a smarter investor

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Part Three — Market volatility: Why and how to make it work for you

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In Part Two, I left off discussing benchmarks on investment returns.

Easy as ACB revisited

I stressed that such benchmarks only reveal how your investment would have done if you invested all of your funds at the beginning of the period. These benchmarks assume you were inactive during the time period you’re measuring, and you did zero rebalancing during 2008-2009 or other significant market corrections — exactly the periods of time when you should be (or should have been) more active.

While investors should have been rebalancing during 2009, research shows average investors freeze up during these times, or worse, sell.

The worst case scenario is that they sell heavily.

Let’s say you had a large cash position in your portfolio near the bottom in 2008-2009. New cash, profits you’d taken, whatever …

Now, let’s say you used that cash and bought equities around that time, which turned out to be the bottom or near the bottom of the correction. Your return would be considerably different. And this is why rebalancing is so important to the success of your investments, portfolio and retirement plan.

If you’d been following a sound rebalancing strategy, you would have bought during the downturn in 2008-2009 because your asset allocation would have drifted away from your plan.

Let’s use a simple illustration:

• You bought 50 shares (or units of a mutual fund ) at an average cost of $7

• Then you bought 10 shares at $5 (you were brave and when the market dropped 50 per cent in panic selling, you saw opportunity)

• You then continued to deploy your cash while the market was cheap and bought 10 shares at $6 (because of your rebalancing strategy, which you follow automatically. You bought while prices were cheap because your asset allocation had changed.)

• The market rose dramatically after this period and your asset allocation reached your target. You stopped buying.

So, your adjusted cost is:

50 @ 7= 350
10 @ 5 = 50
10 @ 6 = 60

Your total cost was $460. The price now is $7.
7 x 70 = $490

You now have profit of $30, called a capital gain.

In reality, your transactions will be more complicated, and there will be dividend payments in there somewhere. But the simplicity of this example shows us how following asset allocation strategies with your investments will help you lower your Average Cost Base (ACB).

Your equity component would have been, percentage-wise, less than it had been. Your allocation plan would have kicked in, and you would have bought the underperforming equity investments.

Even if you did this more gradually, before, during, and after the correction, it would have lowered your average cost.

One way for Joe and Josephine Average to get a leg up is to take advantage of what’s available to them. Tax-preferred or (deferred) investments and plans, and sound portfolio strategies included.

But research shows they don’t. Volatility spooks them, and sadly, this will cost the average investor over the long-term.

When I was a kid …

An older colleague I used to work with said the following, loosely paraphrased, about his lack of savings and investments in his youth: “When I was a kid, I was convinced I wouldn’t make it to forty.”

Heavy pause.

“I was wrong …”

I had asked him why he didn’t have an RRSP because I wanted to understand how he thought. He later added that he had lost a ton of money in real estate (Canadians seem to have forgotten the real estate crash that happened in 1989-1990 – Americans have had a harsh reminder).

Looking at real estate in this context reinforces my point of view on buying assets when they’re low. While it took residential real estate a long time to recover from ’89-’90, today’s real estate prices (supported by an extended period of low interest rates) prove that buying assets when they’re cheap is rewarding.

Yet nobody wanted residential real estate in ’89-’90, and many developers lost their livelihoods during that time.

Raising awareness, being startegic

Raising awareness about the investing habits of Joe and Josephine Average will help them over the long-term. They need to better educate themselves about market volatility and be more strategic in their approach to it.

While this is easier said than done, it is one of the reasons the Warren Buffetts do better than the Joe and Josephines when it comes to investing and financial planning.

Market volatility, understood properly, is your friend. Reminding yourself of this completely reframes the way you look at the market, your investments and corrections.

Maybe your friend goes a little berserk once in a while. Maybe he’s a little impatient or a little irrational at times, but he’s still your friend.

You know you can count on him when you’re down. Looking at market events this way, despite difficult times, puts you in control.

Just make sure the relationship is a long, diversified one.

Follow @JohnRondina

Part Two — Market volatility: Why and how to make it work for you

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In Part One, I discussed some differences between the 1 per cent and 99.

How do the 1 per cent differ from the 99 when it comes to market volatility? Is there something the average investor can learn?

I’m not trying to defend the 1 per cent. What I am trying to do is point out that the market is public and that market volatility leaves no one untouched. No stone unturned.

I’m not here to talk about tax inequality or to defend either side. People like Warren Buffett have done that. There have been arguments for and arguments against Buffett.

What I’d like to focus on is:

While the 1 per cent have better intelligence and more powerful networks when it comes to investing, there are strategies the 99 can use to get ahead. Strategies Warren Buffett and the 1 per cent have been using for a long time.

If you’re a long-term investor, you can own a lot of the same assets. Granted, you may not get these assets at the same transaction costs due to scale, but you can own assets that should enrich you over time.

Have the wealthiest people sold all of their assets? Doubtful.

Do they sell them after market declines?

Well, let’s look at this rationally.

  • You need to find a buyer in order to sell your shares (the sheer scale of owning billions in assets means it’s harder to find a buyer when you sell)1
  • Liquidating such assets might cause some significant tax implications2
  • Because of professional counsel, the 1 per cent are exposed to more and better research than average investors, leading to fewer knee-jerk reactions in the face of market events

There would be barriers to the 1 per cent selling their assets.

Taxes …

You can see at least three articles above discussing whether taxes on investments and the 1 per cent are too low. There is definitely a movement afoot to examine these issues.

Let’s set the 1 per cent aside for a minute.

Remember, Joe Average gets a break on taxation for certain investments, too. So does his partner, Josephine. They may not get as big a break, but they do get a break.

They get a deduction for contributing to an RRSP. They get tax-free earnings in a TFSA. If they’re invested in dividend-paying equities outside of an RRSP or TFSA, they get tax-preferred income from those dividends.

Advice

Because the wealthy have the means to get good counsel when it comes to their investments and financial planning strategies, we can assume that those professionals counsel their clients:

  • To avoid panic selling
  • To rebalance regularly and systematically

Joe and Joe and Market Volatility

Now, what about Josephine and Joe Average? Are they taking advantage of the better prices presented through market volatility?

After the 2008-2009 correction, did the average investor take advantage of some of the cheapest prices we’ve seen in a generation? Is the average investor taking advantage of cheaper prices now?

Research says no. (Like to explore this idea further? I blogged about it in “Don’t Panic”.)

People concentrate on returns over a given period of time. But such assessments assume that you invested your money all at one time at the beginning of the period. How many investors do that?

Easy as ACB

Your Adjusted Cost Base (ACB), basically, how much you paid as you bought an investment, is a much more realistic measurement of how you’re doing.

If the broad market’s down 20 per cent, and you’re ACB is showing that your investment in a broad-based mutual fund or ETF has broken even, e.g. the investment’s price is 10 and your ACB is 10, you’ve done great.

Why? Because you’ve outperformed the market over the same period.

How did you accomplish this? By using excellent rebalancing strategies.

Of course, if you’ve had a more conservative position, you have to realize that when the market turns around, the broad index may start outperforming with respect to your investment. Your rebalancing plan will help with this, and sticking to that plan will help even more.

Figuring out who you are as an investor is important.

In Part Three, I’ll continue, focusing more on long-term strategy with a simple illustration of why that focus will make you a better investor.

Notes:

1The 1 per cent tend to buy shares of companies more than they buy mutual funds. Diversification isn’t as big a deal for them. They have the means to buy enough shares and still be adequately diversified. This isn’t true of the average investor. Some market experts say you should have at least a million dollars to invest to be adequately diversified when holding stocks. Others disagree. It’s true that the fewer companies you hold, the less diversified you are, and the more risk you’re taking on. Employees that held most of their investments in Enron or Nortel found this out the hard way when the stocks collapsed3.

2Taxation is another reason why the 1 per cent sell their holdings, e.g., experts have suggested Steve Jobs’ heirs sell their shares in Apple to avoid over $800 million in tax liabilities.

3More evidence for diversification comes by way of Bill Gates example. While he has significant wealth in Microsoft shares, he holds a lot of Berkshire Hathaway in order to further diversify his holdings. Forbes claims that more than half of Gates wealth is held outside Microsoft stock.

Follow @JohnRondina

Wait a minute. There’s some good news re the markets?

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It’s all bad news, right?

Nope. Surprise, surprise. And it’s on the upside.

Pour this latest data into your glass and see if it looks half-full.

Panic and pessimism may usher in a market rise (It’s happened before. It’ll happen again.)

Contrarians love all the bad news. To them, it means we’re closer to good news as they wait for the point of maximum pessimism. But maybe we’ve already hit that point?

  • Inventory levels in the U.S. are low.
  • Stocks look cheap. Compare U.S. equities to U.S. bond yields. Dividends look great and promise more than bonds currently.
  • In the U.S., the fall in housing prices and low financing costs have created the most affordable housing climate in decades.

When could “mean” be green?

All things revert to a mean, don’t they? Usually, when someone says it’s different this time, it’s exactly the same as last time.

  • Bonds have beat the pants off stocks over the past 10 years. The last time equities were performing like this was the 1970s. Since this is true, bonds have become overvalued relative to stocks.
  • It’d be an understatement to mention that investors are increasingly risk averse. Panic is prevalent — especially in the news. In the face of this: Corporations continue to show financial strength and profitability. U.S. dividend payments continue to rise paying investors to wait.
  • The market went through the roof last week at an agreement to agree to agree in Europe. Looks like a ton of pent-up demand. The will for the markets to go higher is there. But investors who weren’t already in the markets had little chance to get in. Things just moved way too fast. Sitting on the sidelines may leave the average investor sitting on the sidelines.

What will be the impetus for markets to rise?

If governments stimulate again, we could see a big push in equity markets. There’s value in the markets. Stick to your plan.

Filter out the noise. Focus on the facts. Find the candles burning in the doom and gloom.

How many times have you heard someone say: I wish I’d bought shares in XYZ Corp.? Isn’t it funny that when companies are at big discounts, only the few and the brave want to go shopping?

When it comes to the markets, it’s often looked darkest before the dawn. But the facts above may be the lantern to help light your way.

Updates:

Prem Watsa of Fairfax Financial sees value in the market in the guise of RIM and doubles stake

Frank Mersch of Front Street Capital says stock market’s showing value and is cheap

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.

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