Personal Finances

November 28th, 2007 by Potato

All this time with a blog, and I haven’t really touched on personal finances.

My dad’s an accountant by education, and then became a financial consultant as he got more experience in the work force (though the subtle differences between a CA and a financial consultant escape me), opening his own business and then closing said business down and “retiring” early. Now, retiring here goes in quotation marks because my dad still works at least a little bit every day of the week. His nearly full-time job now is managing his retirement savings to make sure that the returns keep coming in sufficient quantities to make ends meet without having to dip into the principal, if that can be helped.

He got my brother and I interested in investing at a very young age; he shopped around for banks that were willing to do business with kids with respect, and sell them very low-minimum GICs. We set up my first savings/chequing account when I was 10, and he explained the value of tucking the money I had saved up from my allowance and gifts into a GIC to not be touched for a whole year to get even more interest around age 13. I think I had my first set of Canada Savings Bonds at 15, and he was helping us play the market before I went to university.

Unfortunately for me, while I had the head for everything he was trying to teach us about picking stocks, I just didn’t really have the interest or more importantly, the talent for the non-tangibles. As much as my dad will scour a balance sheet for earnings, market capitalization, cash on hand, and yield, he also pays attention to the overall market and psychology of a company. Even if a company looks good on paper, if it just has a bad reputation and isn’t going anywhere with its sales, the stock isn’t going to do well in the long term. Vice-versa, even companies with a mediocre balance sheet can really turn it around if the market is going in their direction. One example is those funny sandals known as “crocs.” They’re actually made by a Canadian firm, and that company flew more-or-less under the radar for a while. My brother and my dad saw how popular these ridiculous shoes were becoming, and decided to invest a little bit, something that’s come out well for them. I couldn’t get over the fact that they were ugly and had holes in them, and thought it would never go anywhere. In case you haven’t noticed, my brother does seem to have the head for this sort of thing, and certainly the interest, so he’s now on the career path to becoming a stock broker himself.

You can’t really avoid the stock market if you want to save and invest your money. I mean, you can but then you’ll be barely beating inflation with a 4% GIC (OK, 5.5% if you run out to Canadian Tire right now). My dad has never been much of a believer in mutual funds, partly because he’s better than many fund managers at picking stocks (and even the good fund managers are sometimes hampered by the momentum of a mutual fund or other rules), and partly because many mutual funds will sap your potential returns with various fees (though investing out in the wilderness on your own also has commissions). Somehow, that dislike of mutual funds got passed on to me, and so I’ve been investing pretty much soley in individual equities either on my own or with my dad’s help.

In the last few days I’ve started to really reconsider the value of mutual funds. I’ve been largely invested into income trusts, which with the lying Conservatives have become a bit of a minefield. So I’ve been trying to do this “diversification” thing. And it’s really, really hard to spread your investment around when you don’t have a lot to invest. Not being diversified has hurt a bit. There are the nice winners, such as Q9 Networks, which has grown by over 50% in about two years for me. But there are also real dogs, such as Surebeam, which looked promising at first, and then tanked all the way to nothing once it was revealed that the people managing the company lied and they didn’t have the lucrative contracts they said they did.

Another advantage of mutual funds is that you don’t have to keep a constant eye on the market, which is something that my dad does but I, until very recently, haven’t. For one thing, it was always a bit of a pain to try to keep track of things, and while looking up stock prices is pretty easy to do each night, I always had trouble remembering where I bought, so it was hard to keep things in perspective. Plus, it was stressful. It’s much easier to be a buy & hold investor when you’re not worrying your portfolio daily. The use of easy tools has helped me with that recently, things such as Google Finance. To also keep on top of things I’ve started reading various analysts, bloggers, and writers in the business section of the paper and online. One, themoneygardener, is linked over on the right.

I’ve also become more interested in my “investment portfolio” lately as buying a house and a car have become nearer and nearer goals. Lots of friends have been getting all grown up, with houses, jobs, and kids. I am, of course, still in grad school, but that doesn’t mean that Wayfare wants to wait another decade for that sort of thing, so we’ve got to be planning and saving now, and keeping one eye on the real estate market.

To put it briefly, the housing market is scary.

If I thought diversification was a problem with a stock portfolio, buying a house blows that completely out of the water. For many people, once you get a house, that’s pretty much your only investment for at least a few years. Of course, at the same time you don’t worry as much about a market downturn because real estate is pretty stable in the first place, and even if there was a housing crash, well, you still have a place to live which was the main point (unless you’re flipping houses, which no one I know is), and as long as you don’t have to move, you can usually ride it out. Sure, we “lose” money by paying “rent” instead of “building equity”, but it’s a lot less risky that way, and there are lots of good articles that point out that if you can live frugally and save the difference between what rent is and what a mortgage would cost, that you can come out ahead of the game. Especially if it means you then save enough to put a decent down payment on a house…

But the thing that’s really scary is how fast the housing prices are shooting up. Wayfare tells me it’s 9% a year in London, and it looks to be about the same around Toronto (of course, a house in London costs about 50-75% of what an equivalent one in Toronto would). A friend just recently bought a house after saving and saving and saving for years to try to get a respectable 20% down payment. He tells me though that he couldn’t do it, and had to buy because he couldn’t even keep pace with his savings, let alone build on them, and had to get one of those 5 or 10% down insured mortgages. The housing market was simply growing faster than any other investment he could make. That renting and “saving the difference” argument really only applies to a relatively stable market, not one that’s shooting off like crazy like this.

For a long time now, I’ve looked at the real estate boom and consoled myself that it’s really a much better decision to stay out of it: I simply don’t have enough certainty about what I’ll do after I graduate to be buying real estate anywhere, and surely that kind of growth can’t be sustainable. I looked at the US, and read the market analysts, many of whom have long been predicting the “subprime meltdown” we’re seeing now. I looked at the demographics, and saw a lot of baby boomers coming up on retirement: to me, that looked like a lot of excellent family homes that might soon come up for sale as they decide to winterize their cottages and retire outside the city. From all of that I concluded that housing prices must stabilize soon, and maybe even correct downwards a bit.

It’s been over 2 years of saying that to myself now, and won’t we be damned, but the subprime crisis is hitting the States, but the Canadian market seems completely immune to it (well, except for our banks), much as it may bedevil me. My own parents (baby boomers), despite spending upwards of 50% of their time at the cottage have no intentions of selling their Toronto home, even with one son gone, the second on the way out, and the final kid applying to university next year, with out-of-town schools ranking high in her preferences. So much for my theory about a flood of baby-boomer homes coming up for sale.

I’ve had some rough luck in the market in recent years, and the markets in general aren’t doing too well lately, either. There have been some nasty capital losses for me, but thanks to the high payout of some of my income trusts my average return is still around 6%. While that is better than sitting on a savings account, that’s not a lot of return for the risk I’m exposed to. It also seems to be a low rate of return. I don’t really have any mutual fund literature that says they can do better or anything like that, but I have read a lot of investing articles that say things like “compounded at 8% over…” which seem to imply getting an 8% return is common and easy (in fact, I think that’s closer to what my dad averages). Heck, my landlord has to pay me 6% on my last month’s rent down payment. Of course, once you compare my 6% figure to the 9% the housing market has gone up, and I start thinking bad things about my ability to ever buy a house in the future.

But hey, the slight downturn the stock market is facing now may present some “buying opportunities” so that I can at least aim to be a rich renter (as much as it may irk Wayfare to “waste” money that way).

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