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, however:

  • VUN has a higher management fee: 0.15% compared with just 0.05% for VTI
  • VTI trades in US dollars, which may result in investors incurring significant currency conversion costs
  • VTI is exempt from the 15% US withholding taxes on dividends if it is held in an RRSP

VUN has the edge in taxable accounts and TFSAs

In my opinion, VUN should be the default choice if you’re holding US equities in a non-registered account or a TFSA. In these two account types, neither fund has any tax advantage: both ETFs are subject to the withholding tax on dividends. In a non-registered account, the tax is recoverable by claiming the foreign tax credit, while in a TFSA it cannot be recovered.

That means the only issues to consider in a taxable account or TFSA are the differences in management fees and the cost of converting currency. And in most cases, the foreign exchange costs will have a larger impact.

VUN’s additional management fee of 0.10% (the full MER will likely be a couple of basis points higher) amounts to just $10 on every $10,000 invested. That’s peanuts. If the alternative is paying your brokerage’s normal currency conversion rates (which may be upwards of 1.5%, or $150 on $10,000), then VUN is a no-brainer. Even if you’re comfortable doing Norbert’s gambit, remember this typically involves two $10 commissions and a small spread, so do the math and ask yourself whether it’s really worth it. It probably isn’t unless the transaction is very large.

VTI makes more sense in an RRSP

If you’re holding US equities in an RRSP, then it’s worth taking a closer look at VTI. With the yield on US stocks now at about 2%, the withholding tax represents an additional drag of about 0.30% for VUN. So now the total cost difference—including both the higher MER and the withholding tax—is more like 0.40%.

At that point it’s worth at least considering using Norbert’s gambit to convert your loonies to US dollars in order to purchase VTI. Again, however, the size of the transaction is important. Norbert’s gambit is usually not efficient unless you’re exchanging five-figure sums, so if you’re contributing a few thousand dollars a year to US equities, VUN is likely to be the less expensive option even in an RRSP.

And if you are willing to pay a little extra for the convenience of making all your trades in Canadian dollars (and there’s nothing wrong with that), VUN is likely the most appropriate choice in any type of account.

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

  1. William January 6, 2015 at 10:28 am #

    I agree That US ETFs and NG make sense in an RRSP.. (Un)fortunately, I am at the point where all of my tax advantaged/deferred room is taken up with FI/REIT. I am debating whether to use XIC+VXC versus XIC+VXUS+VTI for the equity portion, all of which is taxable (personal and CCPC). I think looking at costs from a total portfolio perspective is instructive.

    As I see it, when looking strictly at fees and withholding taxes (i.e. not whether VXC has enough US small cap vs VTI), and assuming a classic 40:60 FI:Equity portfolio with 1/3 Canada, 1/3 US and 1/3 EAFE/EEM, the difference is negligible. For example:

    Option 1 (CDN listed ETFs): FI = 50% GICs and 50% VAB. Thus FI MER = 6 bps. Equity = 1/3 XIC + 2/3 VXC, thus EQ MER = (5 + 2*25)/3 = 18 bps. Total portfolio MER is thus 13 bps

    Option 2 (US listed ETFs): FI = 50% GICs and 50% VAB. Thus FI MER = 6 bps. Equity = 1/3 XIC + 1/3 VTI + 1/3 VXUS, thus EQ MER = (5 + 5 + 14)/3 = 8 bps. Total portfolio MER is thus 7.2 bps

    So a 5 bps difference. Norbert’s Gambit has a cost associated. Let’s say 20bps to get in, and presumably 20 bps to sell back into C$. 40 bps spread over an average 20 year holding period is an annual cost of 2 bps, so now the difference between US and CDN listed ETFs has dropped to 3-4 bps. The importance of this will decline even further as my FI proportion increases with age. For me this difference isn’t worth the hassle of US listed ETFs, particularly given US estate tax risks and the possibility that my SO will be the one dealing with selling the holdings if I kick it prematurely (the bank would take 150-200 bps to sell all back to C$, a cost that would exceed any small savings of NG and US ETFs).

    Am I missing something in this analysis?

  2. Canadian Couch Potato January 6, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

    @William I’d tend to agree with your assessment. The case for using Norbert’s gambit and US-listed ETFs in non-registered accounts is not very compelling until the portfolio gets very large.

  3. Que January 6, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

    @Dan: How large would the portfolio be to make it compelling?

  4. Canadian Couch Potato January 6, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

    @Que: That’s really a personal decision. I’ve worked with many clients who find the whole idea of Norbert’s gambit a huge nuisance and they’re happy to have even six-figure holdings in Canadian-listed ETFs in their RRSPs. Remember that the additional drag due to foreign withholding taxes and higher MER might amount to 40 or 50 bps, or $40 or $50 annually for each $10,000 invested. Investors should balance that against the cost and inconvenience of Norbert’s gambit and decide what makes sense for them.

  5. Al January 6, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

    But if the portfolio is very large is that even more reason NOT to use US listed etfs? If death comes unexpectedly the estate taxes are brutal.

  6. Canadian Couch Potato January 6, 2015 at 7:27 pm #

    @Al: Under the current law, Canadians are not vulnerable to US estate taxes until their worldwide estate is over $5.34 million. At that point, yes, US-listed ETFs pose a potential problem.

  7. Que January 7, 2015 at 6:16 pm #

    @Dan: I thought the US was going to lower that 5+Million mark down to 1 million in 2013, is there a website link you could post that we can get to current rules?

  8. Canadian Couch Potato January 7, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

    @Que: I will echo Oldie’s comment that I have had little success importing data for ETFs listed on the TSX.

  9. William January 7, 2015 at 10:46 pm #

    Thanks Dan and everyone for your comments. I want to reiterate that I am specifically addressing non-registered accounts. If I had non-FI in RRSP/TFSA, I would probably use NG and ETFs that directly hold their assets.

    My goal is simplicity in the portfolio, within the parameters of low cost and minimal exposure to US estate tax issues. I In a different forum, HXS recommended for US exposure as well ( eg a portfolio of XIC, HXS, XEF and XEC). I looked at using XEF and XEC for non-NA exposure. This only saves about 3 bps on the total portfolio, so not very compelling for me. The HXS does save quite a bit on an after tax basis, so might be worth “de simplifying” things. Certainly has some regulatory risks attached though…

    I wonder if we will see a CCP “3 fund portfolio” soon- VAB+XIC+VXC…

  10. oldie January 8, 2015 at 1:28 am #

    @CCP: I take it that this was a typo in your comment: I wouldn’t say I had LITTLE success, LIMITED success, perhaps.

    As I said, my experience was that, for GoogleDocs spreadsheets at least, the formula I provided works very well for importing price data for non-ambiguously named ETFs on the TSX or wherever; the only glitch occurs with ETFs whose ticker symbol on the TSE is exactly the same as the ticker symbol for some other stock on some other stock exchange, usually the NYSE. My clumsy workaround for this is not very reliable, and I would welcome the help from anyone else who has figured out a way of reliably overcoming this major glitch.

  11. oldie January 8, 2015 at 1:53 am #

    @CCP: Oh, this puzzled me for a bit, because I remember making the comment you referred to, but I couldn’t find it in the previous comments here. Then I finally figured out that my comment to @Que was made on a DIFFERENT post, the March 15, 2012 post, to be specific; those readers wanting to read about my experience regarding capturing and displaying near real-time ETF price data on GoogleDocs spreadsheets can look here.

    http://canadiancouchpotato.com/2012/03/15/a-spreadsheet-to-manage-multiple-accounts/

  12. smartie January 22, 2015 at 7:22 pm #

    Hey,

    My financial adviser told me that “Clients holding the [Canadian] Vanguard S&P 500 Index ETF (VFV.to) currently do not get US withholding taxes applied on their dividends received within TFSA`s and unregistered accounts.”

    And for the US equivalent…

    “US Withholding taxes of 15% to be applied on dividends received if account is deemed fully documented (as is the case for a TFSA)…would be 30% US taxes withheld if account was undocumented. This tax withheld is sent to US Internal Revenue Service as required by US authorities and may never be recovered. (If you hold US ETFs in RSP accounts withholding taxes don’t apply)”

    What am i missing, or is she missing?? Has this changed since your article was published?

  13. Canadian Couch Potato January 23, 2015 at 12:22 am #

    @Smartie: Your advisor is incorrect on the first point. If you hold VFV in any type of account, withholding taxes apply. In a non-registered account you may be able to recover this by claiming the foreign tax credit on your return. In a TFSA it would be lost.

    She is correct on the second point. Canadians need to fill out a W-8BEN form when opening brokerage accounts to ensure that the withholding tax is applied at 15%. Typically the brokerage fills this out on your behalf, so it’s rare for anyone to actually have the 30% rate applied. But double-checking this with your brokerage cannot hurt.

  14. smartie January 23, 2015 at 8:30 pm #

    @Couch Potato – I think now she meant that she doesn’t see it come off because it’s a Canadian fund… and the accounting happens before Vanguard Canada gets the dividends from Vanguard USA, so no taxes come out of my account??! Hmmm I’ll ask – meanwhile, is the same thing true of Capital Gains?

    In that case it seems troublesome to hold Vanguard funds in a Canadian registered account, the 15% cut off the top seems like it might ruin the benefit of a TFSA. Would it be better to just hold All-World Ex-NA stocks?!

    But Vanguard stocks are such a good deal, and the S&P 500 is a great performer.

    In a non-registered account, you say the tax is recoverable but you’d then end up paying Canadian tax, right?

  15. Canadian Couch Potato January 24, 2015 at 8:25 am #

    @smartie: Well, even if you don’t actually see the tax deducted, you are still paying it. You don’t see the MER deducted, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. There is no withholding tax on capital gains.

    Remember to put withholding taxes in context. 15% sounds like a lot, but it’s 15% of the dividend yield, and the yield on US stocks these days is less than 2%. So the cost of the withholding tax in a registered account is about (15% x 2% = 0.30%). That definitely does not ruin the benefit of a TFSA. As you point out, the alternative is holding the fund in a non-registered account where the dividends are fully taxable at your marginal rate (which is probably more than 15%) and the capital gains are taxable, too. It is almost always better to use registered accounts before taxable accounts, regardless of the asset class.

  16. oldie January 24, 2015 at 11:07 am #

    @smartie and CanadianCouchPotato:

    “In that case it seems troublesome to hold Vanguard funds in a Canadian registered account, the 15% cut off the top seems like it might ruin the benefit of a TFSA. Would it be better to just hold All-World Ex-NA stocks?!”

    The Vanguard fund VUN for Developed ex-NA achieves this exposure by holding US domiciled Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETFs. Doesn’t that mean the US withholding tax is still taken off the dividends on as well as the withholding foreign tax taken off the individual dividends depending on the tax laws and treaties that Canada may have with the individual nations involved?

    Would the investor be better off in a TFSA by holding an ETF such as ZEA which undertakes to hold all foreign assets directly rather than through their US domiciled ETFs? That way they are only dinged on foreign withholding tax directly on the dividends of the specific EAFE assets depending on taxation laws and treaties, but spared any US withholding tax?

  17. archie tannock January 29, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

    Now that CAD is on a downward trend I am looking at ways to realise the gains made in my US listed ETF’s, namely SPY, VWO, VEA, VPL, VGK. My plan is to use a Norbert Gambit approach, using interlisted CM as the vehicle to convert USD to CAD. My question is when I buy International etf,s in CAD should I buy hedged funds based on my belief that eventualy CAD will rebound or are there hidden costs involved with hedging.?

  18. Canadian Couch Potato January 29, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

    @archie: Yes, if you believe that Canadian dollar will rise in value then it makes sense to use CAD-hedged US or international equity ETFs that trade on the TSX. But hedging does have many downsides (search “hedging” on this blog for more). More importantly, trying to guess where currencies where currencies are headed can be equally costly. Ask anyone who tried to bet on where interest rates were headed.

  19. oldie January 29, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    @CCP: To drill a little deeper into your answer to archie, while acknowledging that trying to guess where the Canadian vs US exchange rate is headed is futile, would it be rational and acceptable to re-balance based upon current deviation of asset allocations from the original target, even though a large component of that deviation is due to the currently low Canadian Dollar?

  20. Victor Kozak February 21, 2015 at 9:15 am #

    What is your opinion of the new XHU and the best place to hold it given any withholding tax implications?

  21. Canadian Couch Potato February 21, 2015 at 9:50 am #

    @Victor: I generally don’t recommend high-dividend strategies, especially with foreign stocks, since the dividends are fully taxable. If you hold XHU in an RRSP or TFSA it is sheltered from income tax, of course, but you would lose the 15% withholding tax on the dividends. Assuming a yield of 3%, that cost is about 0.45%. If you hold it in a non-registered account you can recover the withholding tax, but the entire dividend would be taxed at your full marginal rate.

    http://canadiancouchpotato.com/2014/05/01/the-high-cost-of-high-dividends/

  22. Victor February 21, 2015 at 10:01 am #

    Is there any scenario where high dividend foreign stocks are useful?

  23. ETFed May 26, 2015 at 8:05 pm #

    We currently have our portfolio balanced to 30% Canadian (some in REITs), 25% US, 20% International, and 25% bonds. This allocation is largely based on one of your previous portfolio models. There is a mix of US and Canadian listed ETFs, tax sheltered and non-sheltered accounts.

    We own a small business, so the non-sheltered accounts are held by our company. Because we have US clients, we get paid in US$, so we have purchased VTI and VXUS for the US and International portions of the portfolio. We are about to rebalance the portfolio and, because we are still learning the ins and outs of independent investing, we have two questions:

    1) We are planning to sell the REITs (individual stocks – about 10% of the portfolio value) and reinvest the proceeds in VCN in order to simplify the portfolio holdings. Is this advisable?

    2) We are assuming it would make more sense to continue buying VTI and VXUS for the business portion of the portfolio, considering the company already has the funds available in US$, instead of converting the funds to Canadian dollars and buying VXC. Are we correct on this assumption?

    Thank you!

  24. Gerry June 5, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

    What about VUN vs. VFV

    Both are in Canadian funds, but one is total market, where as the other is top 500.

    Why would VUN be better investment than VFV, because it includes the smaller cap businesses?

    Im leaning towards solely dollar cost investing in the VFV, being a canadian is there any downside to this?

  25. Canadian Couch Potato June 6, 2015 at 10:49 am #

    @Gerry: I generally prefer total-market ETFs wherever possible for the extra exposure to med- and small-cap stocks. But Over most periods the difference between the S&P 500 and and the total US market is likely to be extremely similar, so this is not a huge decision.

  26. Ross June 9, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

    Hi Dan, in regards US ETFs then do you have any views in regards the merits of Schwab ETFs? Given Vanguard’s recent announcement to include China A-shares in VWO then I am exploring alternatives and came across SCHE. In the process it made me realize that some Schwab ETFs appear to have lower expense ratios than popular Vanguard funds (e.g. SCHF 8bp vs VEA 9bp, SCHH 7bp vs VNQ 12bp, and seems others). Any insight welcomed.

  27. Canadian Couch Potato June 9, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

    @Ross: I have not looked at the Schwab ETFs too closely, but they seem to have a good menu of plain-vanilla, cap-weighted low-cost funds. For what it’s worth we use iShares IEMG for some of our clients.

  28. Ross June 9, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

    Thanks @CCP, appreciated. I had looked at IEMG. Looks good. But I was trying to avoid duplication of South Korea exposure (SK equity, such as Samsung, is in VEA but also a hearty 15% of IEMG). Which led me to review Schwab combo of SCHF + SCHE and then for targeted other ETFs (Vanguard’s ETF comparison tool is great). Neither expressly seeking Schwab ETFs, nor previously owned any Schwab ETFs. Simply stumbled across them in a peer-review and determined similarly to your observation of ‘plain-vanilla, cap-weighted low-cost funds’. Noted negligible coverage of Schwab on CCP. Lots of choice/competition is a wonderful ‘problem’! Will see. Thanks again for your enormously informative articles.

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