Archive for the 'Asset Allocation' Category

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: 14% [?]

The Real 10 Commandments of Investing

Rob Carrick recently “gathered 10 of our favourite bits of investing advice, on topics ranging from stock-market risk to which mutual funds to buy” and called it the 10 Commandments. A commandment is “a command or order,” so something like “thou shalt not use the word commandment incorrectly” is a commandment. “Commandment” #10 is “Investors repeatedly jump ship on a good strategy just because it hasn’t worked so well lately, and almost invariably, abandon it at precisely the wrong time.” C’mon that’s not even a commandment! So what is the order here, that we should not jump ship on a good strategy that goes bad? or should we not use strategies? or should we abandon them at precisely the right time instead of the wrong time? The longer explanation does not leave things any more clearer, offering such advice as “ignore the slumps or use them as a buy-low opportunity,” or ” judge whether your fund manager has what Dreman calls a good strategy.” For what’s it’s worth, the only words of advice in there I thought were useful were Buffett’s (use low-cost indexes) and Malkiel’s (less fees are better).

A while ago a guy named Alan Haft (he wrote a book called “You can never be too rich”) made up his own 10 Commandments of Investing and it’s been in my drafts folder ever since I saw it. I think he sums up the most important things that people should do with regards to investing, they are well written, and they make sense. Here they are:

  1. Stick with the indexes
  2. Watch those fees
  3. Create a bond ladder
  4. Diversify
  5. Watch your money
  6. Don’t rush in
  7. Don’t take the risk if you don’t need the return
  8. Get out if something isn’t working
  9. Understand tax consequences
  10. Keep it simple

Here are some highlights:

1. Stick with the indexes
Leave the individual stock picking to gamblers and speculators. Very few people really understand how to successfully pick individual stocks, and if they do, the news that drives markets today is totally unpredictable, making individual stock picking a highly risky venture. Reams and reams of statistics prove index investing almost always outperforms the financial advisors, money managers, and stockbrokers. Stick with the indicies and you’ll likely wind up far ahead of the game. Care to speculate a bit on some individual stocks? Do it with a small portion of your money, but certainly not the bulk of it.

2. Watch those fees
Wall Street loves investors that don’t watch their fees. For those investing in funds, check out www.personalfund.com. You might be shocked to find out the total cost your funds are charging you to own them year after year. Especially over the long haul, fees can destroy your returns. Minimize fees as much as possible by investing in low-fee, highly diversified investments such as one of my personal favorites, Exchange-traded funds such as those offered by www.ishares.com

7. Don’t take the risk if you don’t need the return
Many people would do perfectly fine getting 7-10% returns on their money, yet their portfolios are invested in things that strive for well beyond that. Especially if you’re a retiree, if you doubled or tripled your money overnight, would you go out and buy a fancy new sports car? A mansion on the hill? Few of us would. And for that reason, always ebb towards the safer side of investing as much as you possibly can

Check out the original article for the rest!

Popularity: 19% [?]

Differing Opinions on US Currency Investments for Canadians

A fellow blogger (Y HAT) has a somewhat different view on investmenting USD currency investments:

As I write this the Canadian dollar is trading at $1.07 to the US greenback and most Canadian finance articles I’m reading are suggesting you should jump into US equities – these are cheap by historical standards and the Canadian dollar is bound to retreat. This blog’s opinion is that no one knows were the loonie is headed next. Consequently, you should save yourself a lot of stress by insuring your portfolio against currency movements.

First of all, there is no right answer. Just like there is no formula for how much fixed-income you should hold versus how much equities, or how much emerging markets/small caps you should hold versus everything else. It’s all about how much risk you can handle. Certainly the advice that you should “save yourself a lot of stress by insuring your portfolio against currency movements” does not apply to everyone.

I agree that “no one knows were the loonie is headed next,” just as no one knows where the Canadian equities market is headed next or where the bond market is headed next, which is why I hold a bit of each to reduce my overall risk and/or increase my overall returns through diversification. In the long run though, by the time I retire, I don’t think swings in the USD/CAD exchange rate will amount to any significant gain/loss in my portfolio, but I may have gained more significantly through rebalancing (better with less correlated assets) and lower costs. Maybe in the future I will look back and with perfect hindsight I will wish I had bought XIN instead of VEA, but my present opinion is that I do not think anyone needs to get their knickers in a knot over purchasing US dollar-based investments.

Popularity: 13% [?]

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: 33% [?]

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: 15% [?]

Ask Dave: Switching to an Index-Based Portfolio

Dear Dave,

Firstly, I wish to compliment you on your excellent blog. Your posts are simple and they have certainly helped me navigate towards a passive portfolio. Please keep up the excellent work.

Why thank you! Keep reading, tell your friends. And sorry for taking so long to respond to this, I’ve been quite busy.

I know that you are not in the business of giving financial advise, but I was wondering whether you could provide some guidance, or post on subjects related to my current situation. I am a relatively young investor, like you, (25) who now has a steady job and am looking to invest for the long term. I have been investing for a while now and have built up savings of, let us say a fictional $100,000, primarily of mutual funds, including some index funds. I currently use TD Waterhouse’s self-directed brokerage.

My portfolio is as follows:

TD Canadian Index-e
TD Monthly Income
TD Balanced Growth
TD Dividend Growth
Canadian – 12%

TD International Index currency neutral
Cundill International Value
Trimark Fund SC
International – 26%

Vanguard Total Market E.T.F. – VTI
RBC O’Shaughnessy US Value
US – 13%

TD Latin American Growth
Emerging Markets – 2%

GIC (one year, 3.75% matures in Dec. definitely can cash this earlier)
Corporate Bond ($160 a month)
Fixed Income, Bonds – 43%

Cash – 4%

Reminds me of my old portfolio at TD Mutual Funds (not Waterhouse, I had a mutual fund-only account at TD, used to be called TD Greenline Mutual Funds). Lots of funds with a lot of the same holdings; I had TD Canadian Index-e, TD Balanced Growth, TD Dividend Growth on the Canadian side. 3 International funds, 2 US Funds, etc… As my former advisor said to me “with so many mutual funds, what you’ve got is basically an index but with a high MER.”

Most of my portfolio is outside of an RRSP (20% is in RRSPs – I cannot really contribute much more to my RRSP). So if I wanted to switch my actively managed funds into ETFs, how should I do it? I am aware of the early redemption fees, but aside from that, do I just sell them and take that big chunk of cash and buy my proper allocations of ETFs? Are there tax consequences that need to be thought about? I know your thoughts on timing the market, so should I just buy everything I need on one day (the VTI I bought at $150 a couple weeks ago, and I know I shouldn’t even think about it)?

First of all you can do the switch to ETFs outside or inside, and you won’t incur any more costs either way. If you do it outside, you can transfer them into your RRSP later “in-kind” without having to sell them. As far as the tax consequences go, outside an RRSP you will have capital gains (losses) to pay taxes on if you sell anything, or when you transfer them into an RRSP. I think when I did it a long time ago, I sold them outside the RRSP and incurred a capital gain, and when they were sold they went into my linked bank account. I then moved that money into an RRSP cash account and then bought investments from there. I was selling and buying no-fee mutual funds outside and inside respectively so I didn’t incur any costs. I think the only tax consequence you should really worry about is to maximize your RRSP contributions every year and that’s about all you can control. Of course, since you are probably planning to keep VTI inside your RRSP, just transfer the VTI in-kind and you will incur a capital gain (loss) on any gains (losses) since you bought it.

Next, don’t switch all those things into ETFs if your commissions are going to be huge relative to the size of your portfolio. If you are going into 4-5 ETFs and the total commission is going to be about $100, I would say that if your portfolio is $10,000 or more, go ahead.

As for your timing try not to even worry about what the market is doing. Pick an asset allocation that you are comfortable with and then go with it. Switch all at once to a new allocation if you want.

With RRSP space that I do gain each year, which investments should be prioritized to be bought within an RRSP?

I guess if you don’t have the RRSP space for everything yet, it would make sense to put non-Canadian stuff into the RRSP first. The Canadian stuff doesn’t suffer from as much double-taxation as the non-Canadian stuff. I cannot remember what the difference in taxation is between dividends and capital gains (I don’t have any non-RRSP investments at the moment, just some debt :-) ) but it’s probably not enough to worry about.

(Aside: when I say double-taxation, I mean that money outside an RRSP is taxed once (as income on your paycheque) and then again when it earns interest or realized capital gains, whereas inside an RRSP it is only ever taxed once (as income).)

It seems that my allocation for bonds/fixed income is too great, but that is only because I did not know exactly how to allocate it, in the end, I only want about 20% bonds.

How did you feel about the recent market downturn? Were you glad to have so much in bonds/cash? If so, keep your current allocation. If you didn’t care too much and think that you could have suffered more and not cared, go with less. Just don’t worry about timing. If you switched to more stocks now, the equities market could continue its fall over the coming year. If you keep your current allocation, the equities market could just as easily bounce back over the coming year as well and you might miss it. You cannot even hope to predict the future.

I recently thought about my emotions during the recent slide, and in retrospect I kind of wished I had a little bit more bonds/cash than the 20% I have (maybe 30%?). I am going to add 5% REITs to my portfolio eventually, so I will eventually have 25%.

I was doing a systematic investment plan where money was taken out and a number of the mutual funds were purchased on a biweekly basis. Now I have stopped the plan and will accumulate money until there is enough to purchase the right ETF (VTI, VEA, VWO, XIC).

I used to do what you did with mutual funds as well. Biweekly, and I would purchase several different funds. Now I also save up cash in my RRSP until I have enough to buy an ETF. I usually wait until. I have $2000. Since I pay commissions of about $20 that means the commission will be 1% of the purchase amount.

I know this is a long rambling post, but any guidance you might be able to share, even if not directly but through future postings, would be much appreciated.

Popularity: 10% [?]

Some Minor Rebalancing: Bought VTI

I had $2150 cash built up in my E*Trade account from monthly contributions. It was not hard to decide what to invest it in. I simply entered all the market values of my investments into a spreadsheet and looked at how far off the current asset allocations were from the original “desired” allocations. Looks like the US equity component (furnished by VTI) was way down (thanks to the strong CAD dollar). Other components like International equities (provided by XIN) and Canadian equities (provided by XIC) were way up. Bonds were almost flat. So it was pretty obvious, rebalancing necessitated a purchase of VTI. This also made sense since everything else was up and VTI (in CAD dollars) was down (relatively speaking). So I bought $2150 of Vanguard Total Stock Market Index ETF (VTI) a few days ago.

Popularity: 7% [?]

My New Passive Index ETF Portfolio

Unfortunately this is the second time my portfolio has changed in the past two years. The first change was when I moved from a TD Mutual Funds account to Clearsight last year. My advisor had great plans for my portfolio. He wanted to eventually have me primarily invested in low-cost ETFs and we were going to have a 25-25-25-25 split between Canadian bonds, Canadian equities, international equities, and US equities. Due to the high commissions ($75) charged by Clearsight we bought one ETF and the rest was in mutual funds. Anyways, before we got very far Clearsight was acquired by Wellington West and my advisor was let go, so I began the transition to E*Trade where I could manage my portfolio on my own. I learned a lot from my advisor at Clearsight, like what an ETF is, and importance of lowering cost. I have come a long way since just owning just TD mutual funds and eFunds through a TD Mutual Funds account back in 2005. So before I introduce you to my new portfolio at E*Trade, here’s what my portfolio looked like when I was with Clearsight:

RRSP holding Symbol Type %
CI Value Trust US Equity 11%
Templeton International Stock Fund Global Equity 26%
Canadian TSX60 index ETF XIU Canadian Large Cap 34%
E&P Growth Opportunities Canadian Small Cap 4%
TD Canadian Bond Fund Canadian Bond 25%

Some of the things I did not like about my old portfolio are:

  • High cost – Too many mutual funds with high MERs. I checked all of these funds’ performance again and for the most part they didn’t seem to be capable of beating their benchmarks in the past. The Growth Opportunities has not beaten the S&P/TSX Venture Composite Index in the range I looked at. CI Value Trust (clone of Legg Mason Value Trust) has not been impressive of late, but even worse, it has assumed far more risk than an index, with its investments in Google and other high-tech stocks. The Templeton International Index fund (last time I checked) had not beaten the MSCI EAFE index over the long term. Also, the TD Canadian Bond fund is not all that spectacular compared to ETFs like XSB.
  • No emerging markets – I wanted some emerging markets to provide increased diversification and greater risk-adjusted return due to their low correlation with other markets. The fact that emerging markets have done very well of late is of no concern to me, I realize if I buy emerging markets equities now I might suffer a bit in the near future.
  • No real return bonds, or inflation-sensitive assets – I looked at the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan and the CPP Investment Board and both have significant real return bond holdings. The former has 11.1% and the latter has 3.5% in real return bonds.
  • Huge domestic bias – Although I had originally wanted 25% in Canadian equities my advisor had me at 40% because he had concerns about the US dollar, so we weighted Canadian equities more. This is way too much allocated to a handful of Canadian companies that make up a large part of the TSX/S&P 60 Index.
  • No foreign currency exposure – Foreign currency exposure can be a good thing. If inflation is high in Canada, our dollar will decrease in value relative to other currencies. More importantly, some of my investments, such as the CI Value Trust were hedged versions of USD mutual funds so I was paying extra management expense when I could have just owned the USD version and possibly reduced my total risk at lower cost.
  • Lack of US exposure – I only had something like 11% of my assets in US equities. This is extremely underweight for such a large market like the US. My advisor was planning to “ease in” to US equities (he had some issue with the falling US dollar) but I would prefer to just go with some desired allocation and re-balance when necessary rather than thinking one can be smarter than the market.
  • Lack of broad US exposure – Bill Miller’s Value Trust is invested in relatively few investments compared to the size of the US market. He also invested a lot in high tech companies like Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, etc… I wanted to own more blue chips/boring companies, mid-caps, small-caps, etc…

So based on some of the things I did not like about my old portfolio, and some information that I gleaned from various blogs and internet sources, here is my new portfolio that I have putting together for the past couple months:

RRSP holding Symbol Type %
iShares CDN MSCI EAFE Index Fund ETF XIN-T International Equity 35%
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF VWO Emerging Markets 5%
Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF VTI US Equity 32%
iShares Canadian Short Bond Index Fund ETF XSB-T Canadian Short-Term Bond 15%
iShares Canadian Real Return Bond Index Fund ETF XRB-T Canadian Real Return Bond 5%
iShares Canadian Composite Index Fund ETF XIC-T Canadian Equity 8%

Now I’ll expand on some of the reasons why I chose the above asset allocation as well as the reasons why I chose each investment in my new portfolio. This portfolio is inspired primarily by Martin Gale, Canadian Capitalist, Dan Solin (author of The Smartest Investment Book You’ll Ever Read), and Burton Malkiel (only part way through his book right now).

NOTE: I am under 30, I am looking for long term growth only, I am not planning to take out any of this money until I retire at age 55-65, and I can handle some short-term swings in the market.

ETFs vs. mutual funds
Using ETFs instead of mutual funds was a no-brainer for me. I have come to the realization that beating the market is virtually impossible for all but a few very talented people, and that passive investing can yield greater returns with less risk due to its lower costs. For more information, read my recent blog post “Malkiel, Bogle Argue Against Non-Market Capitalization Weighted ETFs” or read “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.” I can also give credit to the Canadian Capitalist and his blog for convincing me of this fact. He has been tracking a “sleepy portfolio” for a while now, consisting of a few ETFs and it seems to do pretty well.

Bonds
It was clear to me that I was not going to have a 100% bonds portfolio, nor was I going to have a 100% equities (as my advisor wanted me to have last year). Benjamin Graham is very clear in The Intelligently Investor page 56-57 about his opinion on this issue when he says “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 . . .” There is much more discussion about this in the book. Martin Gale also has an excellent article about stocks vs. bonds. He says,

Many investors make the mistake of thinking that the least risky portfolio is one containing just cash and short-term bonds; or that the most aggressive portfolio is one containing only equities. Somewhat surprisingly, that is false. The safest portfolio contains a mix of stocks and bonds, as does the most aggressive. For any portfolio containing all bonds there is a less risky portfolio with a better return that contains some stocks. This is counter-intuitive because in and of themselves bonds are safer than stocks.

I saw some similar arguments in a Powerpoint presentation from an investment advisor recently, that basically said, no matter how risky you want to be, at least hold some bonds (like at least 10%). It is pretty widely accepted that you should have some bonds and some equities. How much of each is up to you. I followed Martin Gale’s advice on short vs long term bonds, and decided to stick to buying short-term bonds, because “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.” This backs up what I was told by my ex-advisor at Clearsight; stick with short duration bonds and avoid long duration bonds.

So, to minimize cost I see only two options. Buying iShares Short-term Bond Index Fund (XSB), or buying individual bonds and making my own bond ladder. I decided to buy XSB since the commission costs of making my own bond ladder would be prohibitive at this point, although when my nest egg is larger this might be more cost-effective because it would eliminate the MER.

Real-Return Bonds
As I said above, one of the disadvantages of my old portfolio was that I had no real-return bond component. Real return bonds are resistant to inflation because the interest is set to be x number of points above the inflation rate. I looked at the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan and the CPP Investment Board and both have significant real return bond holdings. The former has 11.1% and the latter has 3.5% in real return bonds. I decided to have 1/4 of my bond portfolio invested in real-return bonds which amounts to 5%. I might re-evalute this allocation later (in about 5 years).

Canadian Equity Component
Now that the foreign content limits are removed we are starting to see more and more people suggesting that Canadians hold somewhere around 3-10% Canadian equities in their equity portfolio, rather than the insane 25-70% allocations we used to see. At the Canadian Capitalist, Dan Solin comments on why investors should have no more than 10% Canadian equities in the equity portion of their portfolio. There is also a good article by Martin Gale here about domestic bias and foreign asset allocation. Finally, according to Carl Spiess at Scotia Macleod, “over the last 20 years, international markets have outperformed Canadian markets by almost 2% a year.” We have had some excellent years in the Canadian equities markets recently as well as in the late 1990s thanks to Nortel so people often forget that Canadian equities have historically underperformed against international markets. If you looked at the risk-adjusted return, the picture would probably be even worse. He continues, “it makes sense to invest globally not only based on historical returns, but also because many economic sectors (eg. Healthcare) are not significantly represented in Canadian markets. In addition, despite several good years recently, Canada only represents 3% of world stock markets.” He’s right; The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index has 12% in healthcare, for example, while the TSX Composite contains less than 1% in healthcare as it is dominated by financials and energy.

Another article here gives “10 key reasons for going global in your RRSP.”

US Equity Component
I relied heavily on Martin Gale’s advice on his Efficient Market Canada website. Specifically, his “Building A Globally Efficient Index ETF Portfolio (updated)” article (and it’s predecessor) and also “Foreign Asset Allocation in your RRSP.” I ended up making US Equities 40% of the equity portion of my portfolio, which corresponds to 32% of my total portfolio. The obvious choice here was some sort of S&P 500 Index, like XSP or SPY, but instead I went with the lowest-cost option out there, which is probably the Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI). It is even more diverse than the S&P 500 in that it currently holds 3692 different stocks. The US market is huge and this is a great way to own it all without having to purchase both the S&P 500 Index ETF (SPY) and the S&P Mid-Cap Index ETF (MDY) for example.

International Component
Again, as above, I looked at the global market capitalization and decided to put 50% of the equity portion of my portfolio into international stocks. This corresponds to 40% of my overall portfolio. Since Vanguard does not really have much for international index ETFs, and the iShares $USD MSCI EAFE Index ETF (EFA) has the same cost as the iShares $CAD MSCI EAFE Index ETF (XIN), the best option was to go with XIN (see “Exchange Traded Funds: Recommendations“).

CAD vs. USD
I was worried that with my much lower Canadian equity component that I would end up having a lot of US dollar investments in my RRSP. As I mentioned above, since Vanguard does not really have much for international index ETFs, and the iShares $USD MSCI EAFE Index ETF (EFA) has the same cost as the iShares $CAD MSCI EAFE Index ETF (XIN), the best option was to go with XIN, which is traded in Canadian dollars. So now my only USD holdings are the Vanguard Emerging Markets Fund (VWO) and the Vanguard Total Stock Market (VTI) which take up about 37% of my total portfolio. Having less than 50% of my RRSP assets in USD seems alright to me. When I get older and closer to retirement I could move more of my money into CAD investments if I feel the need.

Emerging Markets
There are two emerging markets funds to choose from, the iShares one (EEM) and the Vanguard one (VWO). After much searching on Google for “EEM vs. VMO” and reading many articles I could not discern much difference between the two. The Vanguard one uses a slightly difference underlying index as I discussed in my previous blog post entitled “Foreign Exchange Costs Associated With USD Investments in an RRSP” and, like most Vanguard funds, has a much lower cost than its competitors. So I went with the Vanguard fund. Because of the high risk associated with emerging markets and because of their recent stellar performance, I put only 5% of my total portfolio in emerging markets, even though emerging markets make up about 9% of the world market capitalization. I may increase my desired allocation of emerging markets later, relative to my other international holdings.

REITs
REITs are a good addition to the fixed-income portion of a portfolio and they provide good negative correlation with other asset classes. Most of the large pensions funds hold a significant amount of REITs. XRE is the iShares offering and I will probably be adding this in eventually. I don’t want to do too many things at once. I need to decide if I should reduce my bond allocation from 20% and add in the REITs or if I should reduce my equities from 80% and add in REITs. Or lower both? My original thought had been to have 20% bonds, 5% REITs, which is why I went with 20% bonds rather than 25% bonds as I had before.

Please let me know if you have any comments and I will add any details to this article that I may have left out.

Canadian Tour of Personal Finance Blogs

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The Problem With Owning Lots of Mutual Funds

A long time ago I wrote about why having lots of mutual funds is a bad idea. Namely, lots of overlapping mutual funds of the same type, like Canadian equities, for example. In my case, I owned 4 TD large-cap Canadian equity funds. The punchline is that with so many funds and so many underlying stocks, I was starting to get so diversified that I was about as diversified or more so in the Canadian large-cap market than an index. But I was paying exorbitant MERs on the mutual funds, at least 1-3% whereas I could have just bought 1 index ETF and paid 0.17% MER. A 1-3% difference in performance is huge over the long term.

Tom Bradley at SteadyHand just wrote an article about the exact same thing, however, the example in his case is far more extreme: “The featured couple had registered retirement savings plans totaling $170,000 that were spread across 29 mutual funds.”

I’ll summarize his analysis:

Holding 29 funds is ridiculous whether you’re investing $170,000 or a million dollars . . . But more than anything, owning 29 mutual funds means you’re seriously over-diversified . . . If we assume that there were 45 unique stocks per fund, that’s 900 stocks plus the ones that showed up in multiple funds. Let’s say you own 1000 stocks. What you really own is a very expensive index fund.

and the conclusion/recommendation:

Through exchange-traded funds (ETFs) you could get the same market exposure for an average fee of 0.25 to 0.30 per cent a year on their management expense ratios. I hazard a guess that the couple in the article were paying in the neighbourhood of 2.5 per cent. It is no wonder they were disappointed with their mutual fund returns.

I suspect that there are many Canadians in a situation similar to the one that I was in, or similar to the one the couple above was in. My guess it that there is a subset of those people who DO look at the MERs on funds (so they are thinking about cost a little) and given two funds, will choose the lower MER one over the high MER one. But most probably fail to think about their cost relative to an index ETF and their risk-adjusted return relative to an index ETF.

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Sleepy Passive Index ETF up 14.7% in 2006

The Canadian Capitalist once again posted the results of his sleepy portfolio, the portfolio he constructed using only passive index funds, which he uses as his own personal benchmark to which he can compare his own performance. Based on the sleepy portfolio’s stellar performance, I wonder if he’ll stop investing in individual stocks so much in the future and invest in more passive index ETFs instead.

This is basically the type of portfolio that I want to switch over to gradually. All passive index-passed. I’ll probably switch over slowly though, I don’t want to sell my mutual funds just yet. Selling now might get me back in the mentality of selling things and chasing returns which I used to do before. I’ll start by putting all the my new cash contributions coming in into index ETFs, then when the mutual fund parts get small enough I might get rid of them.

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