Monthly Archive for September, 2007

Portfolio Update: Switched from iShares’ XIN to Vanguard’s VEA

On Friday it was time for another ETF purchase as about $2500 had built up in one of our RRSPs. According to the actual allocations and the expected/desired/original allocations, the area we were most deficient in was International equities. I decided it was time to put the new cash into Vanguard Europe Pacific ETF (VEA), and at the same time, transfer my current holdings in iShares CDN MSCI EAFE Index Fund (XIN) into VEA. At the time that I chose XIN, I did not have time to do any detailed investigations so I chose it over EFA because of some advice I read on Martin Gale’s blog (note: VEA did not exist at that time). In an article called “Exchange Traded Funds: Recommendations” he said “Something is missing in the above: There’s no EAFE listed. That’s because the EAFE funds available on the US exchanges such as EFA, IEF, and EZU, or the country-specific funds, all have the same or higher cost than a fund that is available to you right here in Canada, so there is no point to buy them.” Unfortunately there is no date on that article so I am not exactly sure when he wrote it, but he wrote a later article called “Changes To Barclays Canadian iShares: XSP and XIN“:

Barclays’ new idea for these Canadian iShares exchange traded funds is to concentrate on eliminating “currency risk”. The idea is to give you a way of investing in American and overseas securities without having to worry about fluctuations in the Canadian dollar. Given the massive appreciation of the Canadian dollar over the past few years this certainly seems like a good idea–but it is not necessarily. It requires careful thought
. . .
Thus, a very strong argument can be made that if foreign securities made sense for you before, that they still make sense to you today, and that you should prefer to hold them in a foreign currency. The new XSP and XIN Canadian iShares are thus bad news for you, and you should avoid them–instead you should look at the alternatives you can now freely buy on the U.S. market.

I suggest reading the whole article, that is just a snippet. The idea is that if you can tolerate some foreign currency exposure (which I think I can and I do have some Canadian dollar holdings as well, namely, Canadian equities and bonds) foreign currency ETFs like iShares MSCI EAFE Index Fund (EFA) offer lower cost and so they are preferred (unless of course you really want to have all your holdings in Canadian dollars and are convinced that the Canadian dollar will grow to be more and more valuable than other currencies over the long haul). So in his future articles he would recommend EFA (like this one) and in even later articles recommended a combination of VPL and VGK because “there a few new ETF’s [VPL and VGK] on the market that we can use to track foreign equities, that are cheaper than the ETF’s we had available to us last year”.

Now VEA is out (as reported by the Canadian Capitalist) and is the perfect replacement for the higher cost EFA. VEA has an MER of 0.15% and EFA has an MER of 0.35%. Unfortunately I had to pay more commission ($20 CAD) as I had to sell my XIN, however, XIN had an even higher MER of 0.50% so I think it is worth it to switch over to VEA completely.

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Ask Dave: Costs of Switching From Stocks to ETFs

Another reader had some questions about how to switch from a mutual fund and/or equity-based portfolio to a passive ETF-based portfolio.

My wife and I have 3 accounts which have about 20 equities in each. As a whole, the accounts are not well balanced, and they are overweighted with Canadian securities from the days that there were restrictions to RRSPs in their foreign content.

I have taken over management of the accounts myself. They have been moved to a discount brokerage that was imposed on us because of some quirks in the accounts that forced us to use a particular broker who was agreeable to accept our holdings. Their trading fee is $29.95/transaction.

After doing extensive reading and research, I have decided to restructure the accounts to resemble a structure similar to your Passive EFT portfolio. I was very impressed with your rationale in formulating your post of April 15, 2007.

We are locked in to some mutual funds and other fixed income vehicles which will restrict our immediate restructuring abilities. I believe it may be best to leave the best of our Canadian equities that are already in place, rather than selling them and purchasing XIC. We will also need to keep the other restricted holdings, as mentioned above. As a result, we will need to take substantial new positions in VTI, VWO and XIN. In essence, we will be paring 50 or more holdings to less than 10. We will basically sell Canadian equities, mostly banks, to purchase diversified content, US and foreign (VTI, VWO, XIN).

First, I want to make a general point. Do not forget that stocks have no MERs. If you have a portfolio of 60 stocks it has no ongoing expense fee. Hold on to them for many years and you may do better than index ETFs which have a small non-negligible MER. So is worth it to sell those 60 equities you have spread out between 3 accounts? Maybe not. 60 equities is plenty of diversification in one market. If a portfolio of 60 Canadian equities was handed down to me I would think twice about selling them and switching to an ETF. The commission to sell those 60 equities is going to be $1200 at least, plus I am going to have to pay around 0.25% commission on the ETF annually. If some of the 60 Canadian equities were going to be sold in order to diversify into international and US investments then some added cost might be worth it. I just wanted remind people that stocks on their own have no commissions but ETFs do and in some cases it might be best to hang on to those stocks if they have already been purchased. In most cases, however, index ETFs are probably a better solution as they provide lots of diversification at a low-cost with little hassle. Another thing to consider is that the commissions to sell the stocks will one day have to be paid anyways; however the commission as a percentage of the investment will decrease because the stocks will surely grow over the long term.

I am guessing you were also thinking about costs when you said you “believe it may be best to leave the best of our Canadian equities that are already in place, rather than selling them and purchasing XIC.” I agree with you that selling all of them and buying XIC seems a bit unnecessary. Assuming you have a good number of stocks (>=30) that would be just as good as XIC, if not better, due to the lowered on-going cost.

For your international investment please consider Vanguard Europe Pacific ETF (VEA) as an alternative to iShares CDN MSCI EAFE Index Fund (XIN) if you can handle the extra foreign currency holdings, as it has a lower MER. Remember that VEA is equivalent to owning the underlying investments in their respective foreign currencies, not US dollars. So you should not be concerned with the US dollar but with Canada’s currency against world currencies. The MER is a lot less in VEA vs. XIN and it is basically the same thing as EFA (which XIN holds underneath but hedged to CAD dollars).

My questions are:

Should I be concerned about the costs of buying and selling the 30 or more holdings?

Well one thing I would be concerned about is if the cost of selling 30 or more holdings was more than, say, 1% of your portfolio (1% figure chosen arbitrarily). If your portfolio is only worth $1000 and you are paying $100 in commissions it doesn’t really make sense. It would take a year at 10% interest to make up the loss and leave you will no gain. That’s like taking one whole year off the investment period. Or another way of thinking about it is that the commission as a percentage of your portfolio is going to affect the final portfolio by that percentage as well, if you consider the commission as affecting the future value of your investments. Here’s the longer explanation. The future value without any commissions is:

FV_0=PV \times (1+i)^n

The final value after paying some one-time commission CC is:

FV_c=(PV-C) \times (1+i)^n

where PV is the present value (on the date you pay commissions), FV_0 and FV_C are final values (of the amount PV, not including any future contributions), i is the interest rate, and n is number of years until retirement (for example). If you find the percentage difference between FV_c and FV_0, or the percentage the final value will be reduced by, you get,

100 \times \frac{FV_c-FV_0}{FV_0} = 100 \times \frac{-C}{PV}

So if you you pay $1000 commissions selling 30 securities and your portfolio is currently worth $100,000 your final value will be reduced by 100 \times \$1000/\$100,000 = -1\% of whatever it ends up being in the future. If it would have grown to $1 million dollars eventually it will be reduced by 1% or $100,000. That was just a long winded way of explaining why I think one should always look at their commissions as a percentage of their portfolio’s present value, and remember that it will affect the final value of their portfolio by the same percentage.

By paring down the portfolios we will end up with a very substantial proportion of our assets in only 2 stocks VTI and XIN. Although I understand that these ETFs are made up of multiple equities, the diversification we presently have with 50-60 holdings will be lost. I am, therefore, concerned that the accounts will largely be influenced by movement in only 2 entities? Doesn’t this increase our risk?

Good question, I had not really though of this before as I have never owned that many individual equities before. Owning two ETFs should be equivalent to owning positions in all the underlying securities. Assuming there were no MER and assuming that tracking error was non-existant, the return would be the same and the risk would be the same, as far as I know.

I am impressed with the incredible power of the internet to stimulate discussion and to disseminate valuable information so easily. I would appreciate your answers to my questions as well as any other thoughts you might have about my portfolios.

I hope my answers made some sense. It looks like you are on the right track and I think you have spotted the main problem with your portfolio (lack of global diversification) and are looking to diversify while minimizing your costs (both one-time commissions and ongoing MERs).

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