One of the things that often frustrates investment clients is the language used by investment professionals when markets go down. While the terminology is meant to soften the blow or put the current situation into context, the client is often left annoyed and confused. To help bridge the gap in understanding, I want to explain one of the main terms that you are likely to hear over the next few weeks, “investing for the long-term” or having a “long-term focus,” and why this is the perspective that clients should take during times like these.
Bull and Bear Markets
During bull markets (when stock markets are moving higher), the economy is typically growing, people are seeing their employment prospects and income increase, their assets (home and investments) are rising, so investors and corporate managers feel optimistic about the future.
The stock market is supposed to be priced on a forward looking basis. This means that the price of a stock is supposed to reflect future earnings and cash flow that the company will generate. In fact, one of the main valuation methods used is the Dividend Discount Model – a stock’s price is calculated based on future dividends investors expect to receive. During bull markets these forecasts are rosier, so higher stock prices are justified by assumptions of high growth in corporate earnings. In addition, because everyone is optimistic and does not want to miss out on the perceived easy gains, they are willing to pay higher and higher multiples to buy today.
During bear markets, as we are currently experiencing, everyone thinks of a worst case scenario. They assume that the expected economic downturn will remain for a very long period and often cannot foresee the inevitable recovery that takes place months later. As a result, they assume earnings will drop dramatically and stay low forever and therefore heavily discount the price they would be willing to pay for the same stock that only months ago they thought was a great purchase at a much higher price. In this environment, the emotion of fear and worst case scenarios are exacerbated by the negative news reports, leading many people to just want to exit the stock market no matter the price. Consequently, nearly all stocks and other risk assets (REITs, preferred shares, corporate bonds) drop in price regardless of the stability of their business model, their financial strength or if they had a reasonable valuation prior to the panic.
While I believe we are likely to have at least a technical recession in Canada (2 quarters of negative economic growth) and I think the number of cases of coronavirus and its associated stresses on the health care system and the economy, is likely to get worse in the short-term, this is the period where a long-term perspective is necessary.
What Is a Long-term Perspective?
Your investment portfolio is designed to grow not only until you reach retirement, but also to generate income (or dividends) and capital gains that will support your lifestyle in retirement. Given current lifespans, this could be 20-40 years and even possibly the lifespan of your beneficiaries, so your portfolio has a very long timeline. During periods of market declines bargains start to appear that can lay the foundations for ensuring that your long-term goals are met. I will provide a few examples below.
One of Canadians favourite pastimes is to complain about the record profits of the banks and their high service charges. Over the past few weeks, investors have only seemed to care about the risk to these banks’ loan portfolios due to the increase in credit provisions for bad loans or reduced capital market activity that occurs during recessions. Bank of Montreal (TSX: BMO) recently dropped over 40%. As a result, on Thursday, March 12th, it was offering a dividend yield of over 7% and was trading at an earnings multiple of only 7 (historical average is closer to 12 times earnings). While it is quite likely earnings will decline in the near-term, considering that the Canadian banks have an oligopoly on the Canadian financial markets and highly diversified asset bases (wealth management, lending, international operations), it is highly likely that in just a few years, if not sooner, Canadians will once again be complaining about their record profits, which will be reflected in higher share prices. On Thursday close, most of the Canadian banks were offering similar bargain prices, e.g. Bank of Nova Scotia was trading at 7.7 time earnings with a 6.7% yield. TD was trading at 8 times earnings with a 5.9% yield and CIBC was trading at 6.7 times earnings and offering an 8.4% yield. Buying in this environment provides a high current yield and likely capital gains in the future.
There is no question that Alberta and Saskatchewan are feeling real pain once again due to the massive price drops in oil prices from the expected economic slowdown and the game of chicken being played by Saudi Arabia and Russia, but only a few months ago the media was complaining about there not being enough pipeline capacity to handle all of the Canadian oil and gas production. In addition, hundreds of thousands of barrels of current production is being handled by higher price and less safe railway network – if there are near-term cuts, this is where it will likely come from. As a result of the current fear, Enbridge Inc. (TSX: ENB) had dropped over 35% and at end of day Thursday was offering a yield of over 9%. Enbridge has numerous projects expected to come on-line in the next few years and has provided guidance that it intends to raise its dividend each year into the near future. Other pipelines, such as Interpipeline (TSX: IPL), Pembina (TSX: PPL), TransCanada (TSX: TRP) have had similar and in some cases larger price declines with some of these companies offering current dividend yields of over 10%.
One of the more stable asset classes for income oriented investors in the past few years has been Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), which are actively managed portfolios of real estate holdings. Over the past few weeks, REITs have not been immune to the drop in the stock market, even though the real estate market is holding up well. As a result, many REITs have dropped 30% or more, offering compelling opportunities. For example, Northwest Healthcare (TSX: NWH.UN), which is a global REIT focused on health care related real estate (hospitals, doctor’s offices, etc.), recently saw a price decline of over 25% despite recording record profits just last week. The net asset value of the REIT’s portfolio is estimated at $13.17 per unit (35% higher than current trading price), its occupancy rate is 97.3% and the average tenant’s lease term is 14 years.1 The current yield is 8.3%, which is fully covered by the REITs cash flow. Many other REITs have seen price drops of 30% or more in the past week despite excellent fundamentals, strong management teams and a portfolio of real estate assets that would make institutional investors like pension plans salivate.
This is an asset class that is a hybrid security, meaning that it has some attributes similar to stocks and some similar to bonds. Preferred shares trade on stock exchanges, like stocks, but preferred share investors receive priority vs. equity holders in terms of dividend payments and capital protection. Unfortunately, they are also typically less liquid than many stocks and as a result do not have a lot of institutional ownership, but that also means they can and presently do trade at compelling prices. Enbridge Preferred Share Series D (TSX: ENB.PR.D) recently experienced a 35% price drop. This preferred share is a fixed rate reset, meaning that it pays the same dividend rate for 5 years and then that dividend rate is reset based on the yield of the 5 year Government of Canada bond plus a spread. As of Thursday, March 12, it was offering a dividend yield of over 11%. There is the risk that the dividend rate will be reset lower at its next anniversary date, but to put this in perspective, that date is 3 years into the future. Prior to the reset date in March 2023, an investor buying at Thursday’s closing price of $10.50 would receive $3.48 in dividends prior to the reset date and the new reset rate based on current yields would be 7.26%, still pretty high. Based on the recent price drops in the market, investors can currently buy rate reset preferred shares offering yields similar to the Enbridge example above and perpetual preferred shares, which consistently pay the same yield forever at yields of over 6%.
The Long-Term Perspective
While equity markets are likely to be volatile over the next few weeks to months and could even potentially go lower than Thursday’s lows, investors can find bargain investments similar to the ones listed above to help secure their financial future and long-term goals. For example, a one million dollar portfolio invested into some of the securities listed above would result in an annual income stream of over $70,000 plus the potential for significant price appreciation when markets return to normal. Considering that most financial plans are based on an average return of 4%-6%, this is the environment, despite the massive fear, when investors need to remain calm, not be forced sellers, and remain focused on that long-term income stream they want to support their future lifestyle.
During this period, the greatest skills your financial advisor can have are to remain calm, use a rational mind to assess the situation and clearly communicate with clients to relieve their anxiety and fear. The greatest asset a client has is time – the time to withstand this period of weakness to build a strong portfolio offering a high level of income and potential for growth.
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Lorne Zeiler, CFA®, iMBA
Senior VP, Portfolio Manager and Wealth Advisor