Archive for the 'Ask Dave' Category

Ask Dave: All Foreign ETFs RRSP-eligible?

Charles asks:

Are all Vanguard’s ETF RRSP eligible? What about U.S. iShares or Wisdom Tree or Powershares?

Thanks for the help!

Well all US stocks are RRSP-eligible and ETFs are just stocks. I suppose the only hitch is that you have to find a broker that offers registered accounts and allows you to put US stocks in them. Fortunately, I don’t think there are any discount brokers in Canada they don’t allow you to purchase US stocks and that don’t offer registered accounts.

Be wary of Wisdom Tree and Powershares. The MER of Wisdom Tree’s ETFs are higher than Vanguard’s. I was not able to find the MER of Powershares funds within 5 minutes so they are most likely high. They sell an insane number of ETFs–also a sign that their ETFs are probably costly.

iShares has some low MER ETFs. For example, iShares S&P 500 Index Fund (IVV) has an MER of 0.08% compared with Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) which has an MER of 0.07%. In general, Vanguard sells the lowest cost ETFs.

Popularity: 15% [?]

Ask Dave: Choosing a Discount Broker

Anthony asks:

I am reading about your move to ETRADE.

My question is a simple one…..did you research all the discount brokers before moving to ETRADE?

I am about to move my accounts, (they are sizeable), to a discount broker, and take care of them myself.
I just coundn’t figure the value I was getting from a full service broker.

Why did you go with ETRADE? And would you, or your readers recommend any one in particular?

I would really appreciate a reply directly to my email address, if you have the time,

Thanks and good luck,

No, I didn’t really do tons of research. I was paying $70 or something like that during my brief stint at a full service brokerage. E*Trade offered $20 per trade and I figured that there might be some other brokers out there with $10/trade, and there were some, but they were not names I had heard of before. E*Trade has been around for a while and I knew their name so I went with them. I didn’t really care about the details, I just needed some where to put my money after my financial advisor’s company got swallowed up by another company and he was (I assume) laid off. E*Trade does offer $9.99 trades if you have more than $50,000 in assets with them.

Rob Carrick recently compared online brokers in “With online trading, it pays to shop around“.

Popularity: 9% [?]

Ask Dave: How Do Bond Indexes Work?

A reader named Charles asks a very good question about how bond indexes work?

Quick question for you. I, of course, know how TIPS and bond works but what about a short-term bond indexes (XSB or XRB or TD e-Series) for instance? Does an investor actually gets coupon payment? (I dont think so…). Because the market value of the bond doesn’t change much, so the investor basically gets its return from the quarterly dividends only?

I have a good understanding about how bonds work myself although I don’t know much about the details of how bond indexes work although I sort of just imagine it as a basket of bonds with different dates of maturity, different coupon rates, and different face values, and that buying an index fund is just as if I had bought all the underlying bonds at their current face value. I will also receive all of the interest payments on the bonds in the index, or some of it will be reinvested into purchasing other bonds. That’s just my idea or assumption of how it must work.

Here is a short summary of how bonds work and how bond funds (mutual funds in this case, but an index should be no different in theory) from some website, but it is reprinted from American Century Investment Services, Inc.:

It’s easier to understand how bond funds work after you know how individual bonds work.

An individual bond pays interest at a rate set by the issuer. Usually, the issuer agrees to pay interest on a regular basis such as quarterly or semiannually. The current yield on a bond, which is the amount you earn, is calculated by dividing the amount of annual income by the bond’s price.

For example, if a $1,000 bond provides $80 in income, its current yield is 8% (80 divided by 1,000). Bonds pay interest income regularly and repay the face amount (principal) when the bond matures. Keep in mind that the price of a bond can change after it’s issued, which could change the current yield even though the interest rate stays the same.

With bond funds, the current yield also is referred to as the distribution yield, and it is calculated using the daily dividend per share. This is what is used to distribute income to the funds’ investors.

Another website called Quamut had a pretty good explanation of How Bond ETFs work:

Bond ETFs track indexes that contain individual bonds. Bond ETFs don’t have a face value or a coupon rate, however. Instead, bond ETFs have a share price that’s determined by the prices (face values) of the individual bonds in the index that the ETF tracks—when the prices of those bonds rise, the ETFs share price also rises. In place of a coupon rate, bond ETFs have a yield (interest payment) that equals the average interest rate of the bonds in the index that the ETF tracks. Though the interest payment on an individual bond is fixed, the yield of a bond ETF can change as the individual bonds in the index tracked by the ETF shift. Generally, these interest rates change only in small degrees.

If anyone else can find a better explanation out there please pass it on. So far the Wikipedia article on Bond Market Indexes is not great.

Popularity: 10% [?]

Ask Dave: What’s the Best ETF Allocation 15 Years Away from Retirement?

Our question today comes from Charles who asked me what he should do with his dad’s pension assets, which are currently invested in two mutual funds:

Hey Dave!

My name is Charles, and I am a Finance student at the John Molson School of Business in Montreal. Lately, I decided to take over my dad’s pension fund. His company provides my dad with $15,000/year to be invested with Desjardins Financial Security (I don’t think you have this Quebec bank in BC but it is popular here and in Ontario). His plan is a defined contribution plan and not a benefit plan. When I look at my dad’s assets, he had 2 funds: 1) Jarislowsky Fraser Balanced Fund 2) Jarislowsky Fraser Canadian Equity Fund — These funds are not beating the market (benchmark) often and if they do…well these funds MER are expensive so they perform worse than the market.

Therefore, I wanted to take over his asset allocations but I have no choice but to deal with Desjardins since his company deals with them but of course I or my dad can choose its asset allocations.

I am a strong believer of index funds and ETFs. Desjardins offers great Barclay’s (iShares) ETFs: 1) Active Canadian Equity fund, 2) EAFE Equity Index, 3) Universe Bond Index Fund, and 4) S&P/TSX Composite Index Fund.

My dad is currently 48yrs old and wants to take its retirement when he his 63 – 65 years old. Therefore, a good 15 years of investment.

Here’s my question…what should be my weights in each asset class?

I was thinking 70% equity; 25% bonds and 5% T-Bills. Is having all of the 25% bonds in the Universe Bond Index Fund good? As for the equities, is 60% in S&P/TSX Composite Index Fund and active Canadian Equity fund and 40% for EAFE Equity Index any good? If I have the S&P/TSX index..is Active Canadian Equity relevant?

You can find all the info for each fund on Desjardins‘ website:

Again, thanks for your help and thanks for your great website!

First of all, it’s too bad that Desjardins does not publish the MER of those funds, although it is pretty much a given that they are going to be higher than any Barclays (iShares) ETF.

Although Charles says that “these funds MER are expensive so they perform worse than the market” it seems that over the last 10 years the Jarislowsky Fraser Canadian Equity Fund has outperformed the S&P Composite Index (16.3% to 9.5%). Although that probably says more about your dad’s reasons for choosing this fund over the others and this fund’s longevity, than it does about the fund’s prospects of “beating the index.”

Currently Charles’ dad is invested in 77.5% equities (50% from JF Canadian Equity Fund and 27.5% from JF Canadian Balanced Fund) assuming that he is invested equally in both of these two funds. My first recommendation would be not to deviate too much from what his dad was invested in before. This isn’t Charles’ portfolio, and if things turn ugly (or uglier?) for either stocks or bonds he doesn’t want to be the one to blame for shifting him more or less into either category. So I don’t see anything wrong with going with 70% equities in his new ETF based portfolio. I really don’t have a precise answer on what allocation of bonds/equities is right for your dad. I would try to stick with a balanced approach, and by that I mean that he should be invested 25-75% in equities and 25-75% in bonds (neither all bonds or all stocks). Risk assessments on banks’ websites (like TD Canada Trust’s Retirement Strategy Tool) are somewhat useful, not to come up with a precise answer, but to give you something that is in the ballpark. If anything, psychologically they can give Charles and his dad some comfort.

The Bond Universe fund is a good way to capture the bond market.

I don’t see anything wrong with his allocations within the equity class. I would not bother with the Active Canadian Equity as he will just get poorer performance (on average) than the index itself (after MERs). The only other thing that I noticed is that there is no exposure to the US market here as it looks like Desjardins does not offer Barclays’ (iShares) S&P 500 Index. I assume his dad has other investments besides this pension? If so, then I hope Charles will look at his entire portfolio (pension + RRSP + spouse?) as one, rather than each individually and hold a US index outside of his pension.

Popularity: 15% [?]

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.

Popularity: 12% [?]

Ask Dave: Why Bonds Anyways?

A reader asked me:

I am 29 and am basically just getting started in investing. Since I am young-ish I have decided to start with an 80/20 mix of stock/bond in my portfolio. I’m pretty sure I want to buy bonds, but don’t know which short term bonds to buy. However, looking at expected returns for bonds (3%-6%), should I really get them in the first place?

I want to have 20% of my total portfolio in bonds. Honestly I can not decide between XBB or XSB and honestly don’t know how to pick one over the other or is there a mix of bond indexes I should buy into? However, if E*Trade is telling me their Cash Optimizer Investment Account is going to give me 4.15% why the heck would I even buy bonds (which fluctuate and introduce risk) when I can get 4.15% GUARANTEED on my money? What is the incentive (or logic) to buy the bonds? I have heard that if E*Trade went bankrupt – I might lose the cash I had in the Cash Optimizer Investment Account (since it was not technically invested in anything that is insured – is that BS or what?) – where as if I owned the bond index – that is a protected insured investment. Perhaps that is a reason I should actually buy the bonds? Comments?

First of all let me give the simplest answer possible: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I see the bond and equity markets as two very different markets. In a doomsday scenario, we could see second Great Depression (let’s call it the Greater Depression) and the stock portion of your portfolio could lose 70% of their value while the bonds will hold their value if held to maturity (obviously depending somewhat on the rating and such things but let’s assume we are talking about high-quality and government-backed bonds). Just as it would be foolish to invest only in one sector of the stock market, do not invest only in the stock market. Invest in bonds and invest in real estate too.

Benjamin Graham says a lot about bonds and bonds vs. stocks and asset allocation in The Intelligent Investor. His conclusion at the end of chapter 2 says much the same thing as above:

Naturally, we return to the policy recommended in our previous chapter. Just because of the uncertainties of the future the investor cannot afford to put all his funds into one basket–neither in the bond basket, despite the unprecedentedly high returns that bonds have recently offered; nor in the stock basket, despite the prospect of continuing inflation.

In case you are confused, before this Graham talked a lot about the inherent risk and uncertainty in the stock market (meaning that some bonds are necessary for safety) and persistent inflation risk (meaning that some stocks are necessary as a hedge against inflation, which be be disastrous for bonds). Chapter 2 is a great read, as is Chapter 4, which talks about bond-stock allocation:

We have suggested as a fundamental guiding rule that the investor should never have less than 25% or more than 75% of his funds in common stocks, with a consequent inverse range of between 75% and 25% in bonds.

He actually favours a 50-50 split for the “defensive investor”, shifting the balance when stocks are at “bargain levels” or when the market level has “become dangerously high.” I would warn against such market timing and stick to one allocation and re-balance when necessary. That allocation should be set to whatever is comfortable for the investor, as he says long-windedly in Chapter 2, “the more the investor depends on his portfolio and the income therefrom, the more necessary it is for him to guard against the unexpected and the disconcerting part of his life. It is axiomatic that the conservative investor should seek to minimize his risks.”

I don’t know where you get your expected returns for bonds from, but the 10 year performance of the TD Canadian Bond Fund is 5.8% and the return of XSB since inception (7 years ago) is 5.71%. I remember it being better before, so I guess recent poor performance has dragged them down a bit. For the amount of risk involved, that’s not a bad investment. There are equity markets that have performed worse over the same period according to TD’s mutual fund performance chart (Note TD International Equity at 1.4% over the past 10 years).

Of course the other advantage of having bonds in a portfolio has to do with diversification which can lead to less volatility in your portfolio. Chapter 8 of A Random Walk Down Wall Street explains this very well (to see the section I’m talking about, go Search Inside the book on Amazon and search for “the benefits of international diversification have been well documented” and you’ll get to page 192, then read on).

Personally I think bonds will beat any high interest savings account in general. And in my opinion you shouldn’t worry too much about E*Trade going bankrupt unless you have over $1 million with them. I’m not convinced that the Cash Optimizer wouldn’t be covered by the CDIC but I haven’t really looked into it so I’m not sure. Maybe another rule of thumb should be to not have all your assets at one brokerage?

As for XSB vs. XBB, Martin Gale of efficientmarket.ca complains that “the duration on these funds [XBB] was too high” making the risk-adjusted return too low compared to stocks:

Note the principle here: If you want to earn a higher return, you have to take a higher risk. Some investors try and earn the higher return by buying longer duration bonds, and taking on a higher interest rate risk. I think this is a bad idea: If you want to take on a higher risk, instead buy more equities and take on more market risk. Whatever risk/return ratio you achieved by buying longer duration bonds, you could achieve by holding fewer bonds and more equities. In general I think the equities have the better risk/return ratio. That could always change–but at least historically, it’s been the case that equities have been a better investment than long-term bonds.

You can read the full article here: “Changes To Barclays iShares: XSB and XRB” article. He was so strongly in favour of XSB and against the longer duration XBB that I went with XSB instead, along with some XRB (real-return bond index) as well (there’s also a mention of XRB in the Martin Gale article).

I hope that helps!

Popularity: 15% [?]

Ask Dave: US Dollar Investments Inside Your RRSP

With no more foreign holding limits inside RRSPs, a lot of people are looking into holding foreign currency investments inside the RRSP. In fact my first ever “Ask Dave” post was about this very topic (see “Ask Dave: USD Holdings In an RRSP“).

Another reader recently wrote me with similar questions. Rob writes:

I’m confused. I want to own US $ investments in my RRSP. RBC Direct advises that all RRSP investments must be in CDN $. They didn’t know what a “wash trade” was. With the Cdn $ at $1.08+ is this a good time to own US $ denominated equities or a USD ETF? If so, can I do this in an RRSP or does it have to be held outside?

Rob, you can certainly own US $ investments inside an RRSP (ie. any US stock (this includes ETFs)). As for US$ mutual funds I’m not really sure (as I’ve never done it) although you probably could. If RBC Direct truly does not allow you do hold USD investments in your RRSP (I would be REALLY surprised if they didn’t), find another broker. The one restriction that the Canadian banks and brokers place on customers (although there is nothing in Canadian laws/regulations that forces them to do so, see “Foreign Currency Investments and Exchange Spreads Inside Your RRSP” and this class action lawsuit against BMO for more information) is that you may not hold any foreign currency inside an RRSP. All cash inside an RRSP must be in Canadian dollars. As a consequence of this ridiculous restriction, if a USD investment is sold, the proceeds must be converted into CAD, then to buy another USD investment, the CAD cash is converted into USD again. Hence huge foreign exchange rate spread-related costs, and hence, wash trades’ raison d’être…

I am not surprised that RBC Direct did not know what a “wash trade” was as I think TD Waterhouse is the only one that offers it (and even then, they will only do it for a phone trade, not an online trade). Refer to the Canadian Capitalist’s site on how to make a wash trade. At the time (August 2006) the Canadian Capitalist said that “as far as I know, RBC Action Direct, which is our primary brokerage account does not offer this feature.”

It is impossible to predict what the US or Canadian dollar will do at this point. Much like with the Vancouver housing market 2 years ago in Vancouver, would it defy all odds and go up even further? Or would it come crashing down as it seemed destined to? The pundits and economists will say whatever they want but they have no clue what will actually happen (although there have been some rumblings about possible Bank of Canada currency intervention measures). I say don’t worry about timing your purchases of USD investments and don’t ask the question “is this a good time to own US $ denominated equities.” Instead you should think long term and ask “should I have US $ denominated equities in my portfolio (for the next 10+ years).” You especially should not be trying to “time” investments in USD investments (or any other currency) because the costs of buying and selling USD investments inside an RRSP are huge unless you use wash trades. Your best bet to minimize costs is to buy them once and hold. For more on the costs associated with USD investments inside an RRSP, see “Foreign Exchange Costs Associated With USD Investments in an RRSP.” If you really want to speculate, use a non-RRSP US$ trading account.

It’s good to be diversified and not have all your investments in Canadian dollars, although if you plan to retire in Canada you definitely want to have most of your retirement assets in Canadian investments as you approach retirement and not expose yourself to unnecessary currency risk (see “US vs. Canadian dollar investments made inside an RRSP” for more detail, especially bullet point 2). You will also incur lower costs (assuming you don’t incur too many foreign exchange-related costs). Observe the difference in MERs between the Canadian iShare XSP (0.24%) vs. the American iShares’ IVV (0.09%) or the Vanguard’s VTI (0.07%), for example. Adding foreign currency investments also decreases the correlation between the different components of your portfolio even further, thus providing more diversification, and in the end, a higher risk-adjusted return.

Send your questions for my “Ask Dave” posts using my contact form. I look forward to hearing from you. My queue of questions is not long, but it’s not short either, so I may take anywhere from a few days or a few weeks to respond. Thanks for your patience.

Popularity: 34% [?]

Ask Dave: Index ETFs and Rebalancing (or lack therof)

I while ago I bought Vanguard Europe Pacific ETF (VEA) for the international portion of my portfolio and one reader had the following comment:

Just a quick question. With regards to balancing one’s portfolio, would ETFs like VEA (and I see there is now one that encompasses the whole world excluding the US), not pose a problem? If for example the European markets did well one year but the Pacific markets performed poorly, then one would be unable to rebalance by selling a European based ETF’s (like VGK for example) and buying more Pacific based ETF’s (VPL for example). With everything in one basket one could not take advantage of the gains to be made by selling high and buying low. Is this assumption correct? Or is it true that because VEA comprises 75% VGK and 25% VPL, that it would reflect any net changes made by owning a combination of both VGK and VPL?

Your assumption is correct, one could not take advantage of the gains to be made by selling high and buying low the stocks in one region vs. another. These rebalancing “bonuses” are small, but more importantly, they may completely disappear after trading costs are taken into account. VEA does not contain a fixed percentage of VGK and VPL underneath. It contains the market cap weighting of all its components. Market cap-weighted indexes have several advantages as investments:

Market value-weighted indexes have lower trading costs. If you made your own index, and the index never added or removed stocks the stocks would be bought once and never sold. As one stock goes up in value, it maintains the desired allocation in the index. This keeps trading costs low as one essentially rarely needs to make trades, except for when stocks are dropped or added from the index. Market value-weighted indexes have the lowest MERs, and other indexes like fundamental-weighted indexes, or fixed-weight indexes have higher MERs due to increased trading within the index.

With market value-weighted indexes, one never ends up holding on to dogs. Imagine it is the early 1900s and you own shares in a fixed sector-weighted index (did such a thing exist back then?). The index contains 25% financials, 25% railways, 25% consumer goods, and 25% manufacturing (or a fixed percentage of each individual stock, it’s the same thing). Every year the index is rebalanced. Pretty soon railways start to go out of style as air travel is invented and highways are built. The 1960s arrive and “tech” stocks are all the rage. The index rebalances religiously, which leads it to purchase a lot of railway stock which continues to do badly, meanwhile it has missed out on the rise in tech stocks. The worse railways do, the more you have to buy in order to keep your portfolio balanced (in addition to paying more commissions). You now wish the index had altered their weightings to contain less railways. One way to do it might have been to not fix the amount allocated to each sector and just use market cap-weighting instead. Or use market cap-weighting while taking into account large changes in what is going on in the market. For example, one could have envisioned a “smarter” version of the S&P 500 index that underweighted tech/IT stocks in around 2000 (selling high) and went back to their appropriate market cap-weight in 2002. Of course we only wish we had a crystal ball back in 2000 that could have warned us that tech stocks were about to fall. It seemed inevitable, just as it did in 1997. Unfortunately there is no foresight in the market and there was no telling if tech stocks would not have kept climbing after 2000. Furthermore, if you believe that markets are largely efficient, there is no such thing as “buying low” or “buying high” and it is not possible to “take advantage of the gains to be made by selling high and buying low” as there are essentially no “gains” to be made. There are only “losses” to be incurred through increased costs of trading and higher turnover.

In the scenario you described you said “If for example the European markets did well one year but the Pacific markets performed poorly, then one would be unable to rebalance by selling a European based ETF’s (like VGK for example) and buying more Pacific based ETF’s (VPL for example).” Personally I would get a bit nervous in buying more VPL. How do you know it is at a “low”. What if it actually at a “high” of even greater future “lows.” I was in an investment club from around 1999-2005 (the club ended in 2005). We consistently thought we were buying stocks at “lows.” We bought stocks like Nortel, Nokia, 360 Networks, Global Crossing, Lucent, etc… after sharp declines only to watch them decline even further (often with another purchase on the way down for good measure). So this is the problem I have with fixed allocations and rebalancing. If you bought 75% VPL and 25% VGK and held them in your portfolio. How do you know if 25% VGK is “just right”, “over-valued”, or “under-valued.” If it falls to 15% now how would you classify it? If it was over-valued before, now it might be just right. If it was just right before it might be considered under-valued now. But if it were truly under-valued (in the sense that the equities in VGK are worth far more than what the market is valuing them at) most likely other smart investors would have already taken advantage of it (as if you’d be the first to realize it!) and so it’s most likely that those equities are “just right.”

I blogged a lot about Equal Weight Indexes in the past:

  • In Non-Market Cap Weighted Indexes: The Next Big Thing I ballyhooed equal-weighted indexes and lamented the lack of equal-weighted indexes in Canada. My opinion of equal-weighted indexes would soon change.
  • In Equal-Weight S&P 500 Index I came to the full realization that RSP, the S&P 500 Equal Weighted index only performed better because of its higher concentration of mid-cap stocks.
  • In Too Many Choices (or why I am ready to give up) I mentioned that “I have now come to the realization that RSP is very similar to the S&P 400 Midcap Index which is also available as an ETF (MDY). It is very highly correlated . . .”

Regrettably, I don’t think equal weight indexes are all that I initially hyped them to be. I did some searching on the web for more information on the advantages of market cap-based indexes over fixed weight indexes but had trouble finding any information at all, however, I think my reasoning above makes sense. As in many arguments over financial instruments and investing strategies, cost is again a huge factor.

Popularity: 16% [?]

New Contact Form

A while ago I asked for submissions for my “Ask Dave” series. Well now, contacting me is now easier than ever through my new contact form. It’s been a while since I had an “Ask Dave” post so if you have any burning questions, please send them along.

Popularity: 9% [?]

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).

Popularity: 12% [?]