Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Investing During Deflation

How quickly things change. A few months ago, the big fear was inflation as gas, food and other prices climbed drastically. Suddenly deflation is on the minds of governments and central banks - see Canada Faces Deflation Threat from

Deflation is the opposite of inflation. Instead of rising prices, deflation is generalized and persistent falling prices, reflected in negative changes in the Consumer Price Index. With deflation, a dollar tomorrow is worth more than a dollar today.

Just as inflation presents challenges and opportunities for the investor, deflation does too. The investing winners and losers differ, and thus also the investments to survive and thrive in that environment.

Creditors (those who have lent out money) benefit, and debtors (those who have borrowed) suffer. Owning debt securities pays off, even when interest rates may be low since part of the payoff is that the future dollars are worth more. The longer the debt lasts and deflation continues, the greater the benefit, so longer maturity debt benefits most.

However, the conditions that create deflation, like a precipitous fall in demand in a weak economy with attendant job cuts, business failures and such, also considerably raise the risk of default. The safer the debt, the better. At the top of the list is government debt or government-guaranteed debt, the theory being that governments can avoid defaulting by raising taxes. Some governments are, of course, more likely to pay your money back than others, the top of that list generally considered to be the US government. Debt rating agencies do rate government debt - see previous post Seeking Safety. Due to risk of default, corporate debt tends to do less well, though debt of companies perceived to have the ability to survive, like many utilities, may be ok.

Sample investments: Government of Canada 30 year maturity (see various options at, US 30-year Treasuries, GICs

Equity - the debtor effect carries through into companies/equity. Some companies will struggle and others will thrive.

  • Companies with a lot of debt on their balance sheet.

  • Companies with lots of cash or free cash flow will be able to acquire the weak at bargain prices.
  • Companies able to maintain profit margins will do well. That includes those which can reduce their costs as quickly as their prices fall and those which can maintain their own prices even as prices fall generally.
It is impossible to make statements that entire sectors are good equity investments during deflation. The only way ultimately is to dive into the financial innards of each company. The disciplines of fundamental analysis and value investing serve the investor more than ever,

One interesting security that stays fine in either inflation or deflation is real return bonds issued by governments. In addition to their safety, when there is inflation, the government ratchets them up by CPI to maintain purchasing power and when deflation occurs, they go down by CPI, but again their purchasing power stays the same. You neither win nor lose, just get a steady return in real terms. More at ByloSelhi - RRBs.

Though the idea that things might cost less is certainly attractive from a consumer point of view, deflation is symptomatic of problems in the economy. Governments and central banks are highly likely to step in to stop deflation so in addition to the best type of investment, one must consider whether it will actually occur.

Further reading:
Implications of Inflation and Deflation for Investments from Yanni Partners
How Does One Invest for Inflation and Deflation? at Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis

Monday, 22 December 2008

Closed-End Funds - Opportunity vs Risk

A Closed-End Fund (CEF) is an intriguing beast that currently offers potentially highly attractive investment returns but, as usual, there are risks.

The CEF is similar to the mutual fund and the exchange traded fund (ETF), as seen in the following table.

What makes the CEF intriguing is that unlike both mutual funds and ETFs, a CEF's market price may vary considerably from the sum of the values of the securities held by the fund, called the Net Asset Value (NAV). Most commonly the CEF's market price is lower by 2-6% than the NAV, which is termed trading at a discount. Sometimes, however, there is a premium.

The following partial list from GlobeFund's Closed-End Fund report, sorted by discount/premium, shows that the divergence at the moment is extreme with many enormous discounts.

More than half of 225 Canadian CEFs are currently trading at over 10% discount. NAV is supposed to represent the true value of the fund holdings and CEFs are obliged to report changes as often as the market price of their holdings change. Buying a heavily discounted CEF is an opportunity to buy a bargain. The "% off" sale may now be at a peak.

Why the steep discounts and is the opportunity real? The answer arises from the risks of CEFs:
  • Illiquidity - CEFs trade in lower volumes and may be harder to sell quickly, especially so with smaller funds; this is considered to be a permanent reason for a small discount
  • Leverage - some funds use leverage or borrowing to enhance returns, which works fine in good times but punishes in bad times; the credit crunch combined with leverage is what appears to be the undoing of Bayshore Floating Rate Senior Loan Fund (TSX: BIF.UN) first on the list at a 92% discount and about to be wound up
  • Credit Quality - fixed income CEFs may suffer when worries about credit quality of holdings increase, even if the official ratings stay the same
  • Equity Concentration - a CEF with a high concentration of shares in a sector or a particular company will have higher volatility. Perhaps this is what is affecting (66% discount to NAV) First Asset PowerGen Fund (TSX: PGT.UN), which has around half its assets invested in a private company developing wind farms and other renewable power generation
  • Market Sentiment - since a CEF's price is market-determined separately from the NAV, the CEF as a vehicle may fall out of favour independent of its holdings; many CEFs do not have redemption privileges or repurchase schemes that keep price in line with NAV, unlike ETFs; the "flight to safety" of the current financial crisis may be especially harming CEFs. If fear is driving higher discounts, in some cases there may be true long term bargains amongst CEFs.
What I think CEFs are best suited for:
  • bargain hunting, where the discount is large and where the NAV appears to be solid after due diligence research into the CEF and its holdings
  • specialized sectors such as high yield bonds, US municipal bonds, emerging market equity and debt, small cap companies, where a fund is desired but low-cost ETFs or mutual funds are not available; some asset classes where CEFs are more numerous and successful -
  • a long term investment to produce regular income at a higher return (from the discounted NAV)
Where to Find:
Listings & CEF Company Links