In high school, the popular kids aren’t always the one’s with the best qualities. More often they’re the ones with the good looks, charm, and nice cars. Meanwhile, the kids with the brains and the bad haircuts—and the best long-term prospects—eat lunch alone.
The world of ETFs is often the same way. According to the Canadian ETF Association’s latest stats, the most popular funds include those tracking gold mining stocks, preferred shares, high-yield bonds and covered calls, each with assets between $800 million and $1.3 billion. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these ETFs, but none would be near the top of my list of recommendations for the average investor. Meanwhile, there are many excellent funds that can’t find anyone to ask them to dance.
Here are five unjustly small Canadian ETFs that are worth a closer look: none has more than $70 million in assets, and several have much less.
Regular readers know I don’t like currency hedging because of its relentless drag on long-term returns, so it’s good to know that Vanguard Canada is planning a non-hedged S&P 500 ETF later this year. Until then, if you want US equities with currency hedging, VUS tracks a much broader index, with over 3,300 stocks covering 99.5% of the market. The added exposure to small and mid-cap stocks and a lower fee (0.15%) makes the upstart VUS preferable to the iShares S&P 500 (XSP), which has $1.56 billion in assets.
If you’re looking for US dividend stocks, this First Asset fund has an advantage over its oldest competitor, the iShares S&P U.S. Dividend Growers (CUD), which has 10 times the assets. It dispenses with CUD’s requirement that a company have a 25-year record of dividend growth, which is an arbitrary rule that excludes many stocks for the wrong reasons. And unlike the newly launched iShares U.S. High Dividend Equity (XHD), it’s equal-weighted, which means it’s not dominated by a small number of large companies. Lose the currency hedging and it would be even better.
3 and 4. iShares 1-10 Year Laddered Government Bond (CLG) and iShares 1-10 Year Laddered Corporate Bond (CBH)
The 10-year bond ladder has long been a popular strategy with fixed-income investors: it provides a steady, predictable income stream, and by avoiding concentration in any one maturity, the portfolio is barley affected by either rising or falling interest rates. These two ETFs offer a lot of convenience, since maintaining a ladder of individual bonds can be impractical for small investors. But although the iShares ETFs using five-year bond ladders (CLF and CBO) have well over $1 billion in assets each, the 10-year versions haven’t caught on at all. If the yield curve gets steeper (that is, if longer-term bonds start offering more attractive rates), expect that to change.
Value stocks have a long record of outperforming the broad market, but Canadian ETF investors seem little interested in the strategy: XCV has gathered just $50 million in its six years of existence. XCV’s index screens for stocks with low price-to-earnings and price-to-book ratios, high dividend yields, and solid earnings growth. And even though the last five years have not been particularly kind to value investors, the fund has outperformed both the iShares S&P/TSX 60 (XIU) and the iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC) as of August 30, despite its higher fee (0.55%).