2015 in Review

You know that Chinese curse that keeps getting trotted out: “May you live in interesting times”? Turns out it’s apocryphal. Which is kind of a relief, because the way things went in 2015, one might have concluded we were all well and truly hexed.

Taking stock, so to speak: Interest rates remained at record lows on many fronts; some were even (bizarrely) negative. Commodities and oil and gas tanked. At a mere 6.9 percent, China’s economy grew at its slowest rate in a quarter century. The Middle East? Still full of wars and conflict.

The United States appeared to be doing better, though bedevilled by a huge debt and annual budget deficits. Canada? Though viewed as a friendlier, less nasty and (we’re betting) more honest country under a new government, the currency took a beating and that new regime is preparing to run some ugly deficits.

So much time last year was spent on speculating about whether the Fed would raise rates. Talk about the big yawn. Not to be confused with the diminishing yuan.

Against that backdrop, the returns for the President’s Portfolio were once again pretty darn good: up 13.9 percent in 2015, which easily beat the TSX and all U.S. indexes, which were in negative territory. The PP got a lot of help from the appreciation of the greenback, along with the portfolio’s heaviest weighting ever on the U.S. side. Take those away, and the gain would’ve been a mere 0.4 percent. A reminder of the influence of exchange rates.

The 5- and 15-year annualized returns now stand at 25.7 and 21.6 percent, remaining amongst the best out there. That is comforting. Less soothing is that, since the stateside weighting remains so high, it now presents a potential hazard for the PP. The desire is to sell an American position or two in 2016, but the only one remotely close to the Initial Sell Target as we went to press was General Electric. Reminds us of one of Bing Crosby’s numbers in the perennial holiday classic White Christmas (or wait, was it Holiday Inn?): “What can you do with a general?”

Highlights included Fidelity Southern, which over the course of its six-year hold went up a whopping 464 percent — before dividends and the gain on the exchange rate. Integrated Silicon Solutions was a member of the PP for just over seven years before being sold after a 250 percent increase. Once again, an additional bump was obtained via dividends and the rise of the sunny USD. Within the year, GSE Systems had a healthy 51 percent move as nuclear became more popular again.

Alas, for the first time in a while, the PP had a number of blowouts. As oil and gas tanked, so did Cathedral Energy and Penn West Petroleum, plummeting 82 and 52 percent respectively. CDI Corp. and Harmony Gold looked ever so putrid, down 71 and 62 percent. HMY was offed for the tax loss as things seemed to be getting worse and worse. As Blue Rodeo put it, it’s just bad timing, that’s all. These beatings prompted Benj to revisit the concept of margin of safety, an exercise he hopes will aid in keeping the number of future pastings in check.

The Vice-President’s side of the ledger nudged up by 2.5 percent, bringing the five-year annualized return to 8.7 percent. Once again, it should be noted that the VPP has beaten the TSX every year since it started in 2010. That’s a fantastic winning streak.

Highlights included the sale of Com Dev, clicking in at 221 percent, and St Andrew’s Goldfields, which jumped 72 percent. Lowlights? There were some gross losers in Bellatrix Exploration, down 61 percent, with TransAlta not that far behind at 53 percent. International Datacasting and Gravity were dumped after losses of 84 percent and 62 percent. Not pretty.

What will the not-too-distant future hold, and what would we like to see?

Well, remember a few years ago when the American dollar was as welcome as a telemarketer’s call at dinner time? Now it is almost a deity. However, the basis of its strength is questionable, and when (not if) it starts to fall, that will help prices in the commodity patch, including oil and gas. Meantime, expect a wave of bankruptcies in the energy sector.

And while the Liberal government rolls out its infrastructure spending binge and the accompanying deficit, we hope, but doubt, they will consider raising the tax on gasoline to offset some of the debt. Such a move would also help fight global warming, as cheaper gas means bigger vehicles, and the past year or so has seen a pronounced swing towards SUVs and trucks, while sales of compacts have been titanic — er, make that Titanic. As in sinking. It would be particularly enlightened for the U.S. to hike its federal gas tax to improve its balance sheet. The last time that happened was in 1993 — nope, that’s not a misprint.

As an aside, bustling vehicle sales now point the way to leaner years for the automotive industry, ahem, down the road.

Personal debt in Canada is at historically high levels, and while the government tells us this is bad, it encourages us to spend. Hypocritical? You bet. When interest rates rise, as they inevitably will (eventually), this silliness will hit home. Mortgage rates have begun to creep higher. Real estate in Calgary is already described as “unsettled” — realtor-speak for “on the precipice.”

Stock markets are currently described as “volatile.” (A realtor might say a “charming fixer-upper — bring your decorator!”) A marked nose-dive in prices would scare “investors” away from markets, as happened in 2008–09. The Royal Bank of Scotland has advised people to sell all of their holdings. Really? Is it not wiser to consider each holding on its own merits rather than dumping everything willy-nilly? If such advice should be heeded en masse, we may expect prices to tilt further south. In the long run, those who get out and stay out will forgo the future gains. Assuming the sky is falling does not make for good returns.

Meanwhile, in China, land of the communist billionaire (under that system, shouldn’t everybody be a billionaire?), the plan to deploy circuit breakers was quickly kiboshed as markets were suspended twice in a week, once for 15 minutes and then for the day, mere minutes after the markets opened.

The most fascinating aspect of 2016 could be when Donald Trump ascends to the White House with his VP/BFF Sarah Palin. Remember that you heard it here first, and we suggest that you keep it under your hat, unless you want to be considered crazy. Being successful contrarians, we can afford such outlandish prognostications. Heck, we don’t mind being wrong sometimes, if it costs us nothing and gives us a chuckle.

Once again, the Contra team has remained intact, pretty much the same lads for a decade-plus with Phil the “rookie” moving towards five years. Ben, Benj, Lloyd and Mark all man their posts through thick and thin. That is a good thing.