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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