Relative Performance

As we start to select potential stocks for the summer it is useful to see how the various US sectors have performed so far in 2015.  We can see some of the winners and losers in our own results but it is useful to view it across all the sectors broadly, even those sectors where we have less exposure.


In addition to looking at US performance, it is useful to review performance of some economies where we have stock selections, notably Canada (many banks, utilities) and Australia (banks and natural resources). These stocks seem to be doing reasonably well on their own exchanges, down 3-5%, when denominated in local currency.

Australia_Canada_Local_CurrenciesHowever, when these results are converted into US dollar terms, they look much worse.  For a while the Canadian and Australian dollars were near “parity” with the greenback… since then they have fallen significantly.


It is important to take into account sector performance and the US dollar vs. specific other companies currencies.  These elements are very impactful, along with the individual stocks selected.  You can always pick a stock that will go far above or below the trends of its sector and / or currency, but in general these are strong forces and most sector and country selections have a solid correlation in terms of outcomes.

Stock Sales Summer 2015

We have been watching the markets and trends and there are some stocks that we will cull prior to the next round of investing.

Coca-Cola Femsa (KOF) – this is basically the Mexican and Latin American Coca-Cola distributor.  Per their last earnings release:

“As beverage transactions continued to outpace volumes across our operations- reinforcing our daily consumer engagement – we are encouraged by our operators’ positive performance in the midst of a challenging environment, marked by weak consumer trends in Brazil, a slowly recovering consumer landscape in Mexico, and currency volatility across our markets. On a comparable basis, we delivered high single-digit consolidated revenue growth and double-digit operating income growth during the quarter.”

What they mean by “comparable basis” is that the currencies of Mexico, Brazil and other countries such as Argentina have collapsed and they are still making a lot of sales but the sales are worth less when they are converted into the US dollar or some other index as they were in prior periods.

So what do we do?  Do we hold on and wait for the dollar to fall and / or their currencies to rise?  The company seems well run (they have growing transactions) and Coca-Cola is never going away, and these countries have a rising middle class and growing populations (unlike most of the world) to consume more goods in the future.

Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.B) – Shell has been pummeled by the commodity price slump.  They are also based in the UK / Europe so they face an additional currency overhang when translated into US dollars.  They also were “acquirers” of a natural gas company in the midst of these events which means they paid a premium price in a time of decline.  The most worrisome element, however, is that they continue their high risk plan of drilling for ice in the volatile and difficult arctic, at a time of reduced oil prices (which makes high cost investments like deep water drilling even riskier).  They also have a relatively higher chance of environmental catastrophe which will be very difficult to clean up given the paucity of local resources and the ferocious environment in the far north.  They are a sell.  If we want to “buy low” in the oil or natural gas business there are better candidates.

Trans Alta (TAC) – Trans Alta is a Canadian power generator.  They have strong exposure to coal and also the Canadian commodity boom / bust which consumes much of their electricity.  They pay a strong dividend (for now) but it has been reduced as the company struggles.  Future dividend cuts would impact the company even further.  Given the combination of the poorer Canadian economy and currency, the dire forecast for coal, and the commodity bust, this is a sell.

Wynn (WYNN) – Wynn is a gaming operator with operations in Macau, the only area of China where their gambling-mad citizens are allowed to play.  There are also many other more subtle elements to this infatuation with gambling including an ability to move currency out of the country, which is otherwise difficult to do.  Recently the new Chinese premier (dictator?) has cracked down on certain types of ostentatious corruption (generally among those who are not politically allied with him, since “corruption” is embedded into all aspects of their command economy) which has hurt gambling.  But Wynn is a shrewd operator and he is expanding capacity and likely this too, shall pass.  It is hard to sit while revenues and profits decline, however.

Exxon (XOM), Statoil (STO), and Devon (DVN) – these energy giants (Exxon is the biggest, but Statoil is unique since it is from Norway, and Devon is smaller but well run) have all been hurt badly by the reduction in oil and natural gas prices.  For now, unlike Shell above, I think it makes sense to stick with them.

Seaspan (SSW) – Seaspan owns container ships that travel between China and overseas destinations and has been investing in a new, fuel efficient fleet.  Seaspan has a very high dividend (8%) which they have been able to sustain so far.  On the one hand they seem to be a good operator but overall Chinese exports are faltering and if there is a general fall in the market they likely will still be able to rent out their newer, fuel efficient craft but the rate that they would receive would be correspondingly lower.  This one is on the edge.

Westpac Banking (WBK), Canadian Imperial Bank (CIB), Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) – the first bank is Australian and the latter two are Canadian.  These banks are generally well run but all have been hit by the depreciation of their currencies vs. the US dollar, and the fact that they are exposed to real-estate “bubbles” in the Australian and Canadian markets.  As the commodity markets fall, the entire country can be hit with reduced services, demand and an overall high level of debt.  These are on watch.

Portfolio Four Updated August, 2014

Portfolio four is five years old, with the beneficiary contributing $2500 and the trustee $5000, for a total of $7500.  The current value is $10,330, for a gain of $2830 or 37%, which is about 10.9% / year adjusted for the timing of cash flows.  You can see the detail in the link to the right or here.

Portfolio four overall is doing well.  There are 10 stocks in the portfolio and we plan to add two more this year.  Big gainers are Westpac, the Australian bank, aided by currency moves (see post below) and Garmin.

Currency Returns Since the Crash

It is important to realize the impacts of currencies on the stocks that you select, and your portfolio in total. If you are a US citizen (as are most readers of this blog), then your portfolio of stocks, bonds and cash is essentially “denominated” in US dollars).

The fact that the Australian dollar is up 50% from the 2009 market nadir (against its’ own performance) is compounded by the fact that the US dollar dropped during the last 5 years, for a “net” impact of over 70%. While this is a simplified example, if you just held Australian dollars (plus their implied governmental interest rates), and then transferred them (plus interest) into US dollars at the end of that period, you’d be up 70% on your money (US dollars).

This is important because we have Australian, European, Japanese and ETF’s from other nations in our portfolio.  The fact that the dollar has overall been declining during this period means that stocks held in other currencies have seen their returns boosted in comparison to US dollar investments (like stocks on the NYSE or NASDAQ or US Treasuries).

While there are many reasons why the US dollar has been a poor performer, past performance is not a good indicator of the future, and currency fluctuations are very difficult to predict.  Many people (myself included) have been mystified by the continued strength of the Euro, but the historical returns are undeniable.

When you are selecting stocks, particularly ADR’s which represent stocks traded on foreign exchanges, currency returns may be just as important as stock returns.  When you view the performance of the stock in US Dollars, both the currency returns and the underlying stock performance are “one” number, since the price of the currency is part of the ADR stock price.  To see the impact of the currency, you need to look at underlying performance in the “native” stock market and view this against the price of the ADR in the US market.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 1.46.45 PM

In this case we’ve graphed WBC (the Westpac Banking Corp stock on the Australian Exchange) against the equivalent US ADR (WBK) that trades on the New York Stock Exchange.  You can see how the two stocks mirror each other, with an additional “kicker” on the US ADR because of the decline of the US dollar against the Australian dollar.  If the Australian dollar underperformed vs. the US dollar, these trends would be reversed.  Note that there are many other additional factors to consider including dividends received (WBK is a heavy dividend payer).  With free graphing and analysis tools available at Yahoo and Google and many other sites, it is much easier to do these sorts of analyses and to spot the impact of currencies on your investments.

Portfolio Four Updated December 2012

Portfolio Four is in its fourth year of investing (along with portfolio five). The beneficiary invested $2000 and the trustee invested $4000, for a total of $6000. The portfolio is worth $6626, for a gain of $626 or 10%, about 4% / year when adjusted for the timing of cash flows. You can see the portfolio on the left or by going to this link.

Exelon was recently sold because that company is under pressure to cut their dividend based on a change in the underlying utility business model – natural gas has reduced the average amount that power is sold for and Exelon is now making less money as a result. The other stock on negative watch is Nucor, a well run US steel company, whose dividends have offset half the drop in the stock price (which is why we track not only share price changes but also accumulated dividends, as well).

Winners include the Australian bank Westpac with a high dividend that has benefited from the increase in the value of the Australian dollar vs. the US dollar, and Wal-Mart the low price retailer that continues to perform well.

Debt Frontiers – Amazon and Australia

Amazon, the giant online retailer, recently issued debt at absurdly low rates. Per this Bloomberg article:

Amazon, which had no bonds outstanding, sold $750 million of 0.65 percent three-year notes that yield 38 basis points more than similar-maturity Treasuries, $1 billion of 1.2 percent five-year debt with a 63 basis-point spread and $1.25 billion of 2.5 percent securities maturing in 10 years that yield 93 basis points more than benchmarks

Let’s look at those yields again. Amazon is able to issue 10 year bonds with a yield of 2.5%. That is an amazingly low rate for a company that barely makes a profit, albeit one with a giant market cap.

Nowadays you don’t even have to have a REASON to issue debt. Amazon issued this debt partially to pay for their new corporate campus and partially for “general corporate activities”.

When corporations can issue debt at these sorts of low, low rates you really need to think about the rate of return that you are expecting for your portfolio. These sorts of low rates either point to a “bubble” in corporate debt (it doesn’t look like a bubble to the less sophisticated because they associate high prices for stocks or real estate with a bubble, but in terms of bonds, a low interest rate on a longer term maturity means that you essentially got a lot without paying much to investors in return) or just a long term re-setting of expectations among bond investors, a capitulation of sorts.

On the other side of the world, Australia is having a wild ride. The Australian Dollar is coveted because it is a “commodity economy” and is independent of the typical reserve currencies such as the US dollar, the Euro, and the Yen. Australia also offers higher (relatively) yields on their government debt. When I was in Australia many years ago the Australian Dollar was 60 cents on the US dollar; the Australian dollar is now stronger than the woeful US dollar (or US peso). As a result of these strengths, 63% of Australian debt is now held by foreigners (per the article). Recently some government officials are calling for a more formal registry into who is buying their bonds; the government is attempting to reduce the value of the Australian dollar because it is hurting tourism, exports and their international competitiveness and reduced interest rates significantly as a result. But all is to no avail as the value of the Australian dollar stays high, buoyed in part by the robust demand by foreigners for Australian denominated assets such as government debt.

It is a strange world where a company that doesn’t have much of an actual profit can raise debt at rates not much higher than the US government and a country like Australia has giant demand for their currency and government debt due in part to its diversification from the typical currency basket components.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Portfolio Five Updated August 2012

Portfolio five is updated here and on the right side of the page. After three years the trustee invested $3000 and the beneficiary has invested $1500 for a total of $4500. The current balance is $4520, for a slight increase over the invested amount.

Stock Performance

The Australian company Westpac (WBK) has been a strong performer, helped by the Australian dollar and a high dividend, while the Aluminum company Alcoa has been hit hard by incredible global competition in metals (and over capacity), but is still significantly under water from its purchase price (with a relatively small dividend). Riverbed Technology, a high technology candidate that is a potential takeover candidate (since it could fit in well with other vendors) has come back some from a big fall when it slightly missed its earnings number.