Archive | December, 2013

The Failed Promise of Market Timing

I’ve long believed the most difficult part of being a Couch Potato investor is resisting temptation. Index investors are asked to be content with market returns, but they are bombarded daily by fund companies, advisors and market gurus who promise more.

Back in May 2012, I wrote about one of these enticing strategies, described in The Ivy Portfolio by Mebane Faber and Eric Richardson. The so-called Global Tactical Asset Allocation (GTAA) strategy grew out of Faber’s widely read research paper, A Quantitative Approach to Tactical Asset Allocation, first published in 2007. It begins with a diversified portfolio inspired by the Yale and Harvard endowment funds, combining traditional and alternative asset classes. The “tactical” part involves using market timing to move in and out of these asset classes based on 10-month moving averages.

Faber updated the paper in early 2013 and it now includes four full decades of data. From 1973 through 2012, the GTAA strategy shows exactly one negative year: a modest loss of –0.59% in 2008. And over those 40 years, the GTAA delivered an annualized return of 10.48% with a standard deviation of 6.99%,

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Why Has VRE Outperformed Its Rivals in 2013?

It’s been a marvellous year for equities, but 2013 has not been kind to real estate investment trusts. Like other income-producing investments, REITs are sensitive to rising interest rates, and the sharp increase in the middle of this year hit them hard. But the three Canadian ETFs in this asset class have shown significant differences in performance. Notably, the Vanguard FTSE Canadian Capped REIT (VRE) has outperformed its iShares and BMO rivals by a wide margin. Here are the year-to-date returns of the funds as of December 18, according to Morningstar:

Vanguard FTSE Canadian Capped REIT (VRE)
–2.47%

iShares S&P/TSX Capped REIT (XRE)
–7.81%

BMO Equal Weight REITs (ZRE)
–6.72%

REISs pieces

Whenever you see variance among funds in the same asset class, it’s important to determine why. In this case, the main reason is a significant difference in the underlying indexes. Shortly after VRE was launched, I wrote a detailed post describing its benchmark, the FTSE Canada All Cap Real Estate Capped 25% Index, which is quite different from those tracked by the iShares and BMO funds.

Like XRE,

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The Powerful Pull of Possibility

If the evidence in favour of passive investing is so strong, why isn’t the strategy more popular? I hear that question all the time, and there are several answers, including effective marketing by investment firms and a general lack of awareness. But there’s another reason that affects even those who are well aware of the research. It’s the deep emotional appeal that comes from the possibility—however small it might be—of achieving market-beating returns.

I thought about this recently during a conversation with an investor who was considering moving from his current advisor (who used a highly active strategy) to an indexed approach. Robert had been with his advisor for more than 10 years, and it was clear his portfolio had lagged the indexes over that period. He also complained the advisor was providing no financial planning and no tax management: there was only active investment management, and it had failed for more than a decade. Why, then, did Robert find it so hard to break free?

As we spoke, the answer became clear: Robert wasn’t disputing that indexing had a higher probability of success. He just wanted to hold onto the possibility of outperformance.

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Ask the Spud: When Should I Use US-Listed ETFs?

Q: Under what specific circumstances would it be better to hold a US-listed ETF if there is a Canadian equivalent? For example, when it is preferable to use the Vanguard Total Stock Market (VTI) rather than the Vanguard U.S. Total Market (VUN)? — R. F.

Until late 2012, there really were no great options for Canadian ETFs that held US and international equities. If you wanted a low-cost, cap-weighted index fund that did not use currency hedging, you were out of luck. That’s why my Complete Couch Potato model portfolio currently uses a pair of US-listed ETFs for its foreign equity components.

But the case for using US-listed ETFs is not nearly as compelling as it used to be. Since April, iShares and Vanguard have launched inexpensive Canadian ETFs covering the broad US and international markets without currency hedging. For example, the Vanguard U.S. Total Market (VUN), launched in August, is virtually identical to the Vanguard Total Stock Market (VTI)—indeed, VUN simply holds units of VTI.

There are three important differences between these ETFs,

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Norbert’s Gambit: The Complete Guide

[This post was updated in February 2015 to reflect recent changes at some brokerages.]

Norbert’s gambit remains the least expensive way to convert Canadian and US dollars at a discount brokerage. For investors looking to buy US-listed ETFs, learning this technique can save hundreds of dollars by sidestepping the wide currency spreads charged by brokerages.

With the 2013 launch of excellent unhedged foreign equity ETFs from Vanguard and iShares, there’s less of an incentive to use US-listed ETFs than there used to be. In fact, in a non-registered account or a TFSA it may not even be worth the added cost and inconvenience if the only difference is a few basis points of MER. But in an RRSP, there’s a significant benefit: using US-listed ETFs can dramatically reduce the impact of foreign withholding taxes, which can add an additional cost of 0.30% to 0.70% to US and international equity holdings.

The problem with learning to pulling off Norbert’s gambit, however, is that there’s no simple set of instructions that works at every brokerage. RBC Direct Investing and BMO InvestorLine both allow you to hold US dollars in registered accounts,

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