Target Latest Sell Canada Order Amid Spreading Oil Pain

Add Target Corp.’s retreat from Canada to the sell orders piling up on the country.

The U.S. retailer of cheap-chic clothing and housewares announced it will close operations in Canada after amassing more than $2 billion in operating losses in less than two years, affecting 17,600 jobs.

Target joins Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Fidelity Investments and investors in exchange-traded funds betting against the country’s currency, equities and even its once-vaunted bank stocks as oil collapses and the outlook for the consumer -- the driving force behind the Canadian economy in recent years -- dims.

“We think the Canadian economy is at risk,” Collin Crownover, State Street Global Advisors Inc.’s Boston-based head of currency management, said in a phone interview. Crownover said he’s betting on continued weakness in the Canadian dollar. “I never really understood why Canada was considered a haven when the economy is so dependent on commodities.”

The move against Canadian assets is accelerating. Traders yanked $874 million from all U.S.-based exchange-traded funds with a Canada focus from Oct. 1 through Jan. 13. That’s a 22 percent drop amid the plunge in oil, the country’s biggest export, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The retreat from Canada puts it second in dollar terms to the U.K. for country-focused funds.

ETF Sales

Bank of America is telling investors to take bearish bets against Canadian bank stocks in favor of U.S. regional lenders and the Canadian dollar’s 2.2 percent slump this month to about 84 U.S. cents has already blasted past the average year-end target of a Bloomberg analysts’ survey. The Standard & Poor’s/TSX Composite Index, Canada’s benchmark equity gauge, has dropped 6.6 percent in the past six months, compared with a 1.9 percent gain for the U.S.’s S&P 500.

While Minneapolis-based Target’s foray north was marked by mistakes including botched inventory control that left shelves bare and a selection that didn’t meet Canadian taste and price sensibilities, it’s liquidating operations as oil’s 55 percent plunge since June begins to take its toll.

Canada’s publicly traded energy companies have announced about $12 billion of capital spending cuts since November, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That includes Suncor Energy Inc., which said it would eliminate 1,000 jobs. The spending and job cuts may push Alberta into a recession, according to the Conference Board of Canada, a research group.

Slowdown Spreading

The slump in oil is “on the whole” a negative for the economy, and prices could go lower, or remain low, for a significant period before the world adjusts to the recent surge in supply and slower global growth, Bank of Canada Deputy Governor Tim Lane said Jan. 13. The central bank, which predicted in October the economy will expand by 2.4 percent in 2015, will give a detailed outlook on Jan. 21.

Morgan Stanley cut its estimate of 2015 Canadian growth to 1.8 percent, from a 2.4 percent projection in December and said there’s now a one in three chance the Bank of Canada will cut interest rates this year.

David Wolf, co-manager of Fidelity Canadian Asset Allocation Fund and a former Bank of Canada adviser, also says the next move on rates may be down while investors have ratcheted back expectations for a rate rise this year. Futures trading is pricing in a 17 percent chance of an increase, compared with 48 percent at the beginning of January.

Debt-Saddled

Markets also see further declines for the loonie, which was quoted buying 84.21 U.S. cents at 9:30 a.m. and has dropped 7.9 percent against its U.S. counterpart over the past year. Wagers against the currency outnumbered those for it -- so-called net shorts -- by 17,087 positions as of Jan. 6, the most since Dec. 5, according to data from the Washington-based Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

The currency’s move down has worked against Target by eroding the value of sales when converted to U.S. currency. The loonie, as the Canadian currency is known, has plunged about 17 percent since Target agreed to buy store leases in January 2011 for about $1.85 billion to kick start its Canadian expansion.

For Merrill Lynch, the risk is the slowdown in the oil sands will seep into a housing market “already saddled with near-record levels of household leverage.”

The loss of the Target jobs will only add to the concern.

Canada’s ratio of household debt to disposable income rose to a record 162.6 percent between July and September, according to data released last month. Benchmark interest rates of 1 percent have fanned a house-buying frenzy that sent 2014 sales up 6.7 percent in Toronto and 16 percent in Vancouver.

‘Collateral Damage’

“Given the high cost of production of Canadian oil sands, unless you think oil is going back to $70 or $80 a barrel they’ll suffer and we think that’ll have collateral damage to the financial sector in Canada,” Brian Leung, global equity strategist at Merrill Lynch, said by phone from New York Jan. 12.

Leung and Chief Investment Strategist Michael Hartnett advised shorting Canadian banks as one of their 15 trade ideas of 2015 and forecast the real estate market in Detroit, which is emerging from the U.S. auto collapse, will outperform Calgary. Canada’s oil hub is already showing signs of real estate stress. Resale home prices in the city fell 1.1 percent in December from November, the biggest drop in almost two years.

Canadian banks aren’t used to being in the position of being shorted. The Geneva-based World Economic Forum named the country’s banks the world’s soundest lenders for seven straight years after they sidestepped the worst of the 2008-09 credit crisis, an achievement the country’s politicians were never shy of crowing about.

Advantage Disappears

Uncertainty about Canadians’ ability to keep stoking consumer spending is already beginning to take its toll on bank stocks. After reaching a record in September, the S&P/TSX Composite Commercial Banks index has dropped 4 percent over the past three months while the KBW Bank Index of 24 U.S. lenders has gained 1.1 percent. In the bond market, the advantage Canadian banks enjoyed over peers almost without interruption since the financial crisis in 2008 has disappeared, as bond yields converge with the global average.

“The financial sector has been benefiting from a strong real estate market up until now,” Youssef Zohny, portfolio manager at StennerZohny Investment Partners of Richardson GMP Ltd., said by phone from Vancouver on Jan. 12. Richardson GMP manages about C$29.3 billion. “But going forward there are some signs: household debt in Canada, obviously the oil price being cut in half. These things could have some effects on bank earnings.”

Poland Better

Investors are still enamored with at least one major Canadian asset class -- bonds. The yield on the 10-year benchmark government bond hit a record low of 1.516 yesterday, breaching a nadir on July 2012 as investors bid up prices amid a global flight to quality. Canadian bond returns have outpaced global peers since Oct. 1, gaining 3.8 percent compared with an overall 3 percent advance in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Global Broad Market Index.

The drop in oil prices should give consumers more money to spend elsewhere while the lower currency will boost Canadian exports to the U.S., where growth is revving up.

Wolf at Fidelity is looking for higher returns south of the border.

“Better investment performance can be expected from moving out of Canadian assets into U.S. equities in particular,” he said in a Jan. 7 outlook, repeating advice he offered last year.

Jonathan Lemco, senior sovereign debt analyst at Vanguard Group Inc., the world’s biggest mutual-fund company, said Canada remains an important part of his funds as a risk diversification, but he prefers markets in Chile, Poland and Korea.

“Canada is a big commodity producer, oil is a big part of that, China and other countries are buying a little less,” he said by phone. “It will take a bit of a hit.”

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