An Object Lesson in the Dangers of Leverage

April 28th, 2021 by Potato

I have so much to say about the last crazy, lunatic, unprecedented year, and not sure how to say any of it — my own thoughts are still all muddled. Covid was just a part of that for me — we’re also coming up on a year since my dad died. I haven’t properly eulogized him, or told his story Speaker for the Dead style, and don’t know if I will ever be able to.

This may be a personal blog, but a big focus is on finances so let’s stick to that aspect. It’s easier to talk about, at any rate.

Doing taxes was painful this year, for lots of reasons. I had to prepare the final return for him, as well as a T3 return for the estate, which had quite the learning curve and lots of weird CRA idiosyncrasies. Some examples to delay us before getting to the meat of the post? Sure, why not. Let’s start with where to simply mail the form. It wasn’t a simple Ontario and East send it here, Manitoba and West, send it there — Ontario was spit up with some cities sending it to one tax centre, others to another. Why does that matter? It’s not on its own a complex thing to figure out, but it’s one more step of complexity in what was already a hard process, and one that most people only face under hard circumstances. And it seems like the sort of thing that makes no damned difference so why is the CRA making it needlessly harder? Oh, and there was also one page that got sent on its own to another tax centre in Quebec. Why? Who knows.

It was painful because it was the “final” return and well, that’s a reminder that he’s dead, that’s it. Things are final now, and there are feelings there.

But the other reason tax season was painful was that I had to go over all the financial losses from 2020 to report capital losses. For most people, 2020 wasn’t such a big deal, investing-wise — scary for a brief while, insanely bubbly in a few pockets of the market, but a buy-and-hold index investor ended the year in the positive. Not so for us.

I’ve said many times before that my dad was a good investor. He got me into investing at a young age, etc. etc. That was an understatement: he was a great investor. He didn’t want to be famous, but would give his head a little shake whenever someone else tried to proclaim themselves “Canada’s Warren Buffett”. He was Canada’s Warren Buffett, or at least it seemed that way for a long time.

But as Buffett said, a long string of impressive numbers multiplied by a single zero is still a zero. In the end my dad wasn’t Canada’s Warren Buffett: he was Canada’s Bill Miller or Hwang.

The problem was that he was so good for so long that he got over-confident. He was not afraid of leverage — indeed, he used a lot of it.

On an episode of Because Money (I can’t remember which one to link it now), I shared the tale of how he was in the hospital, sick from his cancer, and needed to check in on the market — because a drop of 5% would be enough to trigger a margin call.

We argued a lot about leverage after that.

I tried to tell him that he was taking too much risk — risk he didn’t even need to take. He tried to convince me that if I ever wanted to be rich, to do more than just get by on my public sector salary (which he also argued I could do much better if I just switched careers), I needed to use leverage.

So he gave me a two-part gift: the first was an amount of money, which here we’ll just call X, a large amount that was roughly a year’s salary for me. The second half of the gift was that he would manage it for me, including by using margin. When I was young he had taught me to invest, but he never really taught me how to invest, at least not like he did. Dad was not the teaching type — he had no patience for it. So this was a chance to finally pass along that knowledge, as I could see what he did in an account in my name almost in real time.

X went into a brokerage account, and he borrowed another 2.48X against it. All it would take would be a 28% market correction to completely wipe me out, which was terrifying. “Relax,” he said, “you need to get used to this. If I do lose you your money, I’ll just write you another cheque. But it won’t happen, and this is something you have to learn.”

Well, Covid-19 hit. I bought some puts on the S&P500 in the early days as a hedge — I briefly felt like a market genius when the virus escaped Wuhan and the market started to wake up to the risk. I sold those for a small profit as things got volatile and it reduced the margin a tad. But the market kept going down, violently. The overall markets were down about 30% by the end, but the highly concentrated active portfolio he was in was down even more, despite appearing more conservative. But all those staid dividend-payers suddenly looked like broken businesses in the wake of shutdowns, and the overall indexes were buoyed by tech stocks that we didn’t own. I threw more money from my savings at the account to try to stave off a margin call, but finally got margin called on March 22, and became a forced seller just a day before the bottom was in.

In the end, X became 0.1X — my inheritance was essentially gone. The market recovered over the rest of 2020, but I did not leverage back up, and even if I wanted to there are limits to how much I could have added.

That’s the real danger of leverage: even if you have the psychological risk tolerance to ride out a volatile period in the market, a big enough dip can cause a permanent loss of capital as you’re forced to sell at the bottom to cover the loan. I should perhaps interject that while that non-registered account was actively managed, I do have registered accounts that are invested in passive index funds, which fared much better though the market crash and recovery, and which is my general recommendation for people — obviously active investing entails various risks, doing so with leverage even moreso.

The story sadly doesn’t have a silver lining, as I also didn’t learn much about his style of active investing — the cancer made him tired, and a little extra motivation to teach didn’t magically imbue him with the patience for it. “So tell me son, why did I do that trade?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well if you’re too fucking stupid to see it then I guess this family is doomed.”
“Thanks, Dad.”

He wanted to spend what little energy he had left on trading, not teaching.

In addition to learning a lot about leverage — or rather, strongly reinforcing my previous view — I also got an object lesson in risk correlation. Because part of this whole experiment was a compromise that stemmed from those arguments on leverage: I would have an account with more leverage to get used to it and see first-hand its power, and he would in turn take down the level of leverage on his own portfolio. Because even setting aside how nuts it was to run so close to the red-line that a 5% correction would make you start blocking the margin clerk’s number in good times, it was not good times. He had by that point had several run-ins with the hospital system for his cancer, and many more days where he didn’t want to get out of bed to trade. So he agreed that he was going to reduce his own leverage, begrudgingly. But “reduce” didn’t mean “eliminate,” and he too was margin called, almost every damned day through March, 2020.

The ability of an insurer to pay out insurance that was also tied to that very risk — risk correlation is not a good scene. So very understandably, Dad had to renege on his promise to insulate me from losses related to the leverage. In hindsight that was a completely obvious outcome, but it somehow never occurred to me when I let him go nuts with margin loans in my account.

That whole year was crazy in so many ways, and I want to try to be clear (I know I’m not, but I’ll try) that the human losses were the real tragedy… but those are hard to talk about, and this is in many ways a personal finance blog, and there are financial aspects to talk about.

Another aspect of the whole affair was a huge whipsaw in my own financial planning.

Back before we found out my Dad had cancer, before we found out it had returned and spread, before we knew that it was terminal, we did a Because Money episode on expecting vs *expecting* an inheritance. Basically, I never factored in receiving an inheritance into my own financial plans, at least not in a major way. My parents were definitely better-off than I was, so my standard-of-living in part is facilitated by gifts from them. While they don’t pay my rent or anything quite that co-dependent, a lot of my luxuries have come from gifts: plane tickets for vacations, curling equipment, or new video game systems. A good portion of my clothes I didn’t buy myself. So of course I was leaning on them in some ways (hashtag privilege?) but I also wasn’t factoring an inheritance into my long-term plans.

Suddenly that was changing. I was getting a rather large gift up front, and dad was dying — the prospect of an inheritance was becoming very real and updating my planning to take it into account seemed like the next step. In-between arguments over leverage and trading strategies, we also argued about frugality. I’m a pretty frugal person by nature, and over 8 years of grad school only reinforced that. I save a decent portion of my earnings, and have nearly zero affinity for conspicuous consumption. Dad tried to convince me to spend more, and live more in the moment. He didn’t want me to save that gift for the future — he wanted to grow it briefly, then have me plan to spend the dividends on the extra gas and insurance for a new showy gas guzzler to replace my Prius. He wanted me to spend 100% of my income — I already had enough saved up for the first few years of retirement, and I could count on an inheritance after that.

I wasn’t willing to go that far (I mean, I love my Prius), but hey, I can get greedy too. I was off work to take care of him, but was already imagining what it would be like to spend a few extra thousand per year once I had a paycheque again. I had started *expecting* an inheritance.

Then Covid hit and we got to be on a first-name basis with the margin clerk and it all went to hell. Whipsaw: back to planning to save the normal way.

Nest Wealth Fees Changed

April 25th, 2021 by Potato

Just a quick note that Nest Wealth has changed their fees. There are now 4 flat-rate tiers (vs. 3 before). At the low end, this makes them a little more cost competitive. At the high end though, they lose their cost dominance until a much higher portfolio size — from roughly a quarter of a million to roughly half a million now.

And of course there may be reasons you prefer one firm over another even if the costs are a bit higher one way or the other.

Bank Phone Systems and Scheduled Calls

January 19th, 2021 by Potato

I’ve been quite unimpressed with the big banks’ phone systems during the pandemic. Not just the long wait times (nearly two hours the other night with TDDI) which is somewhat expected (it was regularly 45+ minutes in the before-times, and more has to be done remotely these days), but their schedule-a-call services have been particularly disappointing.

My first attempt at a scheduled call was with RBC… who completely ghosted me at the appointed time. That was set up in the first place because the regular phone staff couldn’t answer an estate question after the first hour-on-hold wait. I gave up on trying to resolve it remotely at all, and sat on the issue for a few months until I could deal with it in-branch.

When I went to set up a new youth account for Blueberry, TD wouldn’t let me do it self-serve online — it required an appointment. Fortunately they offered the option of a phone appointment so I could avoid an unnecessary trip out of the house (and the accompanying covid exposure). Which was my second experience with a scheduled call. They did call on time… only to tell me they couldn’t open a youth account over the phone and I had to go into the branch. Someone should tell the web team so the website scheduling the calls doesn’t waste everyone’s time — I got to the schedule a call in the first place from choosing to open a youth account within the website. And while some banking services are essential, I wasn’t going to worry that much about setting up an account for Blueberry that I’d go out to do it during a stay-at-home order.

Anyway, Blueberry now has her very first bank account at Tangerine, which we were able to set up completely online — I didn’t even need to call! How is this still so hard for the big banks?

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.

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