Ask Dave: US Dollar ETFs

Another question (or should I say several questions) from a reader about US dollar ETFs. Paul wrote:

Thanks for the great blog – as a relatively new investor interested in building an ETF portfolio, I have found a great deal of useful information on your site – its much appreciated. I wanted to ask you a few questions regarding the use of the Vanguard ETF’s especially in light of the soaring loonie which is nudging US$1.06 these days.

Do you think that the strong loonie should be an extra incentive for Canadians to buy the Vanguard ETF’s to diversify their portfolios? I feel that the strong loonie offers us an opportunity to buy these US$ based shares at a discount given that historically the CAD has been weaker than the US$. But I have read some blogs that warn that that may all be changing and that with increasing global demand for Canadian resources and with the problems in the US economy, we may see our dollar at least on a par with the US$ for a while to come.

No, I don’t think that the fact that the Loonie is extra strong (relative to the past) should be any extra incentive to buy Vanguard ETFs (read: US dollar ETFs). You are right, with pending problems in the US economy and increasing demand for Canadian resources the Canadian dollar may go even higher, or the Canadian dollar may fall back (or the US dollar may rise) to it’s historical norm relative to the US dollar. It is difficult to predict. It is good to own Canadian dollars if you plan on spending the proceeds of you investments in Canada. On the other hand if inflation ever became very bad in Canada and the Canadian dollar fell against the US dollar it would be nice to have US dollars. Also, if the Canadian dollar fell against all other currencies and you planned to spend your retirement savings travelling, then it would be nice if some of those investments were in something other than Canadian dollars. I think it’s important to have a balance and to not put all your eggs into one basket. He continued,

Also, I read your post about the exchange rate spread issue when buying US based ETFs and how if you do not plan to keep these ETF’s for a long time, the MER is essentially boosted by the costs associated with converting CAD to US$ and then eventually back again. Would this issue not lend more argument to buying ETF’s like XIN or XSP which have higher MER’s but at least you do not have to pay a chunk of change when you convert back to CAD?

Of course you would have to do some calculations yourself to see which is better (or see my post about foreign exchange costs). There are a bunch of variables involved: the foreign exchange rate spread, the MERs of XIN/XSP, the MERs of the Vanguard US$ equivalents, and the length of the time the investments were held. In general you’ll probably see that as the length of time increases, the lower MER investment will become more attractive. As the length of time decreases, the investment without the foreign exchange fees will become more attractive.

Lastly, I have read a lot about the exchange rate risk Canadians face buying ETF’s like VWO, VEA, VPL or VGK. How much of an issue is this? Surely as long as the ETF grows and we are buying these ETF’s now with a strong loonie, the risk must be fairly small and one could do well when the CAD eventually returns to a more realistic level with the US$.

I try not to worry about it too much because if you look at the long term historical trend, the Canadian dollar and the US dollar have not diverged substantially, although they do encounter some pretty big swings, as we have recently witnessed.

Right now I am inclined to overweight my portfolio with VTI, VWO, VPL and VGK to take advantage of the buying power of the loonie and then rebalance it with more XIC later when the CAD weakens a bit. Would this make sense right now or is there serious risk to assuming the CAD will weaken in the next few years?

Personally I wouldn’t assume the CAD will rise of fall in the next few years. Plan for a probability of either situation happening. Stick with an allocation of CAD and an allocation of USD that you are comfortable with, no matter what the current state of the loonie/dollar is, and the stick to that allocation. If you want to speculat, that’s up to you, however, but if you’re talking about a retirement portfolio I would just pick an allocation and go with it. If one currency rises substantially above the other you’ll find yourself buying the cheaper currency just to keep the portfolio balanced.

Anyway, thanks for you help and I look forward to reading your thoughts on these issues.

Thanks for your question Paul, and sorry for the delay in responding to it.

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