After Canadian stocks were pounded this week amid relative calm elsewhere, investors are starting to ask themselves an uncomfortable question: Has Canada's stock market become a chronic laggard?
The benchmark S&P/TSX composite index has staged a sudden reversal of fortune, largely due to broad sell-offs in the key energy and financial sectors. The index has dropped 4.2 per cent in the past two weeks, including Thursday's 284-point plunge – its worst one-day decline in over a year.
Over that time, the TSX has been hit by four triple-digit declines for a net loss of more than 600 points, even as the S&P 500 closed this week at a fresh record high.
"The two respective equity markets are seemingly going in polar opposite directions of late," Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns, said in a note.
Investors can blame much of the current bout of turbulence on crude oil's collapse and its impact on Canadian energy producers. But the bigger picture isn't looking much better.
The financial crisis gave investors a feeling that the Canadian market was one of the safest.
Far from collapsing, Canadian banks never even cut their dividends. Commodity prices were hammered but they rebounded just as fast, putting Canadian energy producers and miners back on course for the so-called commodities supercycle.
Now, "safe" is the last word you should use to describe Canada.
Crude oil has fallen nearly 40 per cent since the summer, dragging energy stocks into a bear market. Canadian Oil Sands Ltd., a company that defines the sector, has cut its dividend dramatically in an effort to buttress its balance sheet.
There are problems elsewhere, too. Gold miners are suffering from high expenses and lower gold prices. And those rock-solid Canadian banks are turning cautious about their earnings outlook for the upcoming year, due to low interest rates and high consumer debt levels.
If that looks like a collection of near-term concerns that will blow over, look again: Longer-term performance numbers suggest that the Canadian stock market can challenge an investor's patience.
Canadian stocks are lagging the gains in U.S. stocks in 2014, putting them on track for their fourth-straight year of underperformance.
The TSX has risen 6.3 per cent, lagging the 12.3-per-cent gain for the S&P 500. In U.S. dollar terms, the TSX is down 1.3 per cent for the year because the loonie has fallen sharply next to the greenback.
One bad year can be dismissed as a fluke. Even the past five years – a period in which the TSX has lagged the S&P 500 by about 60 percentage points, without factoring in currency changes – can be explained away by extraordinary monetary policies from the U.S. Federal Reserve and a global fascination with U.S. assets.
But how do you explain the fact that Canadian stocks have also underperformed over the past 10-year, 20-year and 30-year periods, the latter by a whopping 640 percentage points? The S&P 500 has risen a total of about 1,164 per cent since November, 1984, or 11.4 per cent a year on average (not factoring in dividends). The TSX has gained just 523 per cent or an average of 6.3 per cent a year.
If you own a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund that tracks the index, or one that closely resembles it, your portfolio is also lagging.
This underperformance wouldn't be a problem if investors devoted a relatively small portion of their financial assets to the Canadian stock market, which accounts for just 4 per cent of the world's market capitalization.
But like many of the world's investors, Canadians have a home-country bias and invest a disproportionate amount of money in Canadian stocks – about 60 per cent of their equity holdings, according to a recent study by Vanguard.
The S&P/TSX composite index is often criticized for being an undiversified index that relies far too much on commodity producers and financials. Together, these areas represent nearly 70 per cent of the index in terms of their market capitalization.
There's another related problem: The index is skewed toward cyclical sectors that tend to rise and fall with the business cycle, rewarding nimble (or lucky) investors who can time their entries and exits but punishing investors who prefer to buy and hold.
The Canadian stock market has a lot going for it, especially when commodity producers and financials are firing on all cylinders.
Now, its flaws are showing.