Archive | December, 2011

An ETF Creation Story

The Couch Potato strategy thrives on simplicity, but advanced index investors (geeks) should understand what goes on under the hood of ETFs. One of the most important concepts is how ETF shares are created and redeemed. I’ll warn you that this gets a bit technical. But it turns out that this process is the single most important difference between ETFs and index mutual funds.

Let’s begin by looking at how a mutual fund creates new shares (or units). When you make a $2,000 contribution, your money goes directly to the mutual fund’s manager, who uses it to buy more securities. If the fund’s net asset value (NAV) per share is $20, the manager then creates 100 new shares ($2,000 ÷ $20) just for you. This is what’s meant by the term open-end fund: the number of units changes every time money moves in or out.

Closed-end funds, by contrast, do not create or redeem new units. They are launched with a finite number of shares, and if you want to invest in the fund you have to buy your shares from another investor who is willing to sell.

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A Chat With Vanguard Canada: Part 2

Here’s another excerpt from my recent interview with Atul Tiwari, Dennis Duffy and Joel Dickson of Vanguard. These questions focus on the types of products we might see from Vanguard in the future. You can read also read Part 1 of the interview here.

Your first family of ETFs have all been plain vanilla funds that track major third-party indexes. What new products are on the horizon?

AT: We’re in the development and design stage for the next suite of ETF products that we’ll launch next year. Before we make any decisions about what those will be, we want to be in the market, talking to clients, talking to advisors, and then we will try to reach a conclusion about the next tranche.

The interesting thing that we have come across in terms of how to bring passive investing to Canada is that the index mutual fund market in Canada is pretty small. It’s concentrated in a few issuers and products that really don’t get much prominence. So we have seen indexing growing in Canada, but clearly the vehicle of choice is ETFs. The growth in the ETF market has been 30% or 35% per year,

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A Chat With Vanguard Canada: Part 1

When Vanguard announced its arrival in Canada this summer, investors welcomed the company with open arms: perhaps no country would benefit more from Vanguard’s devotion to low-cost investing. The company’s first Canadian ETFs started trading on the TSX on December 6.

On the day of the launch, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Atul Tiwari, managing director at Vanguard Investments Canada; Dennis Duffy, Vanguard’s director of business development for non-US markets; and Joel Dickson, a principal in Vanguard’s Investment Strategy Group.

Here are some highlights from the interview dealing with Vanguard’s overall strategy in Canada. Later this week I’ll run another excerpt that focuses specifically on the new ETFs and Vanguard Canada’s plans for the future.

Why did you decide to enter the Canadian market with ETFs rather than mutual funds? And why did you target advisors rather than retail investors?

AT: Having looked at the Canadian market for at least 14 or 15 years, Vanguard considered a number of different entry strategies. The reason we executed now is that the Canadian marketplace is changing. We are seeing a lot more advisors moving from a commission-based approach to a fee-based approach,

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The Timeless Harmony of a Balanced Portfolio

Deciding on the right asset allocation can cause investors a lot of grief—far too much, in fact, since there is no such thing as a perfect mix of stocks and bonds.

In his excellent book Your Money and Your Brain, Jason Zweig reveals that even Nobel laureates are not immune. Zweig tells the story of Harry Markowitz, the creator of Modern Portfolio Theory, who struggled to put his own idea into practice. “I should have computed the historical covariances of the asset classes and drawn an efficient frontier,” Markowitz once said. “But I visualized my grief if the stock market went way up and I wasn’t in it—or if it went way down and I was completely in it. So I split my contributions 50/50 between stocks and bonds.”

There’s something elegantly simple about a 50/50 portfolio. Indeed, when finance writer Scott Burns created the original Couch Potato portfolio way back in 1991, that’s what he recommended: half your money in a bond index fund, and a half in an equity fund.

Of course, investors often equate simplicity with a lack of sophistication.

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A Perfect Plan for the Holidays

In the spirit of holiday giving, Justin Bender, portfolio manager with PWL Capital in Toronto, has approached me with an offer for Canadian Couch Potato readers. As part of his firm’s charitable giving program, Justin is offering to help up to four DIY investors design and set up a passive ETF portfolio in exchange for a donation to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

One of the reasons I wrote The MoneySense Guide to the Perfect Portfolio was to help the many would-be Couch Potatoes who are not sure how to get started with DIY index investing. Now here’s an opportunity to have a professional walk you through the process, and to support an organization that does incredibly important work.

Before you dismiss this as a thinly veiled attempt to snag new clients, let’s be clear that Justin is looking to work only with do-it-yourself investors on a one-time basis. His goal is to help you design a plan that you will execute on your own, not to manage your assets on an ongoing basis. There’s no ulterior motive here. PWL’s Toronto office has made a commitment to support CAMH because one of the firm’s staff members lost a close family member who struggled with addiction and mental illness.

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Ask the Spud: Am I Vulnerable to US Estate Taxes?

Q: I am ready to follow the Couch Potato and would like to use the US-listed Vanguard ETFs that you recommend in your model portfolios. But when I checked with my accountant, he warned me that I could face US estate taxes when I die. Is this true? — Karl W.

It’s possible, yes. Canadians with a high net worth and significant holdings in US assets (including ETFs listed on an American exchange) may be subject to estate taxes levied by the Internal Revenue Service. This tax can be up to 35%.

Before we go any further, let me remind you that I am not a tax expert, and it is essential that you consult an accountant or other qualified advisor if you think you may be in this situation. It’s also crucial to understand that US estate tax laws have changed several times in recent years (most recently in December 2010) and will likely change again after the presidential election next year: the current law is only valid until the end of 2012. It’s your responsibility to stay on top of these changes.

With that out of the way,

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Why You Should Beware of First Dates

Imagine that you’re the marketing director for MegaAlpha Investments and you want to advertise two of your mutual funds. In the September 2011 issue of Performance Chaser magazine, you place the following ad:

Are stocks still worth the risk? Not anymore. Over the last three years, the S&P/TSX Composite Index delivered an annualized return of just 0.2%. Meanwhile, the MegaAlpha Awesome Income Fund earned 6.4% a year. Rather than relying on a disappearing equity premium, our managers delivered reliable yield and significant growth with a portfolio of the highest quality government and corporate bonds.

Three months later, in the December issue, you run a different ad:

Are stocks still worth the risk? You bet. Over the last three years, the MegaAlpha Awesome Equity Fund  delivered an annualized return of 12.5%, dramatically outperforming the DEX Universe Bond Index, which returned just 7.7%. Rather than relying on the perceived safety of bonds, our managers took advantage of generous dividends and capital growth in a portfolio of leading Canadian companies.

Do you think I made those numbers up? Nope. Both the index returns and the funds’ performance are real—except the “MegaAlpha Awesome Income Fund” is actually the iShares DEX Universe Bond Index Fund (XBB),

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Another Promise of a Free Lunch

Earlier this month, Mackenzie Investments produced this advertisement for the Mackenzie Sentinel Corporate Bond Fund. The banner headline reads “Think high yield means high risk?” The rest of the ad reads, “Think again. High-yield corporate bonds have produced equity-like returns with less risk.”

Two graphs then compare the performance of the fund with the S&P/TSX Composite Index from November 2000 (the fund’s inception date) through October 31 of this year. During that period, the Mackenzie fund delivered annualized returns of 5.7% with a standard deviation of just 5.8%. The Canadian stock market, by comparison, delivered just 4.5% with much more volatility: a standard deviation of 15.5%.

Those are compelling numbers: high returns with lower volatility is what every investor wants. But it’s always important to scrutinize comparisons like this. There’s nothing incorrect in the data per se, but one needs to ask whether the fund really did deliver superior risk-adjusted returns, and whether it is likely to do so in the future.

To begin with, the start and end dates examined here are crucial. If you look at the table under the two graphs,

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