Running of the Bears

In the famous annual festival called the Running of the Bulls, participants run like hell to avoid being gored and trampled to death by a herd of rampaging bulls. In the Running of the Bears, which occurs every seven or eight years but is no festival, participants run like hell to avoid being gored and trampled by a stock market turned bad.

Now if one had begun to run from this market six months ago you would be well ahead of the pack. But where to run now that the bear is in full stride? To US Treasuries that pay, well, nothing? To cash, which now pays next to nothing? Or perhaps GICs, which offer a couple of measly percent in return for being locked into an investment that will itself get trampled when inflation eventually returns.

Those who are convinced that this market is still capable of spilling blood don’t have to run, they could turn and fight. There are financial products readily available in the Canadian market that allow speculators to profit when the market declines. For example, Horizons BetaPro (www.hbpetfs.com) has developed a range of Exchange Traded Funds that trade just like a normal stock on the Toronto Stock Exchange and can be cheap and easy to purchase.

The ‘Bear ETFs’ they offer have the objective of earning investors two times the inverse price change of the underlying investment. So if you think the US stock market (as represented by the S&P500 index of the largest American corporations) will lose 5% tomorrow, or next week, you could profit to the tune of 10% before costs.

It is quite possible we haven’t yet seen the worst of this bear. The Toronto exchange hit a low of 7647 in November and any break below that level could see us on the way to 6000 or lower. But short-term stock prices are very difficult to bet on and personally speaking, if I was going to speculate on something I’d feel more comfortable at a poker table.

I think that to run now puts you on the wrong side of both history and the economic changes to come. The current economic turmoil is a painful but completely necessary way to purge the excesses of free-market capitalism run amok. While the foundations of the global economic system are being shuttered and torn down, there are clear indications from a new US administration that the new structure will not be rebuilt like the last.

The stimulus package being put to work in the US comes with controls and incentives meant to influence the behaviour of business in the broadest sense. Its emphasis on infrastructure, education, health care and renewable energy could usher in a renewed era of American sway and leadership, and many hope the lexicon changes so that ‘GDP’ might signify Gross Domestic Prosperity instead of Gross Domestic Product, and ‘progress’ might replace ‘growth’ as a way to measure economic vitality.

I’m concerned however that Canada is lagging behind with our reliance on traditional methods of resource exploitation. When will countries decline to buy our dirty oil unless we do something about dealing with the environmental fallout? You think President Obama might be a little troubled by the consequences of replacing oil from the Middle East with oil from Canadian tar sands?

The new US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who supports the adoption of national carbon emission caps. Alberta is currently spending $2-billion to develop the means of sequestering large amounts of carbon dioxide underground. Yet our federal government is reducing funding for key areas of scientific research and we continue to outsource technical expertise to foreign corporations that are much further ahead in developing solutions to urgent environmental challenges (see GE, Philips or Vestas for examples).

There will be many opportunities for business to benefit from the green retooling of our infrastructure. And therein lies one of the key questions that socially responsible investors might ask as a more progressive economy takes root. Not where to run and hide from the bears, but how to position for an economic metamorphosis that may take another generation to fully unfold.