By Divya Balji and Paula Sambo
Steve Digregorio, portfolio manager at Canoe Financial, says he feels like he has lived two years in the past month. Kurt Reiman, who sets strategy for the Canadian arm of Blackrock Inc., says there’s simply no silver bullet to protect a portfolio from a shock this large. Philip Petursson, chief investment strategist at Manulife Investment Management, is forgetting about numbers and turning to history books for guidance.
One month into an historic rout that has wiped nearly C$1 trillion ($690 billion) off Canada’s S&P/TSX Composite Index, investors are struggling to make sense of what just happened — let alone where we go from here.
The speed of the decline has been staggering. It took just 14 trading days for the benchmark to go from a record close to a bear market, defined as a 20% decline.
And the day after it hit bear territory came a 12% decline, the biggest one-day percentage drop since at least 1977 when the modern index was launched.
It wasn’t just stocks. Credit spreads blew out at a record pace. Government bond yields hit fresh lows as liquidity evaporated and investors began to bet on a recession. Volatility on the loonie, which had happily traded in stable band for years, intensified.
Here, in charts, is a snapshot of an incredible month of trading:
By March 11, Canada’s equity benchmark had slumped 20% from its Feb. 20 closing peak after riding the bull wave for almost four years. The decline continued as one government after another in Europe and North America began to announce lockdowns to try to contain the spread of Covid-19.
“This is really an uncomfortable time. Very hard to allocate capital. I would expect a short-term bounce and the credit cycle to get worse,” Digregorio said.
Canada’s oil sector took a massive hit as demand slumped and a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Even as Texas’s main oil regulator weighs a curb in crude production and Donald Trump talks about spending billions to buy up oil, it’s not enough pull energy stocks out of the morass. It’s still the worst performing sector in the stock market over the past month and year.
“Even though I’m really quite pleased from what’s coming from policy makers and officials on the coronavirus outbreak, the oil price problem equals potentially a very tough environment for Canadian stocks,” said Reiman by phone.
Canada’s corporate bond spreads widened this week at a faster pace than when Lehman Brothers crumbled in 2008. The extra yield investors demand to hold Canadian dollar investment-grade debt has jumped by 50 basis points since March 13 to 2.42%, the highest level since 2009, according to Bloomberg Barclays indexes. That’s the fastest deterioration of the risk spread on record.
“Credit spreads are still widening, and there is concern that many businesses might be too stretched. We are looking at short-term liquidity of all investments we have,” Digregorio said.
Only one of the 230 companies in TSX Composite is in the green over the past month: grocery chain Metro Inc. with a 3.6% gain. Other stocks that have outperformed the index include:
- Grocer Loblaw Companies Ltd. and parent George Weston Ltd.
- Discount retailer Dollarama Inc.
- Vitamin provider Jamieson Wellness Inc.
- Supply chain software provider Kinaxis Inc.
Is this near the bottom? Reiman and Digregorio say no.
Given the uncertainty on how far countries are in containing the spread of the coronavirus, Reiman says it’s “too soon” to call a floor in the rout. “I would rather think about making sure the portfolio has adequate resilience baked in. Making sure the portfolio is not overly exposed to economic risk.”
Digregorio says investors need to brace for more market turbulence. “Unless we get a flattening of the virus curve, or some positive announcement on a vaccine, I suspect this volatility remains,” he said.