Thursday, September 24, 2009

7 months later...

Well, it's been about a year since credit markets were frozen.

Last year at around this time, the economy, bond market and stock market went into a dramatic freefall. After a brief rally, the so called 'bottom' of the decline in major stock markets was reached in March.

Throughout this time, the Canadian corporate bond market has been robust and bountiful to the interested and savvy investor.

The nay sayers, who would not alter course and abandon the common perception of bonds vs. Stocks and asset mixing as I've suggested here on this blog have experienced a whirlwind.

Imagine losing half of your portfolio in 6 months and regaining half of your losses over the next 6 months.

You would now be left with 75% from the peak of your net worth. After the rebound, a large amount of investors who follow the common asset mixes are looking at their portfolios and realizing, over the long term, a total return of approximately 0%. This means they have made up all of their losses but have experienced no long term return on all of their savings.

They are still on thin ice and are simply praying that the current market rally (which suffered a one day loss today in Toronto of about 2%) continues on an aggregate pace of 7-10% growth a year from this point till the end of Barack Obama's second term.

No one seems to have learned that they could have been guaranteeing that return at a minimum for the next ten years if they had focused on the corporate debt market in Canada through this past 12 months.

So what specifically has happened in the Canadian bond market that you haven't been hearing about in the mainstream press?

1) investment grade corporate bonds, which dropped to their lowest value in march, along with the stock market, have increased in average prices, from the bottom in march, (and dropped in average percentage yield of interest payments) by approximately 50%. This is already the largest one-time rally in the Canadian corporate debt market's history. It's still not as exciting as technology stocks, or the 100% return some Canadian Financial common stock investors have seen, but tech stocks rarely pay dividends and bonds offer a guarantee and security over and above any shareholder. Investment grade corporate bonds have also been paying interest rate coupons at comparable yields to common bank stocks in Canada.

2) Throughout the entire financial crisis, companies which came to the large financial institutions in Canada and asked to borrow money in the form of corporate debt (senior debt instruments, convertible bonds, callable bonds and to a certain extent preferred shares) were consistently able to secure large financing from every major bank. What this means is that every bank had enough spare money lying around to give it to a corporation that wanted to issue bonds (anywhere from $75 million to $3 billion). The banks, having received the bonds and the right to the interest payments in exchange for all that money would create a secondary market, where the large institutional investors had first bids on everything and the retail bond desks would be stocked with the remains which are divided amongst the different brokerage houses. Throughout this process the banks are able to extract commissions and fees, further lining their already government secured pockets. This is how the corporate debt market functions in Canada (and typically throughout the capitalist world) and it is important to note that throughout the entire financial crisis it continued to function in much the same way it always does.

3) The devil is in the details. You have to follow the news and be in contact with a competent financial advisor to truly understand the current situation we find ourselves in now and the situation described above leading up to the present time. Even if the bond market in Canada was able to withstand a sell-off and rebound sharply without freezing overnight, like in the US and throughout the world, it's important to know why the bond market was selling off and what the likely consequences were for all asset classes. You need to be able to act on your knowledge of interest rate trends if you want to get good quality bonds at a discounted price or attractive yields from undervalued companies.

4) i) If corporate bonds sell off dramatically (this is what happened in september-march): it means the investing world is deeply concerned about the future profitability of entire sectors of the economy, yields will rise- a good time to buy (especially if you don't want to put money into the stock market, you'll get guaranteed stock market sized returns (7%+) for 5-10 years. Ps. The people who are worried are not investors, they are speculators.

ii) If corporate bonds stage a dramatic rally, like they have from March until the present time: it brings companies into the marketplace which would have otherwise been intimidated by all the speculation to pay back extra capital in a time of recession. Essentially, companies have been looking at the actions of central bankers to provide financial institutions with emergency money and ultra cheap loans (sometimes financed by the printing of money in the case of at least the US and the UK) and have gained confidence that they will be able to make all the necessary interest payments and have enough money to repay or refinance the principal. The Canadian bond market is a prime example of this virtuous circle playing itself out. Now endangered companies like Air Canada and the airline rewards company Aeroplan have been able to come to the big banks of Canada (in coordination with other financial institutions), and ask for loans knowing the banks still have money to keep financing their operations through the recession. A good time to buy safe investments that offer higher interest payments than government bonds.

iii) While the stock market has provided the ultimate thrill of a lifetime for someone who bought and held a portfolio of common stocks in March or early April, for someone who had the misfortune to invest at anytime in the last ten year period, they are still at approx. 0% total return, despite the wild ride since March.

Where will corporate debt (and the stock market) move? If history is any indication (which it is often not) then the economy may very well resume a period of robust growth and the stock markets of the West may continue to rise. Debt markets will likely offer similar and slowly diminishing yields in Canada during the initial periods of recovery. Unfortunately, this could also mean that all the extra money that was created actually makes its way into the economy. Basically the cost of everything starts rising because there are simply too many corporations with too much money bidding up the price of their business inputs which leads to higher costs for the consumer. The federal bankers of the world are often quoted as saying that they have learned from the past and know now when to remove money from the economy (meaning they raise interest rates on government loans and bonds and end loan programs) They are now often being criticized for being too focused on inflation, when they have been ignoring asset bubbles, but that isn't the main point. The main point is that past experience has showed government stimulus to create growth but to also create inflation, which destroys wealth. We are essentially forced to take Ben Bernanke and Mark Carney at their word each time they talk about the economy and the intentions of their respective institutions.

So if we listen to what they say it's simple:

The economy has bottomed; there is some small growth in GDP expected in the future based on the current economic situation. There is still a great deal of printed money and government spending floating throughout the financial systems and trickling down into the general economy. The economy would likely not be growing and might still be experiencing a decline of unknown severity without government spending. The good news is that for the time being, the government spending has acted in the fashion that it was intended (to create movement of capital and stabilize businesses through debt instruments). This will likely bring renewed earnings, private investment and spending which will grow the economy with the hope of creating employment.

The difficulty lies in the removal of government spending. Too soon and credit markets could suffer- actually a good time to buy investment grade bonds again. Although it could mean ongoing unemployment, prolonged recession and another big downturn in the stock market. Too late removing money and raising interest rates and we wind up right where we were last year: unsustainable asset bubbles propped up by artificially low interest rates that suffer a bi-polar, calamitous and destructive collapse requiring radical intervention- a great time to buy, after the collapse.

I've never seen a central banker in the modern era that even remotely resembled Goldilocks to me. But we, as the citizens and investors of this world, are left with no choice but to hope they get it right.

You expose yourself unnecessarily to the risk of another decade of 0% or worse if you ignore the bond market.

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