Investing in the time of COVID-19

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COVID-19 has changed life as we know it. It’s still hard to fathom exactly what’s going on, both with the markets, which fell by about 6% in Canada and 8% in the U.S., and in life. My kids are now home all of the time, FaceTime cocktails are now a thing (and more fun than I had expected), and date night consists of a quick trip to the grocery store. Romance in Aisle 1?

I’ve also had a lot of talks with friends about the economy and the markets. They tell me their portfolio is down a ton, I say mine is too, though I don’t know by how much because I’m not checking. I know they’re down by 30%, but I don’t need to obsess over the specifics. I’m not selling because, what’s the point? My portfolio has already fallen and you only lose that money if you liquidate. I still have at least a couple decades to go before I need those savings, and my hope is that the markets, like they always have, rise at some point before then.

Still, all of this is confusing and it’s hard for anyone, including a personal finance journalist, to know why the market is reacting the way it is and what they should do. So I asked four smart people for their thoughts on the current state of the markets. Here’s what they had to say.

Norman Raschkown
President and portfolio manager at TenSquared Investments

People want to come up with comparable periods to help them put this into context. A lot of people are talking about 2008 because of the severity of that market shock, but it’s different. In 2008 the real problem was excessive leverage, so the solution was backstopping banks and re-capitalizing them.

This time the issue isn’t financial. Cutting rates isn’t going to do anything. It’s not like if there’s a cut everyone is going to get back to work. The governments do have the right idea of getting cash in the hands of the public to help them get through this period. But the reality is that we don’t know how long this will last and what the fallout will ultimately be.

The biggest risk is how long this lasts and how deep the impact is in the U.S.—but the U.S. is behind in terms of taking it seriously. So, the best case is that it lasts through the summer. My best guess right now is that you’re looking at having a recession—two quarters of negative growth—but there will be enough pent up demand and you will see positive growth by the third quarter of the year and the recession will be over.

There are opportunities for people who have some cash and we have started to dip our toe in and make selective purchases of high-grade stocks. Canadian banks have gotten really cheap and they’re offering yields of 7%. It’s good to remember that in 2008 and 2009, none of the Canadian banks cut their dividends. We also added to [our holdings of] Canadian Tire, which is down 50% from where it was months ago. It’s an example of a high-quality business, and when things recover, they will be well positioned. In this environment, you don’t need to speculate.

Gaelen Morphet
Chief investment officer at Cinnamon Investments

We’re seeing incredible values out there, and it’s exciting from an investment point of view. The big question is timing and where we see the bottom. If you were to look out 10 years, I would say there’s a lot of opportunities to make money right now—and that’s the biggest message I can deliver right now, given my 35 years of experience. Over the medium term, though, how long does this go and how depressed does the stock market get?

The stock market does discount that in advance, and so that’s why we’ve seen such a swift reaction and this pullback. I’ve been involved in 1987, 2000, 2008 and 2011, and this one is the swiftest—and the impact to the economy, or at least the perceived impact to the economy has happened much faster. If this is short, then there’s an unbelievable opportunity here, because as soon as the market sees some signs of improvement, it will respond accordingly. If we get any good news, I expect the rally to be swift and large—but it may not last, that’s the problem. You have to be careful in times of so much volatility.

There are a lot of good financial stocks that have been absolutely crushed, and they’re trading around book value with really decent yields. There are also companies that are always expensive that investors never feel comfortable owning, but if they focus on the basic investing tenets of low price-to-earnings ratio and a great balance sheet, then you can find things you normally couldn’t buy. I’m looking at CGI (a Canadian tech company that’s down 30% since Feb. 21) and Brookfield Asset Management (down 38%), which has had a huge run. I’m watching those two closely.

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