Ontario Covid Update – Jan 12

January 12th, 2021 by Potato

Ontario provided its updated figures and modelling for covid today. The slides are available here if you want to look at the data without squinting at the video.

It’s not all that unexpected — I was sketching vaguely similar curves and worried about what an even more contagious version might do. But hearing it made real was just crushing. Covid’s on track to challenge heart disease and cancer for the top cause of death in Ontario this year (and will make the top 10 easy). And the strain on the hospital system is delaying treatments (esp. surgeries) which will make those other conditions worse.

But the big, not entirely surprising bad news is the hospital system and ICU beds: we’re just about out of empty ones, and the curve is still rapidly going up and to the right. Surgeries are being cancelled (again), and we’re not far off from very painful decisions about what happens if there’s a car accident.

One thing that’s crushing is that we were so close to getting to zero in the summer, and just opened back up a few weeks too early, without the testing and tracing capabilities ready. Still, the cases were low, everyone had stocked up on masks, and I genuinely thought we could get back to normal-ish with masks, handwashing, and social distancing*. I signed up for curling, expecting we would get a season, esp. with the modified rules of play (everyone wears masks, and things like using one sweeper to maintain 2 m between players at all times) — I had my mask rotation all planned out, and even got contact lenses so my glasses wouldn’t fog up. Schools reopened, and we kind of talked about how important that was for parents to be able to go back to work.

Then the cases started rising in the fall, and we did nothing about it until we’re now finding the hospital capacity getting crushed again. More people are going to lose their dads and other loved ones to cancer because surgeries had to get postponed, again.

I’m depressed and angry and just crushed at the whole thing.

I’m also a touch confused. They showed some data about how many people were moving around — people going to work has stayed steady since the summer, even as Toronto, Peel, and York went into lockdown (code red or grey or whatever). How there was a big spike in people visiting other residences at Christmas (to the surprise of no one). But I haven’t heard much on contact tracing and explaining what’s behind all the transmission. Are masks and handwashing and social distancing working, but some people aren’t compliant, and it’s that movement that’s the problem? Is it schools or workplaces or superspreader weddings? A little bit of everything adding up?

For most of those questions there isn’t much I can do on a personal level. I’ve tried to cut out contact with the outside world as much as possible, stretching out the time between grocery trips to two weeks or so, and our social circle is a completely closed bubble of 5 people. Wayfare has been making homemade masks since the beginning, and she did a lot of research on the best patterns and designs. They’re 3 layers, with two layers of regular (cotton?) fabric sandwiched around a layer of non-woven interface material. They have metal strips to conform to the nose (important to minimize glasses fogging and get the air moving through the material for filtering and not around the material), and straps to tie tightly around the head, which keeps it pretty well sealed all the way around the face. Though she made a few models with noses or cone shapes or whatever, I wear the basic pleated rectangle ones, so there’s no tiny holes from stitching a seam right in front of your nose. I’m sure they’re a step up from disposable surgical masks, even after a few washes. And I’m very good about wearing it whenever I’m indoors (or with another person outside — though I don’t wear one on solo walks).

However, are cloth masks enough, especially with the new B117 variant? Should we all (but especially should I) be wearing a N95-equivalent to go grocery shopping?

* – Circling back around to add: I thought the masks, distancing, etc. precautions would be good enough to get r < 1 so life could return to more-or-less normal. It doesn’t look like those were sufficient in practice (whether it’s non-compliance or whatever is a bit of a moot point as we will have non-compliance, esp. as covid fatigue sets in). We are a long, long way from Covid-zero (and we were really close in the summer!), but that may be the only strategy that lets us avoid the hammer and the dance through the fall based on the current vaccine roll-out projections.

On Lags and Exponential Growth

January 7th, 2021 by Potato

Ontario hit 89 daily Covid deaths today. We could lockdown tonight, go full Wuhan and weld peoples’ doors shut, and it wouldn’t stop us from hitting 100/day by next week — those people already have the virus, it’s just taking time for them to get sick and die. [Though I’d be happy for the universe’s constant need to prove me wrong to kick in here and save a bunch of lives as this turns out to have been the peak]

Lags make it hard to manage things, especially when that management also involves really hard decisions. It’s hard to call for a lockdown when cases are barely into triple digits. But that’s when it has to happen when you only have a few hundred spare ICU beds in the province. Ah well, back to home schooling for at least a few weeks now, though I still don’t actually know what the plan is. Is it Covid-zero?

And of course this is also why we wanted to start curbing the growth in greenhouse gas emissions in the 90s… or now, I suppose.

Does Fraud Create Alpha?

January 4th, 2021 by Potato

[Editor’s note: I’ve been sitting on this draft for a few months. Other than compiling some ideas from others and ranting a bit, the post as it is isn’t all that original. I thought the really clever bit would be to add some actual research and back-testing on fads and frauds to semi-seriously answer the question, but that turned out to be too much work and I now realize I’m never going to do that much research and stats even if there’s a chance that it’s more than just a lark. Anyway, I figured you may as well get to read it instead of killing it off. This one certainly isn’t investment advice, and I’m not alleging any companies or people are frauds here — I’m linking to the allegations and cases where I can, innocent until proven guilty, etc. etc.]

Elon Musk tweeted out in the middle of the trading day: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.”

Funding was not secured, not remotely. It was one of the most egregious and blatant cases in living memory and the SEC filed fraud charges. It revealed significant problems with corporate controls given that his Twitter account was identified as a channel for official company communications, and looked like a slam-dunk open-and shut case for the SEC.

Yet he settled for a slap on the wrist: no D&O ban, no forced divestiture of his holdings, just a requirement to add two new independent directors, and a $20M penalty (the company also paid $20M). Less than two years later, he got an incredible pay package tied to the stock price, orders of magnitude larger than the fine, despite the company still not producing an annual profit [at the time — it has eeked one out between drafting and posting this] and even clawing back bonuses for its workers. Oh, and despite coming very close to driving the company into the ground along the way (though there was no going concern language in its reporting at the time).

Securities regulators are broken. They are not working to protect investors or provide for rational, functioning markets. It was only at the last minute that the SEC stopped a bankrupt company from issuing more stock that it knew to be worthless. It’s the golden age of fraud.

And it’s not just a SEC problem. Germany’s BaFin failed spectacularly in regulating Wirecard, even prosecuting people working to expose issues at the company, instead of taking their leads and investigating the company (i.e., their jobs). And here in Canada, we have a patchwork mess of regulators. Not just the provincial securities regulators, where even when they get someone, the penalties can be the cost of doing business, but even within a province we can have different regulatory bodies letting problems slide. Bad actors can use the courts as a weapon, and even if you win a SLAPP suit, it can be costly and disruptive to your life, while bad actors buy themselves months or years more time to keep fleecing investors as critics and defenders of everyday investors are forced into silence.

Bad actors have free reign in the capital markets. None has put it quite so boldly as Musk’s “I do not respect the SEC,” (or the 2020 remix) but the days of fearing the wrath of the regulators appear to be a quaint figment of history. And regulatory capture is such a joke they don’t even try to hide it any more.

Indeed, I have heard it said1 that frauds are some of the best investments out there. After all, they don’t have earnings misses when the numbers are fake anyway.

Or as some have so eloquently put it: Fraud creates alpha2.

As an investor, you almost have3 to assign some portion of your portfolio to frauds and fads to keep up. And given that there is no downside any longer, as a CEO or Director of a company, you have a fiduciary duty to commit fraud2.

That’s a fine angry rant against the state of the markets as they sit today. If we had elections for OSC or SEC head, I might be just ticked off enough to throw my hat in the ring (or go campaigning for someone with a more protectionist bent). But that’s not how it works. There’s nothing to do but rant and carry on. Yet I keep coming back to that lovely, infuriating phrase:

Fraud creates alpha.

It’s a thing that we say — shaking our heads and laugh-crying — to encapsulate the absurdity of our times. But… is it true? Does fraud create alpha? Like in a systematic way? Should we be checking if it might be a 6th factor in the Fama-French schema to round out size, value, profitability, and investment?

Let’s make it F&F — fads and frauds, because that’s another area where there has been some outsized stock performance lately. Indeed, it’s almost like that litmus test of the Nigerian scams, where the emails are purposefully full of spelling mistakes to try to weed out those who may not be sufficiently gullible. The business models in some cases have no hope of working, or at least will never reasonably justify the stock price4. But that’s likely the point — as long as no fundamental analysts are buying it anyway, then the sky’s the limit. 3X revenue may be crazy-sauce in a low-margin business, but once you’re already there, 7X is really no crazier! And with a touch of what some may interpret to be stock manipulation, why not see if we can shoot for 20X while we’re at it?

Many modern “success stories” are incinerators of capital, serially selling stock to fill the hole created by losses and growth for growth’s sake, though as a side effect they have created a world where our lifestyles are subsidized by dumb capital. Oh, and skirting (or at the very least, bending) the law is a key element of disruption for many of these start-ups — from how they pay and treat their workforce as independent contractors, to flaunting municipal taxi, zoning, or other laws, if not securities laws themselves.

We who can recite the Litany of Saint Graham (“In the short run the market is a voting machine, but in the long run it is a weighing machine”) believe that fads and frauds will one day crash. Some people even make their living shorting them. But far too often, they go up first. They go up a lot.

And therein is the question: do fads & frauds create alpha? Now if you hold until they crash — assuming they do eventually crash and burn — then you’d think not, it would be trivial. To cite the Disciple of Graham, a string of impressive numbers multiplied by a single zero is still a zero. But if you take an approach where you rebalance away as they go parabolic, there might be something there. In an equal-weight portfolio of shit, you may not care much when your German payment processor is finally de-listed if your California vapourware company has sextupled in value. It’s skewness of returns in over-drive.

So let’s build an index and backtest. For example, if you buy in as soon as a report or article or forum post first suggests something fishy, and then rebalance away after each doubling (to other F&Fs or a core market portfolio if you run out of ideas), would that generate alpha?

This is the point where I thought actually doing a bunch of research and math would make the post more fun (and maybe even prove or disprove the point instead of just ranting), but it’s also a lot of work and it’s been many months since I first drafted this and I don’t think I’m ever going to get the research/math part done. So I will leave the idea there — maybe someone else with some time on their hands can go back a few decades and see if you can construct an index of fads & frauds and some rules (equal weighting? trend-something?), and see if it provides improved risk-adjusted returns.

1. Likely Carson Block on a podcast — apologies to whoever said it as I didn’t keep the source, but I think it was a podcast and not an article if that helps.
2. I think this can be attributed to TC. There’s probably more in here that can be attributed to the Chartcast.
3. No you don’t especially if you’re a smart passive investor, this is a whiny post and not actual investment advice.
4. I have heard it said (Chanos?) that one of the worst things for a fad company to do is to make a profit because it’s stock will crash when it suddenly goes from being valued based on some dream about TAM to being valued on a price/cash flow or price/earnings basis.

The 2020 Dumpster Fire

January 4th, 2021 by Potato

Phew, 2020’s over (or almost over, as Scalzi makes a good point about the calendar not truly representing the essence of 2020).

What a dumpster fire of a year. I had huge plans going into the year: I was taking time off work to take care of my dad, which was going to leave me with so much free time to update the blog (not just post more, but re-brand or whatever), write a book or two or three… and just none of that happened. I didn’t even play any cool video games, as my brain seemed stuck in neutral and was just fine playing the classics again and again.

And speaking of the old brain working at half speed, I already whined about this. I said back in September that I thought I was doing a bit better. And I suppose that’s true, though I didn’t make much progress on the side quests. I started working the day job again in October, and that seems to be about my limit. I’m working from home (global pandemic and a non-essential worker whose usual desk is in a hospital hell yeah I’m working from home), which means I’m saving a good two, two-and-a-half hours every day on my horrific commute, so a small part of myself keeps saying I should have time to edit that podcast episode and actually release it, or write a book chapter, or get something done… but that’s not the proper baseline. I suppose my brain is doing a bit better than the middle part of 2020 if I can manage to not get fired, but that’s about all I’ve got right now.

Anyway, it’s over. I missed all the goals for 2020, time to feel sorry for myself. And most of what I wanted to accomplish was not physically impeded by the pandemic (or dad’s death), so the only excuse that provides is that I was sad and mopey.

But that’s hyperbole. (Fitting as the expression originated with Hyperbole and a Half) I mean, I fell way, way short of what I wanted for 2020: gaining back weight, making no progress on the books, etc., etc. But way short is not nothing.

After procrastinating for an embarrassingly long time (esp. as a personal finance guy), I finally wrote an updated will to include instructions for what should happen with my kid (and she’s only 8 so I procrastinated for less than a decade — victory!). Part of the issue was getting both parents to a lawyer in meatspace — a surely insurmountable problem that neither of us had the motivation or time to deal with at the same time. For 8 years running. Finally I decided to use an online service (I used legalwills.ca but I’m sure Willful works too if you have also been procrastinating). So hey, that’s done.

I updated the CPP calculator for 2021’s numbers (which I didn’t manage to do for 2020’s YMPE).

I think I have my dad’s estate mostly handled (there’s still the Smart car to sell, and one account left to close, plus all the tax filing — but mostly). [PS: anyone looking for a 2016 Smart Fortwo that’s been sitting in a garage for a year and a half?]

And I started learning to play the ukulele. That’s a big step because I’m not the least bit musical. I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, and often lose time clapping along to a song. Wayfare still stares in amazement when I practice: “It’s like watching a dog talk. It’s not something you ever expected to see.” So I guess that’s progress of some sort? I also put Duolingo on my phone and have been practicing my French (with a 253-day streak as of this posting!)

The big book idea was tentatively titled the Personal Finance Mission Binder and it was all about planning — especially around emergency funds and various disasters. It had a chapter on “Rules for Freaking Out” in the detailed outline (which was all pre-pandemic), which may have been handy to have finished earlier this spring (though who really knows, it may have been terrible). Even though I did absolutely nothing for it this year and missed out on the best possible timing for a book on that topic, I can cross it off my list now! Because after this nobody’s going to need a book on emergency funds or preparedness (and I’ll bet that 10 other authors are going to be inspired to write one).

And one thing I hadn’t actually had on my to-do list but wanted for a long time was to get another pet. My cat was a magical one, who didn’t set off Blueberry or Wayfare’s allergies, and we weren’t sure we’d ever find another like that. They seem to be less allergic to dogs, but dogs are work (one benefit of the pandemic is that all the good boys have found homes, but makes it hard for us to find a pet). Then Wayfare managed to find a cat who was looking for a new home. She was looking hard in the background and keeping it a total secret from me, and got ghosted a few times along the way. So just two days before Potatomas, this little big guy moved in, which is a pretty good way to end the year and start the new one:

Siberian - Neva Masquerade cat in front of a Potatomas tree

I could start listing all the things I wanted to do and didn’t, all the terrible disasters of the year, the mismanagement of the pandemic, the things still on my whiteboard and getting a real good depressive funk going. Instead, I’ll just say that this was a real dumpster fire of a year, and I’ll console myself with knowing that I got just a little bit more than nothing done.

It was also a very weird year for the passage of time. At times it’s felt like March 233rd, with a kind of sameiness to the days that comes from making no progress on any projects and staying inside all the time. But time also seemed to fly by — I’d blink and it would be a week later (usually when thinking I might get X done by Y, only to find Y came and went without any noticeable progress on X). I can’t believe it’s already 2021.

I haven’t set any specific goals or resolutions for 2021 — starting from where we are, I just want to survive the damned year.

Though I suppose I can copy-paste a part of my 2020 list as a start:

  • Write a book: Personal Finance Mission Binder Oh right, off the list because who needs that book now?
  • Write a book: untitled kid’s book based on the bedtime story I told Blueberry that one time in the car
  • Update a book: do a 3rd edition of the Value of Simple now that all-in-one funds are in the market and Tangerine has finally released their new lower-cost funds
  • Create a new stand-alone site for the directory of fee-only planners.
  • Get the band back together (which starts with me actually editing the episodes that are in the can, the can being my harddrive)
  • Try to take over the world
  • Get back in shape

That last one has proven hard. The “quarantine 15” snuck up on me gradually, then suddenly it was the “quarantine 19” which was fine because the rhyming structure was still there, but then it became the “quarantine I’m too afraid to step on the scale whoops now there’s something blocking the scale guess I won’t know until I move that thing in the spring” which doesn’t seem healthy. I know how I lost the weight the first time, but sticking to the plan has been a lot harder — partly because it’s harder to get the exercise in regularly, and partly because sticking to the diet has taken emotional energy I just don’t have most days. I’m still afraid to step on the scale, though I’m fairly certain I have managed to at least arrest the rise. I got Ring Fit Adventure for the Switch, which is providing a way to get some exercise in even if I don’t leave the house.

Anyway, farewell to a terrible year for nearly everyone. Be kind to yourselves looking back on what you may or may not have accomplished with your time — even if it felt like you should have had done more but did less. I know it’s hard for me to look back and not berate myself for wasting so much time, but that was 2020 for you.

Tangerine’s New Funds First Look

January 3rd, 2021 by Potato

Tangerine just released some new versions of its all-in-one mutual funds with lower fees. They have three flavours: 100% equities, 75-25, and 60-40. The new fees are 0.65%, which is competitive with robo-advisors (the actual MER will have to wait until a year has passed to be reported, but will likely be about 0.7%).

I’ve been waiting a long time for this news. It was over a year ago when they invited me to a survey about lower-cost versions of their funds and the future of their investment arm. I should note that it was a survey just as a regular customer — they didn’t hire me to consult. But, if you’re listening Tangerine, you could. I like consultant money. And the first thing I’d tell you is to not launch a new set of funds with a confusing “ETF” in the title, to just lower the fees on your existing funds. Yes, the funds all have names like “Equity Growth ETF Portfolio” even though they are not ETFs. (Though they are not the first bank to so confusingly name their mutual funds)

After a bit of confusion between announcing the funds in the fall and now, people with the old funds can finally move over to the new ones. And they made it super-easy to do: when you log into your investment account, there’s a great big “switch my portfolio” button. That’ll take you to a risk tolerance questionnaire, after which you can choose your new, lower-fee fund (or one of the old ones if you really want), and your funds will be moved over.

I’m glad it’s finally here, and gives people who have long been wringing their hands about sticking with Tangerine’s super-easy funds or switching to a robo-advisor a reason to stay. It may make Tangerine the killer choice for ease-of-use, especially in non-registered accounts. (Though if they could have shaved another 10 bp off the cost then they could have blown the robos out of the water)

However, I think I’ve read through all the documents on their site, and I can’t for the life of me find what they’re going to actually invest in. They mention an equity and fixed income split, and then a global equity index as the benchmark for the equity part. Does that mean there won’t be any home country bias in the new funds? They’re going to hold ETFs (possibly related party ones, which would likely mean the Scotia ones), but don’t spell out specifically which ones. I think Tangerine’s earned a fair bit of goodwill over the years, so for the moment I’m switching my portfolio there over to the new lower-cost funds to see how it goes, and trusting that whatever the specifics are that they’ll be fine, but some more easy to find details would have been nice (also, consulting money please).

Stephen Colbert making the 'give it to me now' grabby hand