What is a “conservative” investor?

Yesterday, Jonathan Chevreau, one of Canada’s finest financial columnists, wrote about how women are generally more “conservative” prefering safe investments, “defined as” GICs, bonds, mutual funds.  Obviously, the term “conservative” has a somewhat different meaning in conventional investment lingo than when I refer to myself as a conservative investor.  For to me, a conservative investor has to mean something different than putting your money at interest in an inflationary environment.  That should be called “risk adverse” not conservative.  But alas, risk adverse investors expose themselves to the worst asset class of all, fiat currency at low interest rates, which is not likely but certain to destroy wealth.  A conservative investor looks at a the bad monetary policy and devises strategies to beat it.

Do DIY investors need financial advisers?

Jonathan Chevreau of the National Post says that smart DIY investors also need financial advisers, and by this he means paid financial experts.  The crux of article is this:

You may be an expert stock-picker who doesn’t need help with security selection but are you also an expert on bonds and interest rates? How about insurance products? Options and portfolio hedging strategies? I suggest that unless you’re in the investment business yourself, it’s a rare individual investor who can master all these different disciplines.

I commented as follows:

Hi Jonathan: Thank you for this article. I think that as I DIY investor, I could tell you my story and it would perhaps contribute to this discussion. I started as a DIY investor for a couple of basic reasons: (1) My adviser charged me 2% or $80 per stock transaction (now I pay $9.99); (2) I would ask for investment ideas, and sometimes he would not respond; (3) when I suggested my own ideas, he would often take on the role of trying to talk me out of them—this was good at first, but as I gained experience I began to outgrow these limitations; (4) he would suggest putting stop losses or to sell when I felt it better to hold. I started DIY investing in 2005 and took complete control of the portfolio in 2007, when I transferred everything to my discount brokerage. My adviser’s role seems to have been to prevent me from implementing my own vision and strategy and to enforce his own. Well, I’ve had considerable success since taking over, so I am not interested in finding an adviser: there is a plethora of financial information and advice available on the internet and in books: so my advisors are many: Peter Schiff, Jim Rogers, Marc Faber, Jonathan Chevreau, Rob Carrick, Patricia Lovett-Reid, Monty Pelerin, Ivestopedia, The Dailey Reckoning, The Daily Bell, and the Business Insider, to name a few. When I’ve talked to financial people about what I do, they say, “Oh that’s really risky!” So I am not at all convinced that I would be better off seeking advice. So I am not expert in all three areas of stocks, bonds (interest rates) and insurance products. I fear inflation and therefore I am not in the market for fixed income. I don’t need any more insurance yet. I think it less important to have a mastery of these three areas, and more important to have a working strategy that leads to success. But I will admit, however, using a lawyer for estate planning and tax issues—and we also have to have an accountant to calculate our tax and give us advice about how to avoid paying tax.

A HELOC Strategy: How to use a home equity line of credit to create investment income

Jonathan Chevreau of the National Post is one of the best financial columnists in Canada and I admire him because of the practical information that he provides to Canadians wanting to know how to invest their retirements savings.  He now has a column about HELOCs — home equity lines of credit:  Be wary of home-equity lines of credit.  Chevreau writes:

Veteran mortgage broker Michael Maguire has seen too many clients with balances at or close to the limit. Lenders portray HELOCs as assets, but they are debt products, making them potentially dangerous for those not disciplined in handling money. “Most seem to find it too easy to borrow and end up living at their limit,” says Mr. Maguire, of London, Ont.-based Mortgage Wise Financial.

I agree.  One should never use a HELOC to create consumer debt or bad debt (see my post, “Is debt sin?“).  But it is an excellent product for the small business owner.  I know a local businessman  in my neighborhood who bought the commercial unit in which he has his store with a HELOC.  He has a low interest rate (it was prime) and he can pay it off or draw from it depending on the cash flow of his business.  It is has been an extremely useful debt product for his business.

When the credit crisis hit in earnest in the Fall of 2008, we opened up a line of credit, and it has been a major boost to our investments.  I was able to pick up some serious value on the TSX in stocks whose distributions were many percentage points above the interest rate.  This helped me to formulate a strategy for investing.  As a conservative investor, I try to keep my line of credit low, at no more than about one-fifth of the credit limit so that  if the market goes down, there is still sufficient credit to “average down” by picking up larger positions of the same stocks as the prices plummet during a bear market.  Thanks to the HELOC, I’ve now been able to establish a steady income based on these distribution paying stocks (mostly in the Canadian oil and gas sector).

There are some serious risks:  (1) Most of these distribution paying stocks began to lower their payouts almost the moment I started using the HELOC because of the drop in commodity prices.  But then their share prices plummeted too as direct result.  Consequently, I was able to pick up even more shares at unbelievably low prices and to keep the income well above the interest payments.   (2) The interest rates could climb.  But from the time I started this strategy until today, interest rates have gone down and stayed at historical lows.  In anticipation of interest rate hikes, I regularly pay down the line of credit as fast as possible.  When it’s at zero for a while, then my risk appetite increases again.  (3) The share prices of my stocks could plummet.  But by using only a fraction of the HELOC, I pick up more positions as the market goes down.  So when the prices went down it actually helped me even though it created initial unrealized losses.   Eventually, from March 2009 until today, we’ve been in a relentless bull market–so that with a couple of exceptions, everything has gone up, up, up.  (4) Since your home is the collateral for this debt product, one has to be restrained in using it for fear of becoming homeless as result of bankruptcy.  This is another reason for using only a fraction of the credit limit.  (5) My stock portfolio is not diversified.  It is therefore highly susceptible to the volatility in the commodities market.  This choice is made because some Canadian equities in the oil and gas sector pay well, especially in the income trust sector.  Many of these will convert to dividend paying stocks in January 2011 because of rule changes and this may result in a lower yield.

Since this strategy aims at establishing an income, I’ve only done a very minimal amount of trading (i.e., “buy low, sell high”).  It is therefore a strategy of investing which is much closer to what is called “value investing” than “day trading”.  Here is a list of companies that I’ve established long positions:  erf.un, cpg, nae.un, pmt.un, day.un, bnp.un.  Those which are weighted heavily in natural gas have done less well than those which concentrate on oil.  But fortunately, the gas-weighted companies like pmt.un and erf.un have hedges that have made it possible for them to maintain their distributions at a high rate in proportion to their share price.

If there is a lesson in this for those who aspire to be righteous investors, it is to first establish equity:  the bank will not lend at the lowest interests rate without the security of some form of collateral, which usually means home equity.  This means for many years making the sacrifice of not spending money on every whim in order to pay down the house mortgage as soon as possible.

Here are some numbers to give an example of how the above strategy can work:

Using a HELOC, $31,200 spent on CPG (TSX) would buy 800 shares $39.00 per share.  The interest in the first month at 3.25% (current TD Canada Trust HELOC rate) would be $84.50; the dividend from 800 shares of CPG at .23 per share is $184:  Thus, the net in the first month is $99.50 or .32 % of the total capital put at risk.

India buys 200 tons of gold

India bought 200 tons (32,000 ounces) of gold today from the IMF at a price of $6.7 billion. This should be an ominous sign for the deflationistas.  The price of gold spiked to US $1083 per ounce, a new high.

It has become clear to me too that one reason that the US has avoided inflation in the past is that so many governments and individuals hold their wealth in dollars.  John Mauldin wrote in his newsletter (October 30, 2009), “Catching Argentinian Disease” regarding real estate transactions in Argentina:

Interestingly, the dollar is still the real medium of exchange. I was told by several people that if you want to buy a house for half a million dollars, you bring the physical cash to the closing. One person counts the money and the other checks the paperwork and title. Argentina has the second largest hoard of physical dollars in the world, only exceeded by Russia. Is it any wonder they are concerned with the value of the dollar?

What if the international community suddenly lost confidence in the dollar and began to sell its reserves in favor of other currencies (Euros, Canadian loonie), gold and other commodities?  So far we’ve seen a trickle effect: the US dollar is slowly losing value.  But imagine the little Dutch boy with his finger in the hole of the dam, and if he suddenly removes the finger and the dam could burst; once confidence is lost the world markets could be flooded with US dollars in a day.  This seems to me to be a real risk to America and it is why the current Democrat controlled Congress and Office of the President are so immoral and irresponsible in their deficit spending.  What happens when no one wants to buy US debt?  They will have to raise interest rates.  But the US government can’t raise interest rates because already 40 cents on every tax dollar services the national debt.  If the interest rate was raised by a few cents, the US would be like the sub-prime borrowers who could no longer pay their mortgages when interest rates go up, because imagine if for every tax dollar 60 cents went to paying for debt.  That is untenable.  The problem will spiral out of control.  So the US will, as Mark Faber and others have predicted , monetize the debt (this occurs when the Federal Reserve buys US treasury notes) and hyperinflation will set in.  I expressed my fears about this on January 19, 2009, and in terms not too different the Financial Post’s Jonathan Chevreau (on May 27, 2009):

Over the past year, I’ve occasionally mused mostly in jest that the way the United States has been printing money to combat the financial crisis seems to rival Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. All this by way of wondering how it is that the result of running the presses has been rampant hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, yet the U.S. so far seems to have dodged the inflation bullet.

The only thing that can save us is for conservatives to take back Congress in 2010 and the White house in 2012.  The security of the USA and of the world depends on it.

Today at Powerline blog, Paul Mirengoff says that to consider Obama a fool is the charitable explanation of some of his foreign policy.  The same is true of current economic policy.  Rush Limbaugh and others believe that he is intentionally trying to destroy the economy so that he can implement a radical agenda, as Rahm Emmanuel has famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”  Such a sinister intent is consistent with some things that we know about Obama’s background.  But for the moment, I will reserve judgment.

Interestingly, the dollar is still the real medium of exchange. I was told by several people
that if you want to buy a house for half a million dollars, you bring the physical cash to the
closing. One person counts the money and the other checks the paperwork and title. Argentina
has the second largest hoard of physical dollars in the world, only exceeded by Russia. Is it any
wonder they are concerned with the value of the dollar?