2021 in Review

Now that the scorecards have been completely filled out, we can proclaim that both portfolios had a great round in 2021. The President’s Portfolio had its best year since 2013, leaping 41 percent.

We arrive at this figure by calculating a time-weighted internal rate of return, an approach that removes the influence of cash and conveys how one’s stock picks line up against the market, thus providing the basis for an apples-to-apples comparison to indexes like the S&P 500 or TSX 60 that do not hold cash.

And when the apples were counted, the PP left those benchmarks in a cloud of dust.

Though the results were stellar, Benj would be the first to point out his own shortcomings. Since the pandemic started, he has identified three major errors: he missed the bottom and did not buy a single security in March 2020, as all of his confidants agreed that stocks would drop further; he was too quick to sell Koss, which meant he missed out on the huge upside — though he recognizes he would never have held long enough to reach the highs it touched when it became a meme stock; and he didn’t unload his entire bundle of BlackBerry in the first quarter.

This goes to show that superb overall returns can mask woulda, coulda, shoulda scenarios that prevented the sun from shining brighter.

The good news extends to the Vice-President’s Portfolio, which at 24.4 percent had its best-ever outing, dating back to its inception in 2011.

Unlike the PP, the VPP’s simple return is calculated to include the influence of cash. After the financial crisis, some subscribers wanted to know how we were managing our cash pile, as it represents an important strategic element of the investing game.

Their desires contributed to the creation of the VPP, which has disclosed the contents of its coffers each and every quarter.

The strengths of using this methodology are that it conveys how one’s entire portfolio has done, and it shows the cash on hand. This makes for a more direct comparison to institutional investors, which must include the effect of cash on their performance (assuming they are holding cash and aren’t glorified closet indexers).

Money on the sidelines in a market trending upward will often lead to underperformance, but in down markets will lead to overperformance and provide investors with ammo to take advantage of lower prices.

The first quarter of 2021 was one of Contra’s busiest to date. January saw the departures of Sify and part of Flex, for gains of 169 and 108 percent, respectively.

Next, Innodata and Hibbett Sports were booted, having appreciated 205 percent and 270 percent.

Then came the meme stock/Wallstreetbets spectacle (debacle? debactacle?), which swept BlackBerry and Koss off their feet for beefy wins.

Q1 closed with the Sgt. Pepper piano chord that was Bank of America, cashed for a whopping 474 percent profit — plus dividends. Patience pays, and investment opportunities often come in waves.

Things cooled down on the sell front until the fourth quarter, when AgJunction was ejected on a takeover offer by Kubota, and a chunk of Cameco was bid a glowing adieu, clocking in at 187.9 percent above the buy-in.

The convergence of an Omicron sell-off and tax loss season saw the cupboards replenished. Both portfolios ushered in new names and stashes of a few existing positions were bolstered.

The indexes also had a banner year, benefiting from positive sentiment and accommodative central banks. In Canada, the TSX Composite was up 21.7 percent; stateside, the S&P 500, Dow Jones and Nasdaq progressed by 22.6, 18.7 and 26.6 percent, respectively.

Farther afield, according to MSCI, nearly all markets in developed countries were up when measured in their local currencies. Austria won the gold medal with a 47.9 percent rise, while the Netherlands and Sweden cleared the 30 percent barrier. New Zealand and Hong Kong were the lone losers.

In emerging markets, the reports were generally positive, with the Czech Republic leading the way at 52 percent and the UAE and Saudi Arabia notching gains over 30 percent, thanks to the rebound in energy. At the other end of the scale were Brazil, Peru and China — the latter bringing up the rear at –22.7 percent.

Bonds were a bit bumpy, gold was down 3.5 percent, but oil popped 55 percent. US natural gas rebounded by 40.7 percent, and soft commodities generally saw double-digit growth. Even the ever-volatile cryptocurrencies had an excellent year, with Bitcoin beefed up 60 percent and Ethereum by a whopping 399.

And how can we discuss asset class performance without mentioning Canadian real estate — which, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association had a record-setting year.

The price of the average Canadian home rose by 25.3 percent, and renters have felt the pinch — a situation that may worsen as pandemic-related restrictions on rent hikes are lifted.

Turning to the weird and wacky world of macroeconomics, the situation looks even more bizarre than usual. Covid has ushered in widespread experimentation with modern monetary theory, deficit spending and universal basic incomes (disguised as pandemic emergency benefits).

These actions have driven government debt to record levels and created distortions in the labour market. Citizens, corporations and governments have largely been able to maintain their spending levels thanks to all this money printing, but disruptions on the supply side of the equation mean there are fewer products and services to consume.

All of this is likely driving inflation’s surge to multi-decade highs.

If this weren’t enough for investors to worry about, the wicked Covid-related global supply chain hangover persists, natural disasters likely made worse by climate change (looking at you, British Columbia) threaten devastation, and concern over Evergrande and the Chinese real estate market spread fear of another Asian financial crisis on the scale of 1997.

With a backdrop like this, maybe we can look forward to another super-fantastic year in 2022! Nope, we ain’t holding our breath.

But what is next? As is often the case, our macro predictions are fuzzy and the market today is transmitting contradictory signals.

On the bearish side, valuations are high, inflation is running hot and debt loads are gigantic.

Signs of euphoria abound, the IPO/SPAC market is on fire, M&A deals abound and retail investors are pouring cash into stocks, NFTs, cryptos, commodities and ETFs with verve.

Each pandemic wave appears to be less deadly, equity market valuations are better than bonds or real estate, and value stocks tend to outperform other asset classes during periods of high inflation. Over the long run, staying in the game is key.