What is Bitcoin actually worth?

Lately it’s hard to go a day without someone asking me a question about Bitcoin. What is it? Why is it so valuable? Should I buy some? How do I buy some? The guy down on the corner in the pawn/gold exchange shop said he can buy me one (yes, this is actually happening!).

It seems Bitcoin and the crypto-currency craze has truly reached the mainstream and the implication of that are as of yet unknown. What we do know is that it’s attracting every shady crook and scam artist in the world. And why not? There really is tons of money to be made. I hope the following sheds some light on what Bitcoin is and isn’t.


Let’s start our discussion with the technology which made Bitcoin possible called “blockchain”. In very simple terms the blockchain technology is a record of all transactions ever done in Bitcoin. Imagine a gigantic piece of paper that lists every transaction ever completed. Then imagine that there are thousands of copies of this paper, and all of them are automatically updated when any two people agree to exchange Bitcoins. Every time a transaction takes place all these copies are checked for consistency to make sure you actually have the Bitcoins you claim to have. If everything checks out the new transaction is added to all the pieces of paper at once.

This is the heart of the truly genius idea that is blockchain, and it is what it makes it possible to have certainty over a Bitcoin balance someone owns, without needing any central party (like a bank) to verify it. If all the pieces of paper agree then the balance is correct, and trying to doctor or fake all the pieces of paper at once is impossible. The best (and worst) thing about this technology is that it has been made available for absolutely FREE to anyone who wants to use it.

Bitcoin is simply the oldest known use of the blockchain technology. Someone, a long time ago (in technology terms), decided to create a coin called a “Bitcoin” using blockchain and started trading it with other people. This was quickly picked up by all types of criminal and illegal activity providers as a way to exchange money without having to go through a bank. Fast forward a few years and everyone and their mother wants to own one because they saw it on  TV.

Crypto-currencies or e-coins

The best (and worst) thing about blockchain technology is that its FREE, which means anyone can create a coin out of thin air, name it whatever they like, and start using it to trade with other people. It quite literally takes less than 24hrs to do so for someone with mediocre tech skills. The only difficult part is convincing suckers, err sorry, I mean lovely people, that the coin you created is worth something. This simple fact has led thousands of scam artists throughout the world to create their own coins and sell them to unsuspecting retirees and “I wanna get rich quick” targets.

You may have heard there is a limit to the number of Bitcoins that can be created and therefore the supply is limited, which is in turn is used as a justification for its price. For a number of technical reasons this is true, however, there is absolutely no limit to the number of crypto-currencies that can be created. Have you heard of Bitcoin Cash? How about Bitcoin Gold? Bitcoin Silver? Ethereum? Litecoin? There is an even a Dogecoin, as in Doge-coin. Yes I am NOT kidding, Google it. It was created as a joke and it now has a 700 million dollar market cap. Yup, they all exist, 1,365 different coins as of last count, and thousands more will be created as long as people are willing to throw real money at them. So much for the “you can’t make more of it!” argument.

Intrinsic Value vs. Market Value

How is it possible that something so easily created and with nothing to it other than a name and a story can be worth so much money? It all comes down to the difference between intrinsic and market value.

Market value is simply determined by the difference between supply and demand. If the demand exceeds supply at any point in time then the price will go up and vice versa. You can easily observe this in the “wild” each Christmas. A few years ago it was the PlayStation 4 that was bought up by “investors” and re-sold at ridiculous premiums to desperate guilt-riddled parents wanting to make up for not being around all that much. The PS4’s sticker price was $500 but on eBay they were selling for well over $2,000. The demand for PS4’s far exceeded supply during that Christmas season time period.

Fast forward to 2017 and PS4’s are on sale for $299.

Has the PS4 changed since that $2,000 Christmas? Does it provide 10 times less value to its owners now than it did back then? Is it no longer able to play games or access Netflix? Does it have fewer games and less accessories? The answer is of course a big fat NO. So why is it so much cheaper? It’s because fewer people are competing to buy a far larger supply of PS4’s on the market. The PS4’s market value has changed drastically but it’s intrinsic value has moved very little.

Gasoline has intrinsic value because you can burn it to move your car. In turn your car has intrinsic value because it can move you from place to place. Your stock holdings have intrinsic value because they are expected to eventually pay you dividends. Your home has intrinsic value because you can sleep in it and it can keep you warm and dry. Your dollars have intrinsic value because the government guarantees you can pay taxes and buy government services with them.

The intrinsic value of anything is simply the tangible value it provides and may or may not equal the market value at any one time. A good way to think about intrinsic value is as a floor to the value of any object. If the market value falls below that floor, enough people will simply choose to use the object rather than sell it, since they get more value out of keeping it. This in turns reduces supply and increases price back up to intrinsic value.

If there is a sudden interest in a product, market value often goes far above the intrinsic value, and then settles back down once the hype dies down. Thus financial bubbles of all kinds are born.

In some cases calculating intrinsic value is fairly easy (bonds, loans, mortgages, investment real estate) and in other cases it’s much harder (new technologies, your own home, time spent with family).

The good news is that calculating the intrinsic value of Bitcoin is extremely easy!

Let me get my calculator out…. Drum roll please…… It’s exactly….. $0!

It’s essentially the same thing as printing your own fraud-proof monopoly money. Should people stop wanting to buy your monopoly money, the only intrinsic value it will have is a certain bathroom function, which is still more than you can do with an e-coin.

Coins vs tech

Normally investors disagree on the intrinsic value of something and bring up arguments such future potential of a technology to justify various valuation. However, remember, Bitcoin is NOT a technology, it is an electronic piece of paper with transactions listed on it.  Just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in a bunch of computers backed by absolutely nothing. Block-chain itself is a very valuable technology freely available to anyone, however, you are NOT buying blockchain when you buy Bitcoin, you own none of the tech behind it.

To illustrate imagine that someone had found a cure for cancer and posted the step-by-step instructions on how to make it on-line, freely available for anyone to use. Now imagine that the same person also created a product called Cancer-Pill using their own instructions, trade marked it, and started selling it to the highest bidders. I think we can all agree a cure for cancer is immensely valuable to society (blockchain may or may not be, we still have to see), however, how much is a Cancer-Pill worth?

Initially, with no one else making cancer curing pills, and people hearing about the trade-marked name, it’s very likely the profits would be quite large and the price of the pill ridiculously high. However, as the money flows in, another person would without a doubt create a pill using the same freely available instructions and call it Cancer-Away. Cancer-away may not initially be as recognizable as Cancer-pill, so it might fetch a smaller price, but eventually both prices would converge as they are essentially the same thing. Over time, with more and more cancer curing pills with different names arriving on the market, the price of all of them would converge to something very close to the cost of production (ie. materials + time to make it). I think we can all agree this is a good thing, as it means the maximum number of people will be able to cure their cancer at the lowest possible price.

How does this apply to Bitcoin? Well, Bitcoin is simply the initial Cancer-Pill, but as mentioned above there are now 1,365 different “pills” in production and counting. While creating a cancer pill, even with step-by-step instructions, would require some materials, equipment and incur some costs, the production of a random generic e-coin costs pretty damn close to $0. All you need is a website and some hype.

The bottom line is that while a cancer pill is very valuable, it would not be a good investment to buy up the pills for far above the cost of making them, if the formula for making them is freely available to anyone. Similarly buying Bitcoin, or any other e-coin, is a bad investment even if you truly believe block-chain technology will change the world.

It’s amazing to see all these coins get created and their “inventors” claiming theirs is for some reason a slightly better version of blockchain, and then selling you the damned coin instead of the supposedly superior tech! Next time you see one of these guys on TV notice how deftly they switch between the term “coin” and “blockchain” creating an illusion that it’s all the same thing. Believe me these people know exactly what they are doing.

So is it all just a giant pile of poop?

No, not at all, the technology used in creating Bitcoin is great. However, at this time, I’m not aware of anyone offering a good practical use for it. The problem with the current crop of e-coins and blockchain applications is easy to illustrate.

Imagine for a second a world where only Bitcoin exists and you are going to buy some milk. What would be the price printed on that milk carton?

1 BTC? Or 1.5 BTC Or 2 BTC?

Aside from the fact that, at current prices, this would be some seriously expensive milk, the answer is that no price could be printed. That’s because if a price was printed, a poor grocery employee would have to sit there with an eraser and pencil, and every minute or so change the price. And then by the time you got to the cash register, the price would have changed again.

The point is that a real currencies primary “intrinsic” value is as a medium of exchange or a measuring stick for value. If a centimeter or inch on a measuring tape was constantly changing in physical size, it would not be particularly useful to ask for a 6 inch sub. It might end up being the size of an airplane.

The thing that makes crypto-currencies such a speculative craze right now, their stratospheric increases in value, is also the reason the current crop will likely fail in their intended use as currencies. However, out of the ashes of that, it’s likely that a new use of blockchain will emerge. The decentralized fraud proof ledger might be used to keep track of balances in another exotic currency called the Canadian or US dollar or Euro.

On that note, if you still want to invest in e-coins, I would like to invite you to buy my brand new UB coin for only $1 per coin. I don’t have blockchain up yet, but I’ll keep track of all your purchases in my Excel, and the second I hit 2K I’ll spend the the 2 days to get the blockchain up and running. It’s your opportunity to get in on the ground floor before it’s worth $10,000 per coin!

Ahhh, sometimes I wish I had looser morals….

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Easy guide to never paying a cable bill again – part 1

It is called “cord cutting” and record numbers of Canadians are doing it every year. This year alone 247,000 households are expected to sever all ties with traditional cable packages. The idea of paying for a bundle of channels, most of which you won’t watch, is as outdated as renting a movie from blockbuster.

The savings from cutting a cable bill can be substantial. The cheapest “bundle” rogers offers (internet + TV) is $116.97 per month (regular price, not limited term promotion) pre-tax while a decent set of channels will run you $141.97. In addition, to get any decent movie channels you will have to shell out another $23.95 per month for the cheapest movie theme pack. Total average bill coming out to $187.49 including tax per month or $2,250 per year. That’s some highway robbery right there.

Assuming you don’t want to give up watching TV all together, what are the 100% legal options to avoid this? It turns out there are plenty, but I’ll start with the cheapest one, costing a total of $0 on a monthly basis.

Over-the-air(OTA) TV

Monthly cost: $0

All Canadian and US network TV stations are required by the CRTC to broadcast their signal in the same digital HD format as you get through cable. This requirement has been in place since 2011 and many of the broadcasters have since added digital sub-channels so they can offer additional content.

For example, the regular PBS channel broadcasts on channel 17-1 but a special PBS Kids channel dedicated to children’s programming is available on channel 17-3.

You can review a full list of channels available in the GTA by clicking here and see what’s on these channels here.

The technology used to transmit the signal is essentially the same old “rabbit ears” technology you likely grew up with if you are as old as I am. However, none of the old issues exist, since the signal transmitted is now digital. There is no ghosting, synchronization problems, or quality issues. When the signal is available the picture is crystal clear and extremely smooth, and in some ways superior to the cable signal.

The only device you will need to purchase is a $100 good quality over-the-air antenna (will likely be on sale after Christmas) and mount it on the outside or inside of your house. Mounting it inside is a 2 minute setup, and is ideal for condos or apartment buildings, while mounting outside is a bit more work but does give you more channels if you live in a house. Once you’ve placed the antenna you connect the cable that comes from the antenna into your TVs antenna input. That’s it, you now have 100% free HD TV!

The selection of channels available for free over-the-air surpasses the Rogers started package ($116.97), however, for most people this will likely not be enough. To get more than enough movies, shows and sports for a reasonable price, you will likely need get on-line.

More on that in Part 2 of this series

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rrsp retirement saving money

How to legally avoid taxes by making optimal RRSP contributions

It is that time of the year again. As many of you already know I’m a big advocate of RRSP accounts and believe them to be the best wealth building vehicle available to salaried Canadians. However, the benefits of contributing, and the optimal amount of the contribution, vary greatly from person to person. Below I will try to help you make the optimal choice for your situation.

How much you should optimally contribute depends mostly on your marginal tax bracket.

Marginal Tax Brackets

(Note: to see the exact income ranges and marginal tax rates I suggest you head to taxtips.ca)

The key observation to take away from the above chart is that marginal tax rates do not go up in an even step like pattern. They’re flat for the first 40K of your income, then jump very quickly from 42 to 46K (blue box above), go flat again from 46 to 74K, then again jump really quickly from 74 to 91K (red box) just to level out and go up very slowly afterwards.

The way to think about an RRSP contribution is as a reduction of your taxable income. Think about the red line as the per-$ value of your contribution. The higher the line the bigger the value of the contribution. In fact the per-$ value of the contribution is equal to the marginal tax bracket, so 43.41% simply means you get back 43.41 cents in tax reduction for every dollar contributed. To determine your own optimal contribution amount you can follow these steps:

  • Find where your 2016 income fits on the graph
  • Move left until you find a large drop in the graph
  • Calculate the amount of RRSP contribution you need to make to reduce your income from your starting point (your actual income) to the large drop in the graph (where you want your taxable income to be)

This approach gives you the best bang for your buck in terms of RRSP contributions because it ensures you max out your contribution room with the largest per-$ benefit in terms of a tax refund. You will still get a benefit if you choose to contribute more, but that benefit will get smaller very quickly on a per-$ contributed basis.

Example #1 – Sarah

Sarah made 95K last year so she is just right of the steep drop at 91K

Each dollar Sarah contributes to her RRSP moves her taxable income down or left on our chart above. The per-$-benefit or value of this contribution is equal to the marginal tax rate she happens to be in.

Since she starts on the 43.41% marginal tax rate line for every dollar she contributes she gets back 43 cents tax free but only for the first 4K contributed (green arrow above). This is because contributing 4K drops her taxable income down to 91K at which point any further contributions are at a lower marginal tax rate.

The next 4K of contributions will earn her only 38 cents per dollar contributed (blue arrow)

The next 3K of contributions will earn her only 34 cents per dollar contributed (yellow arrow)

The next 10K of contributions will earn her only 32 cents per dollar contributed (purple arrow)

I hope you can see how quickly the value of her contributions deteriorates after that initial 4K, which means Sarahs optimal contribution would be 4K and would net her approx. a $1,700 tax refund.

Career Stage

Simple right? Well, ok, there is a bit more to it. If you truly want to maximize the benefit you get from your RRSP contributions, over your entire working career, you need to consider what stage of your career you’re at. In the Sarah example above we implicitly assume she is in the middle of her career and is likely to increase her salary at a slow and steady pace until she retires.

Example #2- John

John is in his 20’s and has an entry level job in his field paying him 55K, but is hopeful to progress quickly up the ladder. The average salary for an intermediate level employee in his field is 95K.

Since John is currently making 55K, based on the marginal tax analysis alone, it would seem he should contribute 9K to bring his taxable income down to 46K  (green arrow). This would ensure he receives a tax refund of 30 cents per dollar contributed, or $2,700 for the entire 9K contribution.

However, since John is in his 20’s, in an entry level job in a lucrative field, it may actually make sense for him to forego his contribution entirely this particular year. This is because RRSP contribution room is cumulative and rolls over to the next year if you don’t use it.

Let’s say John salary goes up to 100K next year, his contribution maximum would be based on his previous tax assessment of 18% of 55K income, which would be around 9K. Therefore, if he contributed in the prior year, he could bring his taxable income down to 91K with this 9K contribution for a total refund of $3,900 (blue arrow).

If John contributes in both years he will receive a total net tax refund of $2,700 (year one) + $3,700 (year two) = $6,400.

However, if John foregoes his contribution in year 1, he would now have 18K worth of contribution room in year 2. If he contributes the entire 18K in year 2 he would lower his taxable income to 82K (purple arrow). This would net him a total tax refund of 9K * 41.43% + 4K * 37.92% + 3K * 33.89K + 2K * 31.48% = $6,900, which is an extra $500 in his pocket.

To summarize:

Year 1 contribution Year 2 contribution Chart Arrow Colors Total Refund over 2 years
$9,000 $9,000 Blue + Green $6,400
$0 $18,000 Purple $6,900

Example #3- Brad

Brad is in his early 40’s and an experienced veteran in his field.  The average salary for someone with his qualifications is 65K and he is making exactly this average. Since his salary did not change very much since last year his contribution limit is 12K.

Since Brad does not expect to move into an appreciably higher tax bracket, he should probably try to max out his contribution every year. Even if Brad ends up getting a raise to 74K he would still be in the same tax bracket, so the extra contribution room would not help him next year any more than it does today. In fact he would have to get a raise in his salary above 85K before he would start to see any noticeable difference in his marginal tax rate (and his per-$ contribution value).

Putting it all together

Most people follow an upside down U curve through their life when it comes to Marginal Tax Rates. They start out at a low marginal tax rate early in their careers, go up the curve to a maximum sometime before retiring, and then go back down to a low tax rate in their retirement. Understanding this is key to good RRSP contribution planning.

The general rule is to contribute as much as possible during high earning years, and contribute less, nothing at all, or even withdraw during low earning years. This makes the RRSP an excellent rainy day fund in addition to being a great retirement vehicle. The times you are taxed the least on your withdrawals are also the times when you need money the most. It also makes it a pretty good vehicle for saving for an extended time away from work. This could be a maternity/paternity leave, change of careers, return to school or a round-the-world trip of a lifetime. The withdrawals in “lean” years will be taxed at far lower tax rates than the same amount of income would have been taxed at in the high earning years.

I hope this helps you find an optimal contribution amount for your situation, and as always, I invite you to to subscribe to the blog by entering your email on the right side of the page, or use one of the buttons below to follow me on social media.

Note: Do not confuse RRSP withdrawal ‘penalties’ with tax rates. The ‘penalty’ is only a temporary withholding tax, and in a low earning year, you will get most of that money back when you file your taxes.

Note #2: An interesting observation is how slowly tax rates inch up for incomes over 91K. This basically ensures that contributing down to 91K or the maximum allowed (whichever is less) is the optimal strategy for any income over 91K.

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Investing your politics is guaranteed to lose you money

Investing your politics is one of the biggest mistakes individual investors make. If you listened to republican media over the past 8 years you would think the economy was always on the verge of falling apart and Obama was killing American businesses. It was time to get out of the stock market and put all your money under a mattress.

Instead this happened to the US stock market:


The bottom line is that if you are a republican (or Canadian supporter of them) who invested their politics (stayed out of the market) over the past 8 years you missed out on more than doubling your money.

We now have a new president in the US and he is just as hated by democrats as Obama was hated by republicans. Even before his election there were warnings that the stock market would immediately crash 10%-20% if he was elected and that the world economy will collapse. No such thing happened nor is likely to happen.

Like everyone else I have my own views on Trump as a man and as a political force. However, this blog is not a political blog, it is a blog on personal finance and investing for retirement. Therefore on here I am only concerned with the effect of likely Trump policies on the economy as a whole, and what that means to your investments. The reality is there are good and bad proposals/policies from both sides of the political divide, and many market friendly policies may not be ones you agree with ideologically. You can’t change these policies, they will happen whether you like them or not, so the only thing you can do as an investor is take advantage of them.

Therefore, if you are a democrat, be careful about assuming that everything Trump proposes will be an economic/market disaster. On the other hand, if you are a republican, be careful not to confuse the recent market rally with support for Trump policies. The market always rallies after a presidential election because some uncertainty is lifted. Namely we know who the president will be for at least 4 years and we can start to plan for that.

My next blog post will try to make some predictions as to which Trump policies are likely to pass senate and congress and what effect they will have on various stock markets.

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The simple formula to improve your decision making

I just watched The Big Short last night and became inspired to write this post. Having read the book years ago, I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m happy to say they’ve done an exceptional job. The movie offers the most accurate depiction of the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis that I’ve seen. It doesn’t mean it didn’t take some artistic liberties, but far less so than many so-called “reputable” news outlets. I watched it with my wife and was impressed how it managed to keep her attention despite stories about my day job generally being her favorite natural sleeping aid. I highly recommend the movie to everyone, but I digress.

The Formula

I think the movie illustrates that we as people are very bad at estimating and properly weighting risk, both in our day-to-day lives, and in our investing. Therefore I want to introduce a simple and powerful way of thinking about risk through the following formula:



Beyond finance

I recently had a conversation with a friend about whether cycling in downtown Toronto is more dangerous than driving in downtown Toronto. His argument rested on the fact that there are fewer bike accidents than car accidents per year, making biking safer. He focused in on “# of times bad things happen” part of the formula.

Why is this incorrect? There are even fewer “accidents” resulting from getting trashed and trying to frogger yourself across the QEW.  It doesn’t mean it’s a safer thing to do.

In order to truly assess risk you need to know more than the number of accidents cyclists got into (# of times bad things happened). You also need to know how many total bike trips have been taken as well as how badly the cyclists were hurt when they got into accidents (impact of outcome).

Let’s say that cyclists get into accidents every 100 trips they take, but cars get into accidents every 50 trips taken. Which is safer?

Probability of bike accident = 1/100 =1%
Probability of car accident = 1/50 = 2%

Cars are riskier right? Actually the above tells us nothing about the relative riskiness of the two methods of transportation. We need to consider the impact of having an accident. Let’s say that cyclist’s get three times as badly hurt (on average) as car drivers when they do get into an accident, what is less risky in that case?

EVbike = 1/100 * 3 = 3%
EVcar = 1/50 * 1 = 2%

When taking into account and quantifying the impact, it is now cycling that appears to be the more dangerous of the two modes of transportation.

Before I get a bicycle helmet thrown at my head I just want to point out these are not real stats. I actually have no clue which mode of transportation is safer. In fact I doubt anyone really does because it’s hard to get a reliable estimate on the number of cycling trips taken. I’m just debunking the idea that comparing the number of accidents gives us any indication of risk.


While sometimes difficult to use in everyday life, this formula is a great starting point of any investment analysis. To illustrate let me go back to a scene in the “Big Short” movie when the Cornwall Capital guys decide to short (that means profit from the demise of) AA mortgage bonds (relatively stable) versus BBB mortgage bonds (far worse quality). They make this bet despite the fact that the latter are far more likely to fail. Why did they make a bet on the far less likely outcome, rather than take what seemed to be the sure thing? The movie does not address this well, but it comes down to the EV formula above.

The guys would get back 5 times their money if BBB bonds failed, but they would get 20 times the money if AA bonds failed. If the probability of BBB bonds failing was assessed at 90% and probability of the AA bonds failing at 40%, which bet would you take?

EVaa = 40% * 20 = 8
EVbbb = 90% * 5 = 4.5

According to EV logic you should actually take the AA bet, despite the fact that you are less likely to be right, because it has almost double the expected value of the alternative.

Investing with non-binary outcomes

The above analysis works because there are only two possible outcomes and one of them involves losing everything. If the guys are wrong about the mortgage market, and none of the bonds fail, they lose their entire investment regardless of the bet taken. This is what’s meant by a binary outcome, you either win or lose everything, but nothing in between. In reality most investments offer a fluid set of possibilities. However, in many cases an initial analysis can still be done using a multi-part EV.

EV of investment = EV of good outcome – EV of bad outcome

Let’s say you believe all the news stories about the housing market in Toronto flattening out. This means you would expect prices to start stagnating or rising very slowly for a number of years. In this scenario, after taking into account mortgage and other ownership costs, you should expect real returns on house investments to be somewhere between 0 and 1% a year. You assign this scenario a 95% probability.

EVgood = 95% * 1% = 0.95%

Let’s say that you also believe there is a very slight possibility that there is a bubble and it’s going to burst. Given that rates cannot go below 0 (at least not much), the Bank of Canada would be powerless to stop the decline of prices by lowering rates, likely leading to at least a 30% decline. You assign this scenario a 5% probability.

EVbad = 5% * -30% = -1.5%

You can then combine the two events to determine whether you should invest:

EV = 0.95% + (-1.5%) = -0.55%

Since the overall EV is less than 0 you should not make this investment even if you think there is no bubble and prices will not fall. The near certainty of modest returns in the future is more than offset by the small probability of a severely bad outcome.

While I used only two scenarios, you can use this same process to come up with as many as you like, and add them together to come up with an EV value for the investment you plan to make. You can also calculate EV values for a number of competing investment options to help you decide which offers the best risk/reward balance.


I know it’s hard or near impossible to accurately quantify the impact and/or probability of an outcome in many cases. This is why assessing risk is something that requires years of practice and a good intuition. However, making decisions without taking into account all the factors represented in the formula is extremely dangerous. The expected value formula is simple starting point to anchor my thinking. It is the minimum that I consider when making important decisions under uncertainty.

I hope the above is relatively clear and you’ll find it helpful in your decision making. I know it has helped me make the right decision many times when the choice that seemed superficially obvious was the wrong one. Not to mention, thinking this way also has the added benefit of completely frustrating my wife and friends. Can’t wait until my boys are old enough! They’re going to love this!

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What’s going on with the economy? part1 – oil

I got a text message from a friend recently asking me “soo should I be taking all my money out of the banks?” This was a response to the stock markets particularly nasty drop that day. I reassured my friend he need not convert all his money into gold bullion or stock up on guns or canned food.

While my friend’s reaction was over the top for comedic value I think many people are wondering the same thing. What the heck is going on with the economy, Canadian dollar and oil prices, and how is it all related? While my main focus on this blog is personal finance, I realize at times like these everyone, even people who could not care less about markets, start to pay attention. This sporadic attention is dangerous to their financial health, because if they haven’t been paying attention, and suddenly focus on the latest media hysteria, it’s easy to blow things out of proportion. This post needs to be split up into parts because of the complexity of the subject but I hope I can cut through some of the smoke screen and help you understand what is really going on.

Part 1 – Oil

Any discussion about what is happening in the world right now has to start with oil. Most of you know that oil prices have collapsed over the past year but maybe not everyone knows why they’ve collapsed or why it’s such a big deal for Canada.

You may remember from school that prices are set by supply and demand. If 10 people each want an apple, and there are only 5 apples available, then the price of the apple will be bid up until only 5 people can actually afford to buy an apple (or one really rich person buys all 5, but I digress). On the other hand if 10 people want to sell an apple each, but only 5 people want buy an apple each, then the sellers will keep dropping their price as far as they can, so that theirs is one of the 5 apples that actually gets bought. This is what people mean when they say prices adjust to balance supply and demand.

When demand exceeds supply prices go up until demand = supply

When supply exceeds demand prices go down until demand = supply

The following chart shows oil demand with a black line and supply with a blue line.

Do you see how the blue line gets far ahead of the black line around the middle of 2014? It is not coincidence that around the end of 2014 oil prices started their historic slide losing approx. 80% of their value. The green bars illustrate the difference between supply and demand to make it easier to see just how much supply exceeded demand from mid-2014 on. It’s this divergence with supply far exceeding demand that explains why oil prices had to fall.

Supply of oil increased far faster than demand for oil

Why did this happen? Aren’t we supposed to hitting “peak oil” and scavenging for energy left overs by now? The answer lies in something called “fracking” which, aside from damaging the environment, has made the US one of the biggest oil producers in the world.

The chart below shows how non-OPEC oil producers (that’s us, the US and Canada) drastically increased oil production since 2013 and how that coincides with the oil price (green line) falling.

It turns out technologies such as fracking and oil sand extraction have made the US and Canada some of the top oil producers in the world.


This may come as a surprise to you but the US is actually the top oil producer in the world and Canada is not far behind at #5.

Since 2011 this happened to US oil field production:

The production almost doubled in a span of 4 years. To put things in perspective the increase is equivalent to an entire new second Canada (the #5 largest producer of oil in the world) appearing out of nowhere and pumping oil full speed.

If the US is a larger oil producer, then why does Canada seem so much more affected by the oil price decline? Part of it has to do with the relative size of the economy. While we are producing only 30% as much oil as the US, our economy is also at least 10 times smaller. This means we are at least 3 times as dependant as the US on oil sales to drive our economy.

What about China and demand for oil? I’m sure you’ve heard dire warnings on TV that the Chinese economy is crashing and therefore oil demand is plummeting. As it turns out, if in fact the Chinese economy is slowing, it’s really not showing up in oil demand numbers and therefore not likely to be driving prices:

See that green line above? That’s how much oil the world is consuming per day. See that giant drop around the end of 2014? Neither do I, because it isn’t there. World oil demand is just fine, it’s the staggering size of increase in oil output in the US that is almost entirely to blame (or to thank for, depending on your point of view) for the oil price fall.

Compare the green line over the last 3 years versus the green line between 2007 and 2009. There is a definite drop in oil demand in the period leading up to the great recession signalling a severe drop in production and economic activity. The fact that this time around we are not seeing a similar drop in demand, but rather the drop appears to be entirely supply driven, is very good news for the world economy. It means we are unlikely to see a world wide recession and the fears of a repeat of 2008 are much overblown.

In summary

  1. Oil price is driven by supply and demand.
  2. Price declines can be either caused by increases in supply or decreases in demand.
  3. In general decreases in oil demand signal a slow down or problem in the world economy, while increases in supply can actually have many positive implications.
  4. Since we are looking at a supply driven oil price decline this time around, the decline is unlikely to be signalling an economic slow-down as many fear.

All well and good then, but how does that relate to the Canadian dollar and Canadian economy? Stay tuned for part #2 of the article coming soon. To make sure you don’t miss it subscribe to email alerts (on the top right of this page) or follow me on social media by clicking one of the buttons below. 

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How to take paternity and maternity leave at the same time

This summer, I am taking 2 months off work (paternity leave) to spend with my wonderful wife and our two beautiful sons. While fathers taking paternity leave is starting to become a bit more common, what surprises people is that I am taking this time off concurrently while my wife is also at home. Most people believe that if the father is taking paternity leave then the mother has to return to work, which might be why most Canadian fathers are still not taking advantage of this option. The reality is both parents are entitled to 37 weeks off work to take care of their newborns, it’s just that the language of the law is a bit confusing, and there is one somewhat important caveat.

To understand how the law works we need to first distinguish between the two different types of leaves.

Maternity/Pregnancy Leave

The first type of leave is called Maternity Leave by Service Canada (the people who handle EI payments) and Pregnancy Leave by the Ontario Ministry of Labour (similarly for other provinces, but I’ll focus on Ontario since that’s where I live). This leave is 17 weeks long and is only available to biological birth mothers. The leave can be taken up to 17 weeks before the child’s due date all the way up to the date of birth, but not after. This leave is often “topped up” by employers to a certain percentage of the employees salary.

Parental Leave

This leave can be taken at any time in the 52 weeks following the child’s birth and is between 35 and 37 weeks. It is available to both parents even at the same time. The Ministry of Labour website states:

Parental leave is not part of pregnancy leave and so a birth mother may take both pregnancy and parental leave. In addition, the right to a parental leave is independent of the right to pregnancy leave. For example, a birth father could be on parental leave at the same time the birth mother is on either her pregnancy leave or parental leave.

The leave is shortened from 37 to 35 weeks for the biological mother, if she already took the 17 weeks off for maternity/pregnancy leave, for a total maximum 52 weeks off. This leave is generally not topped-up by employers, something that catches many people by surprise in the second half of their leave. The drop in income from the topped up maternity leave to the EI-only parental leave can be very significant for many families.

How will taking paternity leave affect my prospects at my employer?

Some fathers may be afraid to take paternity leave in case it adversely affects their career. It’s important to know that fathers taking parental leave have the exact same rights as mothers taking maternity leave. This means:

  • The right to reinstatement – You have to get your job back , or a similar one if yours is no longer available, at the same salary or higher.
  • The right to be free from penalty – This means the employer cannot punish you in any way for taking the leave.
  • The right to continue to participate in benefit plans – Your employer must continue paying their own share of the premiums on your insurance.

Why doesn’t everyone do this?

Most fathers don’t know that it’s even an option. While splitting parental leave between the mother and father is gaining in popularity, most families don’t seem to be aware that they can take parental leave at the same time.

How do I get paid?

There is always a catch right?  While the Ministry of Labour allows concurrent parental leaves and protects both parents, Service Canada will not pay both parents EI. The following note can be found on the Service Canada website.

Can both parents apply for EI parental benefits?

Yes, but they have to share the benefits. In total, there are 35 weeks of parental benefits available to eligible parents of a newborn or newly adopted child.

There are many ways you can decide to use your parental leave. For instance, one of the parents can take the entire 35 weeks of benefits, or both parents can share them.

This means if you both want to stay home and take care of the newborn only one of you gets paid EI (Note: to clarify, it IS possible to both get paid EI at the same time, but the total of 35 weeks is shared between the two parents regardless, so it does not really make sense to do so unless you both plan to go back to work early). Since the maternity leave is often topped-up by your employer while the parental leave is not it’s best to have the mother claim the entire EI amount. This turns the fathers paternity leave into an unpaid leave.

In summary

While fathers are fully protected to stay home with their wife and newborn for up to 35 weeks after the baby is born, this is not a cheap option. Since only one parent can get paid EI at any one time, taking paternity leave requires some very careful financial planning. It’s important to save up not only for the paternity leave itself, but also for the reduced income after all the mothers employer top-ups run out.

I know it seems difficult to save up for a month or two off work and then have to deal with a reduced income afterwards. However, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made, and I’ve done it now twice, with both my sons. If you think about it, it’s really just a matter of making this time off a priority in your life. The EI that one of you will receive is worth $524 a week based on $49,500 a year salary. This means most people will get $2,270 a month from EI alone. Assuming a generous family budget of $5,000 a month, and no employer top up for the mother, this means you would need to save $2,730 per month off.

While $2,730 is not a trivial amount it is not more than a single week vacation to Mexico (2 people),  far less than even a minor house renovation, and probably the same amount as the delivery fees you pay when you pick up your new car. It might only require getting a bit creative on your baby room expenses and toys. What would you rather have, a quartz counter-top in your bathroom that will be out of style 2 years after you install it, or a once in a lifetime experience spending a summer with your family?

You know what I would choose each and every single time!

Spending time with my son on my paternity leave

Enjoying Paternity Leave at Lake Huron

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Something awesome has happened

Something amazing happened on June 25th, 2015. His name is Alexander and he is the reason why I haven’t had the time to write any new blog posts.


I’ve been off work pretty much since the day he was born and it’s been a wonderful, but yet, incredibly exhausting time. I am savoring every moment, thinking how lucky I am to be able to spend all this time getting to know him, and helping my wife by taking care of our other 20-month old little terror.

Given how busy I am with both of the boys I keep wondering how other parents do this. Few couples have the kind of time and support my wife and I are blessed with. With both of us at home and both sets of grand parents close-by to babysit my older son 3 times a week, it still feels like more than a full time job. My full respect to all the mothers out there who somehow manage to juggle two little ones with their husband at work. Same goes for all the fathers out there who barely get any sleep helping their wives with the newborn, and still get up in the morning for a full day of work.

I fully realize that few parents have the luxury to take two months off when their babies are born. I do hope that reading this blog may help some of you planning to have a family prepare for this day financially, so you too can choose to spend the summer with your newborn. Believe me, your spouse or partner will love you for it!

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money, budgeting, spending, personal finance

The best way to curb the urge to splurge

We’re out and about somewhere and we see this amazing dress or a really fancy car, and we get an irresistible urge to splurge. We may be at a friends place and their newly renovated kitchen or porch makes us want to run out and hire a contractor. We’ve all been there.

There is nothing wrong with buying the things we like. The purchasing of items and services is, after all, the whole purpose of money. If we couldn’t exchange money for useful things it would be just worthless pieces of paper, or maybe just a meaningless number in a computer somewhere. However, we often get ourselves in trouble when we don’t fully visualize what it will cost to purchase this item we’re currently coveting.

The trouble is the cost in dollar terms is easily lost on us because we are not very good at visualizing numbers. Therefore, the best way to control the urge to splurge is to visualize the cost in terms of something else we really covet. 

This “something” else could be anything that we value very highly in our lives. In the case of my wife and I, we often use travelling as a point of reference. My wife will often joke about getting an expensive designer purse, but she immediately puts it in travel terms, and it makes the urge go away.  “It’s only enough money to backpack Asia for 3 months” is the best antidote to a bad impulse purchase. “That kitchen reno would be great! it’s just about enough money to finance a full year travelling around the world for the entire family.” Ehh, maybe we’ll skip it.

The same goes for putting money away for retirement or for time away from work. We try to fully visualize what that extra $3,000 spent on furniture means in terms of buying our time back. Would I rather buy new furniture for my basement, or take 2 months off work to spend with my newborn child, as I am doing this summer. To me, the choice is pretty obvious once it’s stated in this way.

This can also work for recurring purchases such as cable bills and gym memberships. What we usually do is multiply this monthly bill by 12 and put it in terms of vacations or plane flights. $1,500 a year for cable can buy two plane tickets to somewhere in the Caribbean, Central America or even South America.

The use of travel and time off as a comparison works for us because we value these things very highly. However, you may have entirely different priorities. Perhaps your priority is improving your home, or being able to go out to your own cottage every week, or to buy a boat. Whatever the priority is, the key is recognizing it, and then making the little daily decisions to get you there. Framing any impulse purchases in terms of delaying or preventing you from reaching those true priorities will help you control the urge to splurge. It will also help you achieve those goals much sooner.

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Retire 5 years earlier by ditching your mutual funds

Just imagine, retiring 5 years earlier than planned, simply by switching from mutual funds to exchange traded funds. The difference between retiring in 30 years, instead of in 25 years, can be all just due to mutual fund management (MER) fees.  How is that possible? Aren’t mutual fund fees something tiny like 1 or 2%?

Mutual fund fees need to be compared against the benchmark expected return

Mutual fund fees are always quoted based on the amount of money you have invested in the fund, not on the amount of money you are making from owning the fund.

The way mutual fund fees are presented is a bit like dividing maintenance fees on an investment condo by the full price of the condo. It’s a great way to make those fees look small, but not a very accurate way of measuring their true cost. If we want to assess whether the condo is a good investment, we would instead check how those fees compare to the rent charged to tenants.

Similarly, we need to compare the fees mutual funds charge to the investment returns they are likely to provide.

How much does an average mutual fund tracking the S&P 500 really charge in fees?

Let’s say we invest $10,000 in a mutual fund tracking the S&P 500 and charging a 2.11% management fee. This type of fund, if it does it’s job well, should return approx. 10% per year over the long term with dividends reinvested (before fees).

Therefore, in an average year we will pay 2.11% out of the 10% annual return or 21.1% of our expected return in fees

In dollar terms, that’s a potential return of $1,000 on the year being reduced by $211 to earn us only $789. That’s a huge difference!

What about the lower fee bond funds?

The news does not get better with lower fee funds because they also generally offer lower expected returns. For example this bond fund charges only a 1.47% fee, which might seem like a bargain compared to the one above, however the fund is also only expected to return 5.2%.

This means the fund fee is actually 1.47% out of 5.2% yearly return, or 28% of our expected return in fees.

In dollar terms, that’s a potential return of $520 on the year being reduced by $147 to earn you only $373. Despite this fund charging a lower fee on your investment, it’s actually more expensive than the S&P 500 fund when compared to it’s expected return!

How about over the long term?

I hope you can see, from the two examples above, that mutual fund management fees are actually far bigger than they first appear. The problem just gets worse over time though because of compounding.

Assuming a 10% annual return on the S&P500, here is a 3 year comparison between the mutual fund charging 2.11%, and a comparable exchange traded fund charging a 0.17% fee.

Per $10,000 invested

End of End of Year Balance  0.17% fee End of Year Balance 2.11% fee Additional fees paid for 2.11% mutual fund over 0.17% ETF
Year 1 $10,983.00 $10,789.00 $194.00
Year 2 $12,062.63 $11,640.25 $422.38
Year 3 $13,248.39 $12,558.67 $689.72

We can see that the total of additional fees paid after 3 years, is greater than 3 times the 1 year additional fee ($689.72 > 3 * $194). Why? The fee reduced balance after each subsequent year is smaller, which in turn means the same 10% return generates less money. This effect is called compounding and it greatly amplifies small differences over long periods of time.

After 25 years, assuming a 10% annualized return, a $100,000 mutual fund investment (2.11% fee) will turn into $667,621. That’s not bad, but the same $100,000 will be worth $1,042,376 if invested into the 0.17% exchange traded fund.

That “little” 2.11% fee ends up costing us around $330,000, or 30% of our total potential retirement nest egg!

Incidentally, it takes an extra 5 years before the mutual fund balance comes close ($975,969) to that of the exchange traded fund.


What would you do with an extra 5 years of retirement? 

Note sure where to start? See my article on how to set up an exchange traded fund (ETF) based retirement portfolio in 3 easy steps.

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