2014 in Review

For much of 2014, things were generally moving along, calm as calm could be. The VIX, a measure of market volatility, rested at lows rarely seen. Stock markets in North America were happily breaking record after record. All was well in the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

But then, as if to say, “Enough of this boredom, gotta get the world excited again!” the price of oil careened downward in an unrelenting fashion. With it, Russia went awry, oil-rich countries went agog, and stock markets cried, “WTF!” and rattled downwards.

However, there was a major positive in the plummet of Texas tea for those nations that must import this good —and for consumers who received a fantastic Christmas present as they gassed up their cars. Perhaps the maxim should be “The more you drive, the more you save!” Time to go cruising in that gas-guzzling Hemi-powered Ram pickup.

Interest rates remained low as political leaders, desirous of the attendant economic boost, arrested their potential increase. That is all well and good, but could be a disaster in waiting when rates dance upwards and the fat debt loads of Canadians and our American cousins must be serviced at higher levels.

That could endanger housing prices, which in our land seem mighty plump by our estimation. Deutsche Bank has declared them the most overvalued in the world, by 63 percent, but the Bank of Canada only thinks they’re 10 to 30 percent too expensive. Either way, people will hopefully have enjoyed their abodes fully before they are forced to sell or walk away should the mortgages become greater than the value.

Can’t happen here? We have heard that before, and for those of you with a short memory, it has indeed.

Oh, enough negativity. Let us decamp to our little sphere, where it was a pretty good ride. Both portfolios once again beat the Canadian and American markets handily. The TSX was up 7.4 percent and the TSX 60 almost 11.5. Stateside, the Dow grew 10 percent, the Nasdaq 13.4 percent and the S&P 500 ended the year 13.7 percent to the good.

Positive numbers indeed, but they paled in comparison to the President’s Portfolio, which was up a handsome 23.9 percent. The 5- and 15-year annualized returns now measure 28.9 and 19.0 percent respectively.

The highlight of the year was Alpha Pro Tech, which jumped from less than $2.50 to $10.73 in just over a month. Unfortunately, not all of the position was sold and the price points of the sales weren’t as good as they could have been, as usual, but the gains were still very fat. As Ebola moved from the frenzy of the front pages to the world’s rearview, APT slumped back to earth.

The big, ugly loser was Penn West, acquired in November. Over the last month of the year, it still had enough time to plop 39 percent, the worst quick drubbing in many years. There were no takeovers in the PP, the second year in a row that has happened. Prior to that, there had been at least one every year but one since our inception in 1994. C’est la vie.

The VPP also did well, continuing the streak of beating the stock markets every year since it was launched in 2010. The 2014 number was 14 percent and the total return since inception is 80.1 percent. The major highlight was three takeovers, a healthy batting average in a portfolio that started the year with just 21 positions. That defies probability.

Arguably, the biggest salami was Material Sciences, gently kicked out of the portfolio after a 571 percent gain. That should make Bill Nye proud.

What will the future bring? Well, the last nine years ending in a five have been good to U.S. markets, so it would be unwise to bet against the streak extending to ten. What about that nasty start? Since 1980, whenever the S&P has been down in the first three days of a year, all have been profitable to the tune of 26.3 percent, 26.3, 3.0 and 11.4. Such a funny game this is — Stock Ticker on steroids, so to speak.

Concerns about deflation remain aplenty. However, from this perspective, deflation is much like inflation: if it is at one or two percent, it is not a big deal. How many of you will delay purchases on that $30,000 car, hoping that it might be a few hundred bucks cheaper next year? Or that $1,000 television, imagining another $20 or so in your pocket.

Some big businesses might push back plans, but that is also unlikely. No, government leaders, economists and commentators like to fret, and often their worries are misguided. The lack of inflation or deflation of any strength lets us rest in that wonderful land called “stability.” Let us enjoy it, for often it is fleeting.

The beating the Canadian dollar is taking should help manufacturers in this country. It should also cause a bit of inflation.

Did somebody mention oil again? It could get somewhat scary if some — perhaps numerous — companies in this sphere cannot service their loans and dive into the protection of bankruptcy. Hopefully, the banks in both countries are prepared and well insulated against this eventuality, otherwise, ouch!

Going out on a ledge, it seems to us unlikely that the current low price will last for a long time, and it is more likely to get pulled in the direction of its ten-year average. Looking back, which is a lot easier than looking forward, oil has spent about 60 percent of that period over $80.

And while supply is outpacing demand as you read this, the number of projects falling off the planning block, as well as others being roped back, will have a strong impact on the supply side of the equation.

Talking about stability, in the little world of Contra, Phil MacKellar has joined us on a full-time basis, moving from his part-time perch. Mark Taylor remains in his chair and Lloyd Davis continues piecing the quarterly together and making us sound smarter and wittier. Both have been kicking around with us for over a decade.

And we two founders, Ben and Benj, get a bit older — and hopefully wiser — now in our 21st year of publishing Contra the Heard. The journey continues.