Our Views

How safe are GICs?

Yesterday marked what could be a watershed moment for investors in Europe as Germany managed to sell €3.9 billion worth of six months bonds at a negative interest rate. Marginally negative, but it demonstrates that investors are so worried about the economy in Europe that they are willing to pay Germany for the privilege of lending it money. When these bonds mature, investors will receive less money than they invested. They would quite literally be better off sticking their money under a mattress.

Investor sentiment worldwide is cautious with a tremendous amount of cash sitting on the sidelines. Recently, I’ve had several conversations with prospective investors who have asked whether their capital would be safe in GICs. The answer to this question is not straightforward as we first have to define what “safe” means.

If the question is whether I believe that investors will get their money back and earn a return on GICs, then the answer is “yes”. The Canadian banking system is strong and well capitalized. There is no reason to believe that investing in the debt of these banks is risky, unlike the view many investors are taking towards European banks.

The majority of high net worth investors worked very hard to build their net worth and are naturally risk averse. They generally state that at the very least, they want to preserve the value of their portfolio. I generally interpret this to mean that they want the portfolio at a minimum, to grow greater than the rate of inflation. By stating they want to preserve the value of their portfolio they are really trying to say, “preserve my standard of living”.

So, if the question is whether I believe that investors will preserve the value of their capital by investing in GICs, the answer is “no”. A dollar today, invested in a GIC will be worth less in the future.

Investing in a locked-in one year GIC with a major bank will result in a return of 1.15% on which tax must be paid at the highest marginal rate (for this purpose assume 46.41%). The Bank of Canada puts the rate of inflation at 2.90% on a year over year basis. Since last March, the inflation rate has hovered around 3.0%, at the higher end of the Bank of Canada’s target range. In the graph, I have plotted how a portfolio invested in GICs would grow, after tax, if invested at 1.15%. I have also plotted the effect inflation would have on the cost of goods.

For the purpose of this exercise, I have assumed that these rates hold steady going forward. In five years, the purchasing power of a dollar invested in a GIC would decline by 10.6%. In other words, a dollar invested in GICs today will be worth 89.4 cents five years from now, if inflation stays the same. With so much cash flooding the system, inflation rates may well be higher in future years, and the return more negative.

GICs can be a good solution for the short term when uncertainty remains high, but they will do little to protect the value of your portfolio or your standard of living over time. So what do you do?

We still believe a well diversified portfolio managed with some cash (i.e. T-bills) as a defensive measure and a a client’s tolerance for risk in mind will outperform the markets and preserve your standard of living.