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Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan becomes second public pension to write off crypto bet

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By Ian Bickis in Toronto

For the second time this year a major Canadian public pension is writing down to zero a bet on cryptocurrency as the risky market sours.

The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan said this week it will write off its US$95-million investment in FTX, the cryptocurrency exchange that collapsed last week, following a move by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec to write off its US$150-million investment in Celsius Network in August.

The investments, while providing potential exposure to an emerging asset class, point to the wider risks pension funds have taken on as part of a hunt for returns, said Malcolm Hamilton, a pension expert and senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute.

“My perception is they have very dramatically increased the risk profile of the portfolio with the passage of time,” he said, noting that in the 1990s funds were much more focused on government bonds.

Hamilton said the erosion of returns in more stable assets like government bonds has pushed pensions to diversify investments into new areas, though he notes that given the size of the funds, it’s inevitable some bets will look risky without jeopardizing overall funds.

Ontario Teachers’ said in a statement that its investment in FTX represents less than 0.05 per cent of its total net assets, and was invested through its Teachers’ Venture Growth platform to “gain small-scale exposure to an emerging area in the financial technology sector.”

The pension plan said that while the financial loss from FTX will have limited impact because of its relatively small size, it’s disappointed in the result.

The investments are hardly the first by public pensions to dip their toe in the space though, with the venture arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System investing in some crypto-related assets as far back as 2012.

And while public pensions have different expectations than private funds because they’re investing public money, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to dabble in the emerging space, said John Rekenthaler, vice-president of research for Morningstar.

“They have the right to invest in that, but they also have the right to lose their jobs.”

He said there needs to be serious questions around due diligence for the investments, and given the limits on what can be known in the emerging sector, if the returns fit the risk.

“That’s part of the judgment call that the pension fund manager has to make. Am I getting compensated enough?”

Ontario Teachers’ said in its statement that it conducts robust due diligence on all private investments.

The pension fund said that given the limitations on due diligence, especially in an emerging technology business, it sized its investment moderately in relation to both its venture fund and overall portfolio.

FTX, valued at US$32 billion in the fundraising round that Ontario Teachers’ participated in last January, filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 11.

John Ray III, who was appointed CEO at FTX as part of the filing, and has in the past been brought on to turn around companies in crisis including Enron, said the operational practices at the company were the worst he had seen.

“Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here,” he said.

Other big Canadian public pension funds still have yet to see the risks as worth it.

John Graham, chief executive of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, said at a July event that the fund was looking at crypto, since as trillion-dollar market they need to understand it, but that they were still on the sidelines.

“You don’t want to just be investing with FOMO. You want to really think about what the underlying intrinsic value is of some of these assets and build your portfolio accordingly,” Graham said at the time.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

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What the latest Bank of Canada rate hike means for inflation, consumers

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By Tara Deschamps

The Bank of Canada hiked its key policy rate by half a percentage point to 4.25 per cent — the highest it’s been since January 2008 — on Wednesday in its final rate decision of a year that has been marked by stubbornly high inflation and rapidly increasing interest rates.

The bank, which has made a steady succession of large hikes over the course of the year, is widely believed to be nearing an end to the increases.

In announcing the rate hike Wednesday, the bank said it will consider whether the rate “needs to rise further to bring supply and demand back into balance and return inflation to target.”

Here’s a look at what the rate means, how analysts are interpreting it and what it could mean for consumers.

What is the key policy rate and what does it do?

The key policy rate, also known as the target for the overnight rate, is how much interest the Bank of Canada wants commercial banks to charge when lending each other money overnight to settle daily balances.

Knowing how much it costs to lend money, or deposit it with the central bank, helps set the interest rates charged on things like loans and mortgages.

Lowering the rate generally makes borrowing money more affordable, while raising it makes such activities more expensive.

Why is the bank using the rate to target inflation?

Inflation is a measure of how much prices of goods and services are rising or falling. High inflation is a sign of an economy that’s overheating.

Canada’s annual inflation rate reached a peak of 8.1 per cent in June, the highest level in four decades.

It has eased since then, reaching 6.9 per cent in September, but didn’t budge in October. And shoppers have seen higher prices for common expenses like groceries. Grocery prices have been rising at the fastest pace in decades and were 11 per cent higher in October than they were a year ago.

Economists and the central bank want to see a further easing, which is why interest rates have been rising so quickly in the hope of cooling consumer spending patterns.

“Inflation is still too high and short-term inflation expectations remain elevated,” the bank said in its announcement. “The longer that consumers and businesses expect inflation to be above the target, the greater the risk that elevated inflation becomes entrenched.”

What does this mean for my mortgage?

Mortgage rates tend to increase or decrease in tandem with interest rates.

When Canadians buy homes there are two kinds of mortgages they can select — fixed rate or variable. Fixed-rate mortgages allow borrowers to lock in the interest rate they will pay for a set amount of time, while variable-rate mortgages can fluctuate.

Allison Van Rooijen, vice-president of consumer credit at Meridian Credit Unit, estimates the rate hike Wednesday will bump payments on a $450,000 variable-rate mortgage on a 25-year amortization up another $130 or so every month. Since the beginning of 2022, rising rates have amounted to roughly $1,000 more per month since the beginning of 2022.

“Because of the high cost of housing in Canada and years of low borrowing rates, Canadians are carrying record-levels of debt on mortgages and lines of credit, so it’s really important that people go through their expenses and look to scale back discretionary spending where they can,” she said in an email.

She recommends people double down on efforts to pay off debt with higher interest rates as much as possible and if they are running into trouble making payments, discuss whether switching to another format of mortgage is right for them.

Does this mean interest rates will stop rising soon?

Shortly after the announcement, many economists predicted the bank isn’t done with hikes yet, even though the language in the statement signalled the possibility of holding steady at 4.25 per cent.

BMO Capital Markets chief economist Douglas Porter said a further hike of about 25 basis points is likely still to come because he’s concerned about the “stickiness of underlying inflation.”

James Orlando of TD Economics agreed. He expects the bank will deliver its final rate hike for the foreseeable future in January, bringing the measure to 4.5 per cent.

“We don’t think the Bank of Canada is done yet, but it is quickly approaching the end of its hiking cycle,” he wrote in a note to investors.

“As all Canadians know, the rapid rate hikes over 2022 have caused a dramatic adjustment in the real estate market, and we are starting to see this in consumer spending data. We expect this to continue to weigh on the economy over 2023 as the lagged effects of past hikes filter through.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.

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Experts raise concerns as Nigeria limits cash withdrawals

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By Chinedu Asadu in Abuja

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Experts on Wednesday raised concerns over a new policy announced by the Central Bank of Nigeria that heavily limits withdrawals of money in a push for a cashless economy.

The monetary policy, which applies to ATMs, banks and cash back from purchases, follows the launch of the West African nation’s newly designed currency notes to control the money supply.

The central bank limited weekly over-the-counter cash withdrawals to 100,000 naira ($225) for individuals and 500,000 naira ($1,124) for corporations, with a processing fee required to access more.

When the policy takes effect in Jan. 9, ATMs will no longer dispense Nigeria’s high denominations of 1,000 naira ($2.25) and 500 naira ($1.10) while withdrawals from ATMs and point-of-sale terminals also will be limited to 20,000 naira ($45) daily.

“In compelling circumstances, not exceeding once a month, where cash withdrawals above the prescribed limits are required for legitimate purposes, such cash withdrawals shall not exceed 5,000,000 naira ($11,236) and 10,000,000 naira ($22,471) for individuals and corporations, respectively,” said Haruna Mustafa, the bank’s director of banking supervision.

Policymakers say the withdrawal limits and recent monetary initiatives from the central bank would bring more people into the banking system and curb currency hoarding, illicit flows and inflation.

But analysts worry that with digital payments often unreliable in Nigeria, the initiative could hurt daily transactions that people and businesses make.

“The policy is intended to cause discomfort, to move you from cash to cashless because they (the central bank) have said they want to make it uncomfortable and expensive for you to hold cash,” economic analyst Kalu Aja said.

“That is a positive for the CBN (because) the more discomforting they are able to achieve, the more people can move,” Aja said.

In Nigeria, the majority of people work in the informal sector — mainly activities outside of the legal framework and government regulation such as farming, street and market trade, and public transport. The economy is heavily dependent on this sector, and cash is usually preferred for transactions because many lack bank accounts.

Only 45% of adults in Nigeria have accounts with regulated financial institutions, according to the World Bank. In the absence of bank accounts, point-of-sale terminals have emerged as one of the fastest-growing areas of financial inclusion in the country.

Through the withdrawal limits, the central bank is “directly attacking” such agency banking services and “people will essentially begin to hoard their money,” said Tunde Ajileye, a partner at Lagos–based SBM Intelligence firm.

“It is not going to drive people to start to try doing electronic transactions. On the contrary, it is going to move people away from the financial institutions,” he said.

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