Living with fierce market swings

The October effect is a common pattern, a time for seasonal market turbulence. But who expected a month like this one? Who can remember such a severe slide in stocks around the world and so many dire forecasts about the economy and the financial system?

On TV, so-called experts are talking about markets overreacting and starting to stabilize. But where is that bottom? Will it ever arrive?

It’s not only stocks gyrating wildly. It’s also the Canadian dollar — why didn’t you take that foreign trip sooner? — and the price of oil. You’re happy to buy gas at just under a dollar, but soon after you fill the tank you see it selling at 93 cents a litre.

Last Saturday, I did a story about three investors (no longer in the work force) and how they were coping with chaos. One was meditating to keep calm, another was watching business TV all day and hunting for bargains, while the third was fierce in his determination to stick with guaranteed investments in his retirement plan.

The online comments were divided. Safety first investors said stocks were for gamblers and markets were casinos. Many asked me how Lloyd Davidson managed to get 5 per cent on GICs. He explains how he does it below.

Another group, conservative risk-takers, felt stocks gave the best returns in the long run. GICs were dangerous if they were all you owned. You would lose your purchasing power and never keep up with inflation and taxes.

I’m in the second camp myself. Having lived through financial crises in the past and seen my portfolio value recover and grow again, I know I’ll get through this one too. But it’s easier to look back on previous pullbacks than to wait for a current pullback to end.

The constant media coverage doesn’t help, either. Are you switching off the news? Or are you reading or watching more than ever?

I’m leery of anyone who talks about “buying opportunities” in these unstable markets, unless they’re describing a strategy of investing gradually and averaging your costs.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments, which probably cost him a few seats in the recent election, were pilloried in this Toronto Star editorial.

Bright spots in a dark market

Despte the stock market drop, a few stocks are still going up — or at least not going down as quickly as everything else is.

I just finished teaching a course, Investing for Beginners, for about 40 University of Toronto students in the continuing education department. I asked them to pick a stock or exchange-traded fund listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and track it over a four-week period (Sept. 19-Oct. 10).

I’m pleased to report that Hakeem Ferasta found a real winner in Tanganyika Oil (TYK), a Calgary-based oil company with properties in Syria that started trading on the TSX on Sept. 15. Soon after, it received a $31.50 a share offer by Sinopec, a Chinese oil company.

When the contest ended, Tanganyika’s shares had drifted down to $25.64. But since Ferasta had picked them when they were trading at $17.50, he racked up a 46.5 per cent gain in four weeks.

How did he make his lucky strike? He read a story in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, he said.

A second prize went to Meena Jethalal, who picked junior miner High River Gold (HRG). The shares started at 35 cents and rose to 64 cents. But when the contest ended, they were back to 34 cents (a 2.9 per cent loss). I just checked the stock price and it’s now 16 cents.

Two students tied for third place by picking Barrick Gold (ABX), which went from $36.50 to $35.22 during the four-week period.

As for me, I also favoured gold. But instead of picking a stock, I went with the iShares gold sector exchange-traded fund (XGD), which was down 14.3 per cent during the four-week contest. Close, but no cigar.

I’m not recommending that you buy stocks for short-term gains, unless you have lots of time to watch the markets and trade quickly. My contest lasted four weeks because the course was four weeks long and I wanted students to get some hands-on experience of stock picking.

But the students’ success shows that some stocks do well even when the market is going down — and anyone can find them.

Direct Energy uses Enbridge as a collection agency

Why does a regulated utility use its muscle to collect bills owing to a separate company?
This, to me, is an abuse of power. Enbridge can cut off people’s gas supply if they don’t pay the charges levied by Direct Energy.

The problem is that Direct Energy makes mistakes. Customers often find billing errors, which they try to correct by phone or email. Some give up in frustration, not realizing the nasty consequences that can result.

If you doubt what I’m saying, just read the two complaints I received lately from customers who had tried to cancel Direct Energy’s home protection plans. (I’ve reprinted them below.) Both were resolved within a few hours once I got involved.

Now you tell me. Is it right for Enbridge, a gas company that likes to boast of having an ombudsman’s office, to treat customers this way?

And why are Enbridge’s outsourced call centres not doing as good a job for customers as when the phones were answered in house?

Rogers plays games with bundle discounts

Customers are finding out their better choice bundle discounts are being reduced. And unless they sign a two-year contract, they won’t get any discounts from Rogers.

I fail to see how contracts benefit customers. Not only are you tied in and penalized if you leave early — $100 in the first 12 months and $50 afterward — but you get no guarantees that your rates won’t go up.

Bell also pushes long-term contracts without promising that rates will remain the same during the contract term.

How fair is that? Are these big companies trying to raise revenues? Or are they just trying to ensure you can’t defect to the competition without financial pain?

Here’s how to negotiate a better deal. Say you’re going to the competition and you want to speak to the retention department. They have the power to offer goodies to get you to stay.

Canadian banks slow to pass on rate cuts

Central banks around the world cut interest rates by half a point this week. Yet in Canada, the banks passed on only half that amount to customers. What gives?

According to this report, it was the first time in 10 years that banks did not mirror the Bank of Canada’s cuts.

BMO economist Sherry Cooper said the banks were all hoarding cash. But we keep hearing that our Canadian banks are in much better shape than their U.S. and European counterparts, since they didn’t engage in predatory mortgage lending or securitization of subprime mortgages.

So why are they failing to pass on the full rate cut when U.S. and European banks are doing so?

I thought these rate cuts were intended to be passed along to consumers. Did the central banks plan this co-ordinated action just to fatten the banks’ bottom lines? I’d like to hear what others think of the banks’ foot-dragging.

Meanwhile, a reader told me about TD Bank raising rates on its home equity line of credit program. When I asked the bank to justify this, their spokeswoman said they couldn’t continue to offer HELOCs unless they made these changes. I wonder if the banks are in more trouble than they’re saying.

I’ve reprinted the exchange below.

Why are companies so hard to reach?

When you call a large company, you often talk to a call centre. Their staff can’t connect you to any senior executives, since they’re not given any names, phone numbers or email addresses.

As a result, consumer problems take longer and longer to get resolved. And consumers are rarely offered compensation for all their time and effort.

I’m furious to see companies insulating themselves from complaints. They’d rather not speak to their customers, except through low-paid, transient workers employed by someone else.

Lately, I’m getting more complaints about lack of access to key decision-makers. Rogers, Bell and Home Depot are mentioned a lot. (I also get such complaints about the Toronto Star’s circulation department.) Only if you’re smart and aggressive can you find out who’s in charge.

Here’s what I do. I search for company news releases, since they usually show a contact name, phone number and email address. Sometimes, they list an outside public relations firm. Since I’m in the media, I get help ASAP by asking the publicist for help.

This may not work for the average customer. But you can use these news releases to find phone numbers that go to real company offices, not call centres. And once you find the formula for company email addresses, you can email the president or vice-president directly.

So, here’s my plea. If companies keep dumping their problems on call centre staff and making their key people so hard to reach, let’s make sure they don’t get away with it. Secretiveness should not be rewarded.

I’m asking customers to break their silence and share information about how they managed to succeed with their complaints. Help others stop wasting their time.

Check out the story below from a customer who wanted to tell his bank what he thought of a heavy-handed credit card marketing campaign. Alas, the vice-president who signed his letter couldn’t be reached, but he found her on his own — ending up with both an apology and Aeroplan points.