The Inflation vs. Deflation Debate

Inflation has been on a lot of investor’s minds recently. Every time the Federal Reserve’s Jay Powell speaks he us under intense pressure to clarify his expectations for inflation, and how the US central bank would react to it. Amidst the ongoing re-opening of America, and indeed much of the world, inflation seems to be the one thing that could derail the stock market. The massive stimulus following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis was just in the process of being tapered when Covid-19 hit, and since then we have seen some $10 trillion in government stimulus globally. That’s already triple the total stimulus for the 2008-2009 recession. When national debts and the supply of money are increased at this rate, there is always going to be an effect on the value of money somewhere down the line.

Inflation can be defined as the rise in the cost of goods and services over time, but a better way to understand it is the decline of purchasing power of a given currency over time. Simply put, the same money buys you less and less.

I came across this site, which is a great tool for understanding inflation. Take a look at the Japan Inflation Calculator and you can clearly see how brutal the effect of inflation has been on purchasing power here. 1 yen today is only worth 19% of a yen 60 years ago. And that is in a county that has been battling deflation for the last 30 years…

Japan’s example is a precursor to the ongoing debate as to whether the current scenario is inflationary or deflationary.

I recommend reading this excellent thread by Raoul Pal. Here’s an excerpt:

“In fact with global debts of all forms between $400 trillion net and $1.2 quadrillion gross – the collateral (assets) can NOT be allowed to fall or the system is wiped out. and so the merry game of systematic bailout MUST continue….”

What Raoul describes here will sound familiar to anyone who has been in Japan for a long time: interest rates held at zero and unable to rise, never-ending stimulus, wages stagnant. Official inflation is somehow measured at zero, but every year your money buys you less. What investors in many parts of Europe are facing is not only the devaluation of the currency, but also negative interest rates. Yes, for amounts over €100,000 depositors are paying up to 0.5% per year to keep their money in the bank. Imagine if that was implemented in Japan!

Raoul’s conclusion is that regardless of whether you sit in the inflation or deflation camp, the result is the same: the value of money is falling.

So where does that leave us? If we are working hard, earning as much as possible and trying to plan for our future, what should we be doing?

First of all, if your money is in cash, you are losing purchasing power year on year. If you want to escape this and maintain the value of your hard-earned money you need to invest. I don’t know any other way around this problem, other than making more money, which is great if you have a way to do so.

Invest wisely. Bonds might be a one year trade but over 5 years you WILL lose. Most equities just allow you to stand still. Tech does better. Crypto much better. Real Estate is a stand still too (except super limited supply). The rarer the asset, the more it rises.

I don’t disagree with Raoul’s quote above, however for a typical investor allocating to just crypto and tech stocks involves taking on way too much risk. Regardless of how each asset will perform over the next 5 years, diversification is the only way to protect yourself, whilst staying invested. I have covered the basics in numerous other posts: understand your risk profile, figure out your base currency, study up on asset allocation (also here), and, most importantly, take action! Sitting in cash is not a safe strategy over the longer term.

(This post on Japan inflation may be useful too)

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Online Coaching – Perfect Timing

allie-smith-KzUsqBRU0T4-unsplash

I hope everyone is safe and well in these difficult times. One thing you are probably doing is spending a lot more time at home. And with that comes a lot more time online, particularly using internet communication tools like Skype and Zoom.

You may have noticed that I offer personal finance coaching. This also includes online coaching, which was initially meant for people living outside the Kanto area, but is fast becoming the norm in these times of social distancing.

Now would be a great time to get your finances in order and take advantage of one of the best opportunities to invest you will see in years. Below is the 25 year chart of the S&P 500. You can see quite clearly the benefit of investing during severe market downturns in 2000 and 2008. Why not make use of the extra bandwidth you have and put some money to work for you?

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 12.03.33 PM
Source: https://tradingeconomics.com/

Among other things, I can help you figure out:

  • How much you have available to invest and how much you should be keeping in cash for emergencies.
  • What currency is best for you.
  • What kind of account would be right for you.
  • How to allocate when you get the account.
  • How to maintain your investments over the long run.

More information, including rates, is available here. If you would like to book a coaching session, or you have some questions before getting started, please get in touch with me via the Contact Form.

Corona Correction

IMG_4713

Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and there’s plenty of toilet paper!

When panic sets in, it’s good to take a step back and focus on the simple things you can do, rather than joining the stampede for the exit. And panic certainly set in last week in global stock markets. You may remember that a correction is defined as a 10% decline in market value. The one last week was one of the fastest ever, and the drop is now approaching 15%. 20% is bear market territory.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just stocks that fell. The 3%+ fall in the gold price on Friday (likely profit taking) shows that being well diversified means having more than one defensive strategy in your portfolio. Even truly diversified portfolios were down between 3% and 8% from their highs last week, depending on risk profile.

Clearly we don’t know where we are heading now in terms of the spread of Covid-19. It seems likely we will see a significant increase in cases worldwide over the next few weeks. However, it is interesting to note that in China, where the virus originated, infection rates are slowing and business is slowly starting to resume. With luck, the rest of the world will follow a similar pattern. If it does, then more market panic followed by a quick recovery is not an unreasonable expectation, particularly as central banks are likely to respond with further easing.

So what should we be doing? I’m certainly not offering trading advice at a time like this but there are certain common sense actions worth considering:

  • If you were already well diversified, relax. You were setup correctly and have done the best you can. Perhaps look at rebalancing when the panic dies down.
  • Same if you are investing monthly and averaging into the market. You get to buy cheaper this month!
  • If you were heavily invested in stocks, how much have you really “lost”? The S&P was near all time highs before last week, so a pullback would not have been out of the ordinary, even without the Covid-19 panic. If you invested capital recently your timing was not good, but do you want to sell into the panic and book the loss? Learn your lesson and move on.
  • If you are looking at the current drop as a buying opportunity, good for you. Get your capital into position – if it’s just a simple domestic transfer to your investment account then no problem. If you have to send money overseas it may take a little longer to organise.
  • Even pros will struggle to call the bottom. Let the panic subside and buy slowly. Maybe allocate a little each week. Markets could always fall further.

Most of all, look after your health and stay sensible. Without pointing fingers at the reactions in particular countries, I saw footage of hundreds of people lining up, bunched close together, to buy masks. It’s probably not a good time to follow the herd…

And yes, Japan makes its own toilet paper and there are warehouses full of it waiting to be delivered to stores soon!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

 

 

 

Coronavirus and Markets – What Can We Learn from SARS?

coronavirus-4817450_640

There is still a lot of uncertainty about the the severity and duration of the current coronavirus epidemic, with some health experts predicting it will all be over by April, while others see a large proportion of the global population at risk of infection. When it comes to the effect on markets, it’s logical to take a look the impact of the SARS crisis for guidance. However, it’s important to remember that, not only are we talking about two distinct disease profiles, but we are living in a different world economically from seventeen years ago.

The SARS epidemic, which originated in Guangdong province in China, ran from November 2002 to July 2003. It had a significant, but relatively short term, market and economic impact. The most heavily hit sectors were tourism, retail (particularly luxury), airlines, casino and property. For 2003 GDP growth fell about 1% for China and 2.5% for Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s economy went into recession in April 2003 before recovering substantially.

The MSCI China fell 8.6% on the SARS outbreak, but rebounded by more than 30% in the three months after April 2003. Stocks in Hong Kong fell by a fifth but also came back strongly. Cathay Pacific shares dropped almost 30% from December 2002 to April 2003, before bouncing back to almost double through the next year. In Japan the Nikkei 225 also dropped by almost 6% but was quickly restored once the crisis was deemed over.

The Hong Kong property market was already suffering the after-effects of the Asian financial crisis, and SARS extended the decline by a year or so. Home prices fell by 8% in the first seven months of the SARS epidemic before rebounding for the rest of the year. Conversely the current coronavirus has come along at a high point in the housing cycle.

The US stock market tends to shrug off epidemics somewhat easily. The table below, taken from Dow Jones Market Data in this MarketWatch article, shows how the S&P 500 has reacted over 6 months and 12 months in previous outbreaks:

Screen Shot 2020-02-13 at 6.22.38 PM

When assessing the likely impact of the current Covid-19 coronavirus, it is important to note some major differences in the Chinese and global economies between now and 2003:

  • In 2003 China’s GDP was 4% of the global total. Now it stands at 17%.
  • China’s economy was largely manufacturing and trade seventeen years ago, compared to consumption and services / tourism today. Government-imposed bans on travel will hurt more in the current environment. This is a blow to Japan’s inbound tourism boom for example.
  • In 2003 the Chinese currency was still pegged to the dollar. Now currency markets are freer, which could mean a weakening of the Yuan.
  • The global economy in 2003 was in a much earlier phase of the business cycle and global cooperation in trade was increasing, in contrast to the “trade wars” that have characterised the last 12 months.
  • On the other hand, monetary policy in both China and the west is now far more supportive than it was in 2003.

Clearly the economic impact this time around will depend on how long the epidemic lasts and how far it spreads. Countries close to China will obviously be impacted more severely. Typically the effect of a disease outbreak on market confidence can far exceed it’s actual impact. Once things are under control the recovery should be fairly swift, although there are plenty of other factors that could influence markets in the coming months.

Once again, refraining from panic decisions and staying diversified is perhaps the best advice for investors.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

 

 

 

Coronavirus – How to Protect Your Investments

hands-2238235_640

What a year this month has been! I can’t believe I wrote a 2020 Investment Outlook just nine days ago and talked about trade and geopolitical tensions in the Middle East as potential trapdoors for markets, without any mention of epidemics. Things certainly do develop quickly!

Most importantly here, the sensible advice when it comes to protecting yourself and your family from the coronavirus is to wash your hands thoroughly and often. There’s a lot of alarmist “fake news” out there but this article keeps things very simple.

So what’s the equivalent of washing your hands for your investment portfolio? In yesterday’s LinkedIn post, Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio put it quite succinctly: “When you don’t know, the best investment strategy is to be smartly diversified across geographic locations, across asset classes, and across currencies.”

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then hopefully he is preaching to the choir. Here’s a post I wrote in October 2018 titled “Don’t Panic”.

A couple of points I would clarify for individual investors, and expats in particular:

  • Diversification is important, but make sure your weighting to each asset class fits your risk profile. Conservative investors and people close to retirement should have a heavier weighting to cash and bonds than a young, growth-oriented investor.
  • Dalio mentions diversification across currencies, which is by no means a bad thing, but remember it’s also important to build assets in your base currency to minimise currency risk.

So stay safe out there: don’t panic, wash your hands and stay diversified.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

 

2020 Investment Outlook

olympic-games-1608127_640

And just like that, another year is gone! After a long wait for the 2019 Rugby World Cup to get started in Japan, the six-week tournament went by in a flash. And now here we are looking forward to the Olympics. I hope 2019 was a rewarding year for you.

When it came to markets, it was one of the best years for risk assets since the Global Financial Crisis with the S&P finishing +30.7%, MSCI Europe +27.1%, MSCI UK (despite Brexit) +16.4%, Japan Topix +18.1%, MSCI Emerging markets +18.4%. Crude oil was +22.7% for the year and Gold +18.3%. This appetite for risk meant that safe haven government bonds were subdued, while US High Yield and Emerging Market bonds returned +14.3% and +12.6% respectively. Bitcoin once again refused to die and posted an impressive return of +95% for the year.

Looking forward to this year “Don’t expect a replay of 2019” seems to be a recurring message, particularly when it comes to equities. Once again Bloomberg have compiled a thorough Wall Street round up for people who have the time:

For those who like to keep it simple, here is a list of key themes to look out for:

  • The end of the bull cycle is getting nearer, but it is still not here yet…
  • Equity and bond market valuations are significantly higher than they were a year ago.
  • Central banks are likely to continue pursuing ultra-loose monetary policy.
  • Smart investors remain invested but are staying alert and perhaps reducing risk.
  • The recent escalation between the US and Iran highlights the potential for sudden geopolitical shocks.
  • There is still potential upside for gold if/when things get rough.
  • Don’t let the US election distract you too much. Politics are not necessarily a good indicator of market returns.
  • Trade is again likely to dominate headlines and unsettle markets from time to time.
  • The Bitcoin halving occurring in May is likely to dominate crypto talk – here’s a detailed and rather bullish post on that for those interested.

At risk of repeating myself year after year, planning and strategy don’t need to be complicated:

  • Have a plan! Read this post if you don’t have one.
  • Stick to your guns. Don’t let the noise divert you from your commitment to saving and investing. (the Japan market made most of its returns in the last third of 2019. If you weren’t buying in the first two thirds then you missed it)
  • Diversify and rebalance – particularly if you are heavily invested in stocks and coming off a good year.
  • Max out tax advantaged investments such as NISA.
  • Look for Japan stocks that are likely to benefit from the Olympic buzz (see what happened to The Hub stock price around Rugby World Cup time)
  • Keep an eye on what the bank of Japan are buying – see post here.

With that I wish you all the best for 2020 and hope you enjoy the Tokyo Olympics!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Which is the Best Performing Stock Market?

If you had allocated $100 to one of the major stock markets 30 years ago, what would it be worth today?

I first saw this chart today on Zerohedge, but the original article is by Jeff Desjardins on Visual Capitalist.

It’s quite fascinating to see seven major stock markets compared on the same scale in this way:

world-major-stock-markets-compared-sp500

And the final value of a $100 investment in each market after 30 years:

United States: $1,001

Hong Kong: $924

Germany: $920

Canada: $544

France: $368

United Kingdom: $338

Japan: $101

Despite the obvious takeaways that USA / HK / Germany were great markets to be invested in, while 1990 was a terrible time to only buy Japan, we should probably note the following when allocating to stocks:

  • Stay invested – despite some severe bumps in the road, stocks generally increase in value over time
  • Diversify – we don’t know which market will be best for the next 30 years so spread your money around
  • Be patient – achieving big numbers takes time

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Financial News – Cut Out the Noise!

earmuffs-2755553_640

If you are a consumer of financial news, you will be used to seeing headlines like this: “The Dow added 141 points because recession fears are fading”. Well that sounds like great news doesn’t it? Onward and upward! Yet only two days ago it was “Dow plunges on recession fears”. So are we afraid of a recession or not? Is the market going up or down?

Of course, the market is going up and down. That’s what markets do. Most of what passes for financial news is just commentary on that particular day. It’s like listening to a report on how the weather was at the end of the day – not much use if you’re trying to figure out if it will be sunny for golf at the weekend…

But surely some of this stuff must be important? What should we be paying attention to and what is just noise? Well firstly, if you are a long term investor with a diversified portfolio that you rebalance at least annually, then almost all of this stuff is noise. It may be helpful if you are making tactical trades with a small portion of your assets, but talk of an inverted yield curve* should not be keeping you awake at night.

Of course I am not trying to discourage you from keeping an eye on what’s going on and trying to become a better investor. But if you want to keep your time spent on this stuff to a minimum, here are some simple tips:

  1. Understand the correlated assets and how they behave over time – here’s a basic guide to cash, bonds and equities.
  2. Understand what stage of the stock market cycle we are in. Most people buy and sell at exactly the wrong time. If you don’t know where we are on the graph below, then how do you know when to be more aggressive or defensive?

Psychology-of-Market-Cycles

3. Know your benchmarks. In particular, know the rate of inflation in your base        currency. This is your key benchmark to compare investment performance to.

For most (non-finance) people, I think this is enough. If you understand how the main asset classes behave over time, what stage of the market cycle we are in, and how your investments are performing relative to the main indices, you probably have more valuable knowledge than you would gain from watching an hour of Bloomberg news a day.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t read or listen to investment podcasts to broaden your knowledge. Just don’t let yourself be swayed from your long term goals by sensational headlines. I know people who have been following doom and gloom commentators far too closely since the 2008 crisis, and have completely missed the 10 year bull run in equities. Keep in mind what the stock market looks like over the long term:

Stock Market Since 1900

Much like other types of news, focus on a few key things and shut off the rest of the noise for a less stressful life.

If you are looking to go a little deeper, this article provides a simple guide to 16 major leading and lagging economic indicators which are worth keeping tabs on.

*If you really want to know what an inverted yield curve is, there’s an explanation here.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Investment Fees – Am I Paying Too Much?

flying-2891745_640

I came across an interesting article this week – see here. JP Morgan are launching a US Equity ETF with a fee of just 0.02%. That makes it the lowest fee ETF available at the moment, beating Vanguard, Schwab, and iShares on cost.

This is great news for long term investors, as long as they make money. Now why wouldn’t they make money with a fee of only 0.02% you ask? With the rise of ETFs, there’s a lot of talk these days about how much investors are paying. Fund managers and financial advisers are frequently criticised for charging too much.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how cheap your investment is if you buy it when the market is doing well and then sell it during a downturn. You are going to lose money!

Here are a couple of excerpts from Tony Robbins’ “Money Master the Game” book:

For the 20 year period from December 31,1993, to December 31 2013, the S&P returned 9.2% annually. However the average mutual fund investor averaged just over 2.5%, barely beating inflation. They would have been better off in US Treasuries.

Another fascinating example is that of the Fidelity Magellan mutual fund. The fund was managed by Peter Lynch, who delivered an astonishing 29% average annual return between 1977 and 1990. However Fidelity found that the average Magellan investor actually lost money over the same time period. How can that be? Well, quite simply, they bought and sold the fund at the wrong time!

So what can we learn from this? Simply that if you focus too hard on fees, be careful not to lose sight of the big picture. If you are prone to making emotional investment decisions when markets are swaying, maybe it’s worth paying for a good adviser who can help you make sound decisions?

If you are able to buy that JP Morgan ETF, hold it forever, and add to it when markets are bleeding, then good for you! You are going to be very happy with the result over the long run.

If watching your investment value go up and down makes you nervous, maybe you are better off paying for a diversified managed fund with a blend of asset classes that is adjusted tactically by the manager. Then you don’t have to worry about buying and selling at the wrong time.

I guess what I am saying is; if you are a disciplined investor you should absolutely be conscious of fees, and minimise them where possible for best results. If discipline is an issue for you, or you simply don’t have the time, it may be worth paying for some help.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Japan Inflation Watch

yen-1995422_640

It’s been a long time coming… 27 years in the case of a well known soft drinks company. Japan’s top Coca-Cola distributor recently announced that they will be increasing prices by between 6% and 10% as soon as April this year. (article here) They are certainly not the only ones, as spring will see price increases in many of your favourite restaurants, as well as on specific foods such as instant ramen, canned mackerel and even ice cream! Coupled with the planned October increase in sales tax from 8-10% this means that your yen isn’t going to go as far as it has for the last three decades.

This will come as a shock to the Japanese public and long-time Japan residents. We’ve all got used to the size of food and drink portions getting incrementally smaller, so called “shrinkflation”, but it’s really quite a jolt to see the actual price of things going up. Even my barber is raising his prices from next month!

What is this going to mean for us all financially? Well, put simply, the massive debt bubble created by the Bank of Japan means we are unlikely to see a rise in interest rates any time soon. So, money languishing in our Japanese bank accounts is going to be losing spending power. I have talked about base currency over and over, but it still bears repeating: If you are planning to spend the money you make in Japan in the UK, then UK inflation is your minimum benchmark for investments. Holding cash in JPY at zero interest in this case means you are not only losing spending power in your base currency, but taking currency risk as well. Up until now, if you were planning to spend the money in Japan, then holding JPY cash was both safe, and good enough to at least preserve your spending power. Regardless of what government inflation statistics might say, this is clearly no longer the case.

So what action should Japan residents be taking here? Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Review your base currency / currencies – if you are saving to pay for your kids education overseas, or your retirement abroad, you should be saving and investing in the currency you are planning to spend the money in. JPY cash is not the place to be.
  2. That said, if you live and work in Japan, your emergency cash reserve should be in JPY. (unless losing your job would mean leaving Japan immediately)
  3. If you have a future need for JPY as a base currency, you are going to lose spending power in JPY cash / bonds – this means you will have to take some risk with some of your money.
  4. One way to do this would be to look for dividend paying stocks / ETFs. Here is an interesting list of dividend paying ETFs in Japan. Google translate does a pretty good job on this. Remember that you should be looking at the Japan stocks / REITS – anything that invests in overseas assets, like emerging market bonds, carry currency risk that could wipe out your actual return.
  5. You could also consider a diversified Japan fund manager. I invest part of my NISA in Rheos Hifumi Plus, which is one of the most popular NISA investment funds in Japan. (this is not a sales pitch – just what I do)

I hope this helps. Please do get in touch with any interesting price increases you notice here in Japan.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.