The “Hot Potato”

April 18th, 2016 by Potato

When talking about passive investing and diversifying across many asset classes, a common quip is that if you knew in advance which asset class would perform best, you’d just put your money there. Since you can’t, you diversify.

Well, in a recent issue of MoneySense, Norm Rothery delved into the “hot potato” that does exactly that (he also wrote about it in August of 2015). Using a momentum strategy, it goes all-in on whatever the hottest sector was over the previous 12 months. The extra return over a more vanilla, diversified approach is sweet — too much to ignore without some further thought.

Norm puts in a number of disclaimers at the end of the article, but before going ahead it’s worth thinking about those risks and more.

Firstly, I have to point out that going all-in on something (even something as diversified as a broad-market ETF) opens you up to blow-up risk. It didn’t happen in the recent past, but that’s not saying it couldn’t. That’s a fundamental risk of concentration — you could go all-in on the one asset class that goes down one year, then switch and catch the next loser.

It also looks to me like a strategy that’s possibly not very robust and vulnerable to execution risk. I don’t have data on returns with monthly resolution going back very far to test out how robust it may be, but it’s easy to get for the ETFs available to Canadian investors for the 2008 market crash and do a spot check. Norm mentions that the monthly rebalanced version of the hot potato only fell 10% in 2008 and recovered by 2009. Going into 2008 the hot potato had you do a few little dances between XIC and XBB. In August of 2008 it would have had you buy XIC, just to eat a 12.5% loss, and switch back to XBB the next month. If you went on vacation and missed that switch by two months, you were down 33%; if you missed by five months you were down 40%.

Momentum is a weird thing in the markets: it’s there, it looks to be exploitable, but it doesn’t have a “mechanistic” basis: controlling costs does, as does diversification — you can predict that those “should” work in the long term. But for momentum, even if there is some psychology or whatever to the momentum effect in general that makes it a real effect that may possibly form the basis of a successful strategy, what is it about trailing 12-month returns and monthly rebalancing that worked so very well for the historical check of the hot potato? Could that shift in the future to 6 or 24-month returns being the momentum sweet spot, and leaving someone using 12-month/rebalanced monthly strategies in the lurch? Are the features of momentum stable and exploitable enough to bet it all (or even compromise with dynamic sector weightings) on something like the hot potato? Or is this an accident of over-fitting historical data? Those question marks may make it a difficult strategy to stick to when a period of underperformance eventually comes along.

Larry Swedroe has an article looking at momentum in general that’s worth reading, in particular the line about how the strategy becomes less valuable as correlations between global markets increase.

I don’t know, and haven’t invested a tonne of time doing research here — hopefully Norm or someone else has a more data-driven answer. For now, I’m not brave enough to try it with actual dollars in the uncertain future — I’ll stay diversified and lazy.

Conjunction Fallacy and Real Estate

April 11th, 2016 by Potato

There’s a neat experiment in behavioural economics where people see a scenario that is more specific (and is actually less likely to happen) as being more likely to occur than a general case because it resonates better. The classic example (via Wikipedia):

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which is more probable?
Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The first is more likely — it’s less restrictive and completely contains the second. Yet many people will choose the second option because it resonates better, or because it’s easier to visualize a representative example. Similarly people may pay more for insurance against a specific hazard they can visualize well (like dying in a terrorist attack) than more general insurance that also covers that specific case (dying from any cause).

So the watercooler gossip turned to the housing bubble today. I don’t usually say much when the conversation turns to real estate, as bearish views are not usually pontificated in polite company. I was especially restrained today, shocked into silence by the sudden agreement happening that all was not sunshine and roses — that in fact houses and condos were too expensive in the city.

For years I’ve been trying to say that the wise course is to rent because price-to-rent is out of kilter — but this has been a hard message to sell. Why is it cheaper to rent? Because of many factors, but the math says that’s what’s most likely the best course. When will it correct? Who knows but likely not tomorrow, a few years or so. You know nothing Jon Snow — I have an open house to hit. Those theoretical, general answers clearly didn’t cut it.

It seems that the meme unleashed by the Panama papers and stories of money laundering is one that resonates really well. Foreigners driving the cost beyond all reasonable affordability is a more salient reason for renting being a good move for now than a simple it’s too expensive for many possible reasons.

“We’re just Panama north!”
“There are so many empty condos in my building.”
“They’re not even playing the same game we are.”

I find it weird that a bubble described as high (and rapidly increasing) prices compared to moderate (and flat) rents was completely invisible — not even admitted as a low-probability possibility — but high prices plus alleged money laundering is immediately apparent as being an almost certain bubble, but that’s the conjunction fallacy for you.

There tend to be two camps on how to respond once people buy in to the predicate that hot money is behind prices increasing1:

  1. Greater fool/FOMO thinking, where the response is to buy now at any price while you still can, because you can sell later for even more because there’s no limit to the foreign money as long as we are cheaper than Tokyo/London/New York.
  2. Let the Grizzly have the fish thinking, where you stand clear of the explosive situation and see what shakes out — getting into a bidding war with a billionaire who’d be happy paying a 6-figure grease fee just to sneak money out is not a game you should be playing.

The conversation moved to the ironic feedback loop: foreign buyers buy for several reasons, but for capital flight it’s important that they can liquidate if needed. Even though they’re “clearly” responsible for driving prices up, they’re not the only market participants. Canadian buyers keep paying any price and are not suspicious of recent flips, reinforcing the idea that a GTA/GVA property can be liquidated at will.

Finally, another feature for the rental camp: price-to-rent is explained because hypothesized foreign capital is clearly not competing for rental space. They are not buying to have a pied-a-terre in Toronto or Vancouver — the prices paid are not for the usage of the property, as many are reportedly left empty.

Interesting changes in the small slice of the gestalt I can overhear.

1. Again for clarity: I don’t think hot money is the sole or even main reason, I’m more in the low rates/animal spirits/general cause camp. Prices are unsustainably high for many interacting reasons, and almost no matter what the underlying reason is the end conclusion is the same — managing your risk exposure and renting your shelter.