Archive | February, 2014

The True Cost of Foreign Withholding Taxes

Back in the fall of 2012, I wrote a pair of blog posts about the impact of foreign withholding taxes in US and international equity funds. The first explained the general idea of this tax on foreign dividends, while the second showed which funds are best held in which types of account (RRSP, TFSA, non-registered). This is a complicated and confusing topic, so I was surprised at the enormous interest these articles generated from readers, the media, advisors and even the ETF providers themselves.

What was missing from those articles, however, was hard numbers: it’s one thing to say this fund is more tax-efficient than that one, but by how much? To my knowledge no one has ever quantified the costs of foreign withholding tax in a comprehensive way—until now. Justin Bender and I have done this in our new white paper, Foreign Withholding Taxes: How to estimate the hidden tax drag on US and international equity index funds and ETFs.

The factors that matter

The amount of foreign withholding tax payable depends on two important factors. The first is the structure of the ETF or mutual fund.

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Ask the Spud: Is There an Optimal Portfolio?

Q: I’m new to passive investing and am deciding how to allocate between the asset classes. The best split between Canadian equity, international equity, etc. should be determinable based on studies of their past returns, volatility and correlations. Obviously this would vary over time, but approximate weightings should be achievable. Based on this research, how would you weight the individual asset classes? – R.T.

It would look impressive if I designed my model portfolios based on an analysis of historical volatility, correlation matrices and expected returns based on Shiller CAPE or some other data. But instead I generally recommend a roughly equal allocation to Canadian, US and international stocks. Nice and simple, with no advanced math required. This is isn’t because building a “portfolio optimizer” is difficult: it’s because it’s a useless exercise.

Investors have a tendency to resist simple solutions, and this bias is exploited by fund managers and advisors who use algorithms and models designed to determine the “optimal” asset mix that will maximize returns and minimize volatility, sometimes down to two decimal places. That sounds more sophisticated than simply splitting your equity holdings in three, but there’s no evidence it produces better results.

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New Tax-Efficient ETFs from BMO

Bonds are one of the least tax-friendly asset classes: most of their return comes from interest payments, which are taxed at the highest rate. They’re even less tax-efficient when their market price is higher than their par value: these premium bonds are taxed so unfavorably they can actually deliver a negative after-tax return. Unfortunately, because interest rates have trended down for three decades, virtually every bond index fund and ETF is filled with premium bonds. Enter the BMO Discount Bond ETF (ZDB), which begins trading tomorrow. This unique new ETF promises to eliminate the problem that has long plagued bond funds in non-registered accounts.

Let’s take a step back and review the important idea underpinning this new ETF. Consider a premium bond with a coupon of 5% and a yield to maturity of 3%. The bond will pay you 5% interest annually and then suffer a capital loss of 2% at maturity, for a total pre-tax return of 3%. Now consider a discount bond that pays a coupon of 2% and has the same yield to maturity of 3%: now, in addition to the interest payments,

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Will Robo-Advisors Ever Come to Canada?

Every investor who’s fired a bad advisor and become a do-it-yourselfer has probably had mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s liberating to get away from a costly strategy that was performing poorly. But if you’ve never managed your own portfolio, it won’t take long to realize it’s not as simple as you first thought. In the last couple of years a growing number of US investors has been bridging that gap with online services that design, implement and manage ETF portfolios for a fraction of the cost of a human advisor.

These so-called “robo-advisors” take you through a series of questions to determine your goals and your risk tolerance and then build a diversified portfolio using an appropriate mix of equity and bond ETFs. The service looks after rebalancing and reinvestment of dividends: all you do is contribute regularly and the software does the rest. Wealthfront, which bills itself as “the largest and fastest growing software-based financial advisor,” even includes tax-loss harvesting for accounts over $100,000.

The cost for all of this? At Wealthfront you can invest your first $10,000 for free, after which the fee is 0.25% annually.

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