Remodelled Portfolios for 2014

January 6, 2014

Another new year is upon us, and it’s time review my model Couch Potato portfolios. I’ve been at pains to discourage investors from tinkering with their portfolios every time a new fund comes along, but 2013 did see the launch of some significant ETFs. In a couple of other cases, it was just time to replace the incumbents with less expensive choices. You can visit the Model Portfolios page for full details, but here’s a summary of the changes:

Global Couch Potato

  • I’ve added the ING Direct Streetwise Balanced Portfolio as a simple option for the Global Couch Potato. While using individual index mutual funds allows for lower costs (especially if you use the TD e-Series option) and more flexibility, the Streetwise Portfolios are ideal for investors who have small portfolios in registered accounts.

Complete Couch Potato

  • I’ve added a note suggesting that investors who do not want to trade in US dollars should consider VUN, XEF and the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets IMI (XEC) instead. All three of these funds were launched in 2013, finally providing low-cost options for foreign equities without currency hedging. Outside an RRSP (where these Canadian-listed ETFs are less tax-efficient) the case for using US-listed ETFs is not as strong as it once was.


Don’t rush to make changes

I can’t stress enough that there is no need to implement any immediate changes if you happen to follow one of my model portfolios. It makes little sense to incur two trading fees to switch to a fund that has a slightly lower MER, especially in a small portfolio. Consider, for example, the cost of switching to VAB from the iShares DEX Universe Bond (XBB). The difference in MER is seven basis points, or just $7 annually on a $10,000 investment. Meanwhile, the switch may cost you $10 per trade, and perhaps a couple of cents per share on the bid-ask spread.

In a taxable account it is almost certainly a mistake to swap out an equity ETF now. Given the markets’ performance over the last couple of years, you’d likely incur a significant taxable capital gain. For example, XWD has risen in price almost 45% over the last two years. Taking a huge tax hit to save 0.22% in MER is madness. If a tax-loss harvesting opportunity arises in the future, that’s the time to make any switches in a non-registered account.

That said, many people will be making RRSP and TFSA contributions this time of year. And since 2013 was a huge year for stocks and a lousy one for bonds, chances are it’s time to rebalance your portfolio. If you’re planning to make a few trades in your account anyway, that’s a good time to make any product switches you’ve been considering.

{ 131 comments… read them below or add one }

Canadian Couch Potato January 19, 2014 at 3:30 pm

@RJ: Yes, it’s true that FTSE doesn’t impose a cap on individual stocks in its broad-market indexes, so it could theoretically become vulnerable to something like the Nortel effect. But this can’t happen suddenly: there would be lots of warning and plenty of time for an investor to move to a capped index if they felt that a single company was starting to take up too large a share.

Canadian Couch Potato January 19, 2014 at 3:34 pm

@Que: I understood the comment to mean she was looking to make a $40,000 ETF purchase, as well as additional purchases in the future. I also never assume that investors will get a 0.4% spread unless they specifically say they’ll be using Norbert’s gambit (where it would be less). The retail spread is generally much higher.

DL January 20, 2014 at 4:56 pm

Hi CCP, I am interested in finding out why you stuck with ZRE for your Complete Couch Potato portfolio over the cheaper alternative in VRE. I saw in one video at the Globe & Mail, where you, Justin, and Rob discussed what a retiree’s portfolio should have. In that portfolio, you guys used VRE instead.

I personally am struggling with the choice. I intend to initiate a position into REITs with about $7,000. I can use the brokerage’s DRIP with ZRE because of the consistently large distributions (hypothetically, $0.08 per unit) and low market price; conversely, VRE’s distribution is inconsistent and rather low (about $0.055 per unit) combined with a higher market price, which may not allow me to use DRIP.

Canadian Couch Potato January 20, 2014 at 7:30 pm

@DL: Both ETFs are perfectly acceptable for Canadian REITs. Personally I like the equal-weighted methodology because it avoids the large concentration in a one or two holdings that you see in VRE. However, the counterargument is that ZRE has a higher fee and has relatively large holdings in some very small companies. I don’t think the DRIP concerns should have any effect on the decision: it’s more more important to decide on the strategy you’re most comfortable with.

This post may help:

John January 21, 2014 at 9:43 am


I was considering purchasing the funds in your Option #3 of the Global Couch Potato, but the Altamira Intl Index fund causes me concern. I am frankly shocked that it was recommended at all, and am surprised that it is still on the list. It has only $11 million (with an m) in the fund! I suspect most of that is due to CPers! How a fund with that little investment can sustain itself and manage a true portfolio is beyond me. The other shocking thing is that it has been around since 1998. Sounds too risky to me. Thoughts?

Canadian Couch Potato January 21, 2014 at 10:26 am

@John: An index fund with a small asset base is not unusually risky. The worst case scenario is the fund would be wound down and investors would have their money returned to them. And as you point out, the fund has been around for 15+ years, which suggests this is not an imminent danger.

If you have no access to the TD e-Series funds, the next best option for an unhedged EAFE index fund is TD’s I-series, which has a 1.38% MER.

John January 21, 2014 at 12:23 pm

@CCP: thanks for answering. I will take a look at the TD fund you mentioned.

vanbc January 25, 2014 at 10:54 pm

Hi, Thank you for all of your information and updates. Would you consider doing a portfolio for a leverage based investment (either smith or standalone investment loan)?

Brian January 28, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Hi Dan,

I might have missed an earlier post, but can you explain why you are choosing VAB (average maturity 10 years) as opposed to a short term fund like VSB? For a long term investor is the idea that it will eventually work itself out even taking into account that we are in a rising interest rate environment?


Canadian Couch Potato January 28, 2014 at 10:46 pm

@Brian: Short-term bonds are a perfectly good alternative if you prefer lower volatility. But for an investor with a long time horizon, a brad based bond fund should have higher expected returns. Be careful of ideas like “we’re in a rising rate environment.” We don’t know with certainty whether rates will rise, fall or stay the same.

Michael February 1, 2014 at 9:07 am

On your Model Portfolios page, no mention of correlation … the underpinning of your whole index investing strategy.

Correlation matrices for each portfolio would be nice.

Peter February 1, 2014 at 12:46 pm

In your Couch Potato Models you are using mainly Vanguard ETF. Why not iShares? I don’t think there is a significant difference in MER

Canadian Couch Potato February 1, 2014 at 1:13 pm

@Peter: In most cases iShares ETFs would be perfectly good substitutes. The ones I list are just suggestions.

RW February 2, 2014 at 12:35 pm


Long time lurker here. I have been looking at your various portfolio options, and wonder what you might recommend to emulate some of these using low MER mutual funds. My RRSPs/TFSA are maxed and can be dealt with via ETFs, but I am just setting up a systematic investment plan with Waterhouse where I will be investing roughly 1000/week. I wouldn’t want to incur trade costs in this scenario. Any thoughts?

Canadian Couch Potato February 2, 2014 at 12:38 pm

@RW: Why not just use TD’s e-Series index funds?

RW February 2, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Fast reply! Woops, I should have been more clear. I meant something to emulate some of the more nuanced portfolios. Like the complete/ubertuber, or at least a good mutual fund option to get real estate exposure and emerging markets?

I know I could do a bare bones eseries approach on the simplest portfolio, and then move to ETFs in the uber tuber maybe at the end of the year when there is about 50k in value..and repeat each year. I would like to dollar cost average my way into it though.


Canadian Couch Potato February 2, 2014 at 1:42 pm

@RW: No, there are no good index mutual fund choices once you get beyond the core asset classes. I wish there were. CIBC has an emerging markets index fund, but its MER is 1.39%. All real estate mutual funds in Canada are actively managed. Your second idea (the bare bones approach) sounds better.

sat February 27, 2014 at 9:14 pm

I have invested (RRSP) @ $25000 in RBC North American Value mutual fund. Now I want to contribute @ $30000 this year in RRSP and TFSA. I am thinking to invest in ETF now. I am thinking about VUN, VCN & XEF. Please suggest me. Are the ETF better option than Mutual funds? Are these safe ?

Michael March 17, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Curious why XEF and not VDU in the global portfolio (option 4)?

Canadian Couch Potato March 17, 2014 at 7:37 pm

@Michael: VDU is a perfectly good choice. XEF has more diversification with additional mid-cap and small stocks for only a very slightly higher fee, but both are excellent choices for international equities.

Sue March 20, 2014 at 7:35 pm

is there a role for XCB (corporate bond etf) in one’s rrsp as an option for fixed income or do you prefer another type of bond ETF as part of a diversified portfolio?

Canadian Couch Potato March 21, 2014 at 12:40 am

@Sue: Corporate bonds are a reasonable holding if you don’t mind taking on a little more risk in exchange for a a higher yield. They will not offer the same protection as government bonds in the event of a market crash, however. Broad-based funds like VAB, ZAG and XBB include both government and corporate bonds, which I think is a good compromise.

SRR March 25, 2014 at 1:00 pm

I’m looking at switching some funds from TDB966 to TDB909 to take advantage of the lower MER of the e-series fund. The existing TDB966 has a DRIP and I was told by the TD brokerage advisor to cancel the DRIP (30 days) before making the switch to TDB909 to avoid the early redemption penalty for newly purchased DRIP shares.
Anyone else aware of this? Are the early redemption fees significant say for a $100 reinvestment or is this something I don’t need to worry about. If rebalancing do we need to keep this in mind and cancel the DRIPs first?

Canadian Couch Potato March 25, 2014 at 1:12 pm

@SRR: That is definitely good advice for ETFs, but it seems odd for mutual funds, which do not typically have record dates for dividend payments:

TD should tell you exactly what the early redemption fee would be. The website says “Up to 2.00% of purchase cost if redeemed within 30 days of purchase.”

EJD April 4, 2014 at 10:32 pm

I need to replace VCN in this portfolio with a US-listed ETF for tax reasons. As a US citizen in Canada, I can’t hold Canadian-listed ETFs in my non-registered accounts if I want to avoid PFIC issues.

Considering a mix of iShares MSCI Canada (EWC) and iShares MSCI Canada Small Cap (EWCS) on an 85/15 split, which roughly matches the large cap / small cap mix of VCN.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this, or other suggestions?

Thanks in advance.

- Erik

Canadian Couch Potato April 5, 2014 at 11:00 am

@EJD: Good decision to use US-listed ETFs, though I would suggest the portfolio would need to be pretty large before I worried about adding small-cap Canadian equities at 0.59%. A portfolio of EWC, VTI and VXUS would cover the world pretty simply and cheaply.

EJD April 5, 2014 at 11:09 am

Thanks for the feedback. The rationale on the split was that VCN holds 235 equities and EWC only holds the top 96, so the small-cap fills out the rest, but I get your point on portfolio size. Not sure where the .59% figure came from…I was figuring 15% of VCN’s 20% allocation = 3% EWCS. But I’ll do the math and see if that’s material.

Canadian Couch Potato April 5, 2014 at 11:18 am

@EJD: 0.59% is the fee on EWCS, which is very high for a US-listed ETF. All I meant was that if you are using US-listed ETFs you can get very broad equity coverage without having to bother with expensive and narrowly focused funds like that.

EJD April 5, 2014 at 1:45 pm

@CCP: Ahh, got it, thanks.

Jim April 12, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I’ve had a savings account with the same bank for 25+ years. My picture ID, passport and government issued have expired. I’m having trouble opening a TFSA trading account with the direct investing division of the same bank. Any suggestions besides wasting the money for picture ID ? Thank you very much for your help……Jim

Canadian Couch Potato April 12, 2014 at 2:17 pm

@Jim: Brokerages are pretty strict these days because of money laundering laws: they pretty much always insist on on valid photo ID. But often they will accept a provincial health card (even if your province does not have photo-ID health cards), so you could try that.

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