Archive | April, 2014

Inside the RBC Quant Dividend Leaders ETFs

In January, RBC launched the Quant Dividend Leaders ETFs, a family of dividend-focused funds covering the Canadian, U.S. and international markets. I recently had a chance to speak with Bill Tilford, Head of Quantitative Investments at RBC Global Asset Management, to learn more about the new ETFs:

RBC Quant Canadian Dividend Leaders (RCD)
RBC Quant U.S. Dividend Leaders (RUD/RID.U)
RBC Quant EAFE Dividend Leaders (RID/RID.U)

The funds do not track a third-party index: rather, the portfolios are built using a rules-based methodology. Unlike the popular S&P Dividend Aristocrats indexes, which focus on past dividend growth, Tilford says the RBC ETFs try to be forward-looking. So in addition to screening for stocks with above-average dividend yield, the strategy also looks at three measures of financial strength to determine the sustainability of the dividends.

The first is called the Altman Z-score, which has been used since the 1960s to estimate the probability of a bankruptcy. “It also does a great job of forecasting dividend growth,” says Tilford. The other factors are the volatility of the firm’s return on equity (ROE) and the amount of short interest.

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Do Bonds Still Belong in an RRSP?

It has long been conventional wisdom that bonds should be held in RRSPs wherever possible, since interest income is fully taxable. Once you run out of contribution room, equities can go in a non-registered account, because Canadian dividends and capital gains are taxed more favorably. But is this idea still valid? That’s the question Justin Bender and I explore in our new white paper, Asset Location for Taxable Investors.

Here’s an example we used to illustrate the problem. Assume you’re an Ontario investor with a marginal tax rate of 46.41%. Your non-registered account holds $1,000 in Canadian equities that return 8%, of which 3% is from eligible dividends and 5% is a realized capital gain. You would pay $8.86 in tax on the dividend income ($30 x 29.52%) and $11.60 on the realized capital gain ($50 x 23.20%), for a total of $20.46. Meanwhile, a $1,000 bond yielding 5% (or $50 annually) would be taxed at your full marginal rate, resulting in a tax bill of $23.21.

In this example, even though the total return on the stocks was higher (8% versus 5%) the amount of tax payable on the bond holding was significantly greater.

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How Low Can ETF Fees Go?

Less than a month ago, BlackRock aggressively cut the management fees on several of its core ETFs. The boldest move was to slash the fee to just 0.05% on its broad-market Canadian equity fund, the iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC). That seemed to get the attention of the competition, because BMO has hit back with similar fee reductions on several of its own ETFs. (Good thing I didn’t update my model portfolios.)

On April 30, BMO will reduce the fees on the following ETFs:

Fund name
Old fee
New fee

BMO S&P/TSX Capped Composite (ZCN)
0.15%
0.05%

BMO S&P 500 (ZSP)
0.15%
0.10%

BMO S&P 500 Hedged to CAD (ZUE)
0.15%
0.10%

BMO MSCI EAFE (ZEA)
0.30%
0.20%

BMO MSCI EAFE Hedged to CAD (ZDM)
0.35%
0.20%

BMO MSCI Emerging Markets (ZEM)
0.45%
0.25%

BMO Short Corporate Bond (ZCS)
0.30%
0.12%

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In the major equity asset classes, the management fees are now identical on comparable BMO and iShares products. Surprisingly, the Vanguard counterparts are now the most expensive in the group. I’m pretty sure no one saw that coming,

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Ask the Spud: Is My Pension Like a Bond?

Q: My wife and I have been using the Couch Potato strategy for a few years now, but something has always nagged me. I am fortunate enough to have a defined benefit pension that will pay me $50,000 a year in retirement. Should I consider this the fixed income portion of my portfolio and put the rest in equities? – Brian

This a critical financial planning question for anyone with a pension, and yet it’s often framed in an unhelpful way.

A popular school of thought says you should think of a pension as a bond, presumably because both bonds and pensions pay predictable amounts of guaranteed income. The problem is, there is no way to put that idea into practice when managing a portfolio.

In this case, our reader has a pension that will pay him $50,000 a year. What would an equivalent bond holding be? Let’s assume he also has $300,000 in personal savings, and that it’s all equities. What would his overall asset allocation be? Even if he did establish a present value for the pension, how would that be helpful when it was time to rebalance the portfolio to its targets?

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Adjusted Cost Base With US-listed ETFs

Many readers have used our white paper, As Easy as ACB, to learn how to calculate the adjusted cost base of their Canadian ETF holdings. I’ve received several comments and questions from readers who wonder whether the process is the same for US-listed ETFs—and the answer is no.

You already know that dividends and interest from US securities are taxed at your full marginal rate. What you may not realize is that return of capital (ROC) and capital gains are also fully taxable. And although ROC and reinvested capital gains affect your ACB with Canadian securities, they are unlikely to be a factor with US-listed ETFs.

Schmidt happens

First some background: in a 2012 court case, a Calgary investor named Hellmut Schmidt argued that ROC and capital gains distributions from a US-listed security should get the same tax treatment as they do when they come from Canadian funds. He argued the ROC should not be taxable, and that he should be on the hook for only half the capital gain. But the judge disagreed and ruled that all the US fund’s distributions were fully taxable as foreign income.

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Tax Tips for BMO ETF Investors

Last week I offered some tips for investors who are tracking their adjusted cost base with Vanguard ETFs. In this post I’ll offer similar advice for those who use BMO exchange-traded funds. These tips expand on As Easy as ACB, a paper co-authored with Justin Bender, which thoroughly explains how to calculate the adjusted cost base of your ETF holdings.

The BMO Equal Weight REITs (ZRE), which is the real estate component the Complete Couch Potato portfolio, provides our first example. You can start by downloading the BMO ETF 2013 Tax Parameters, which gives a summary of all distributions for the year. Scan the list until you find ZRE.

Notice ZRE reported both return of capital (ROC) and capital gains in 2013. ROC is normally paid in cash, and although it appears in Box 42 of your T3 slip, it’s not taxable in the year it’s received. However, it lowers your adjusted cost base and therefore increases your future tax liability.

Capital gains are taxable in the current year (they’ll appear in Box 21).

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A Tax Tip for Vanguard ETF Investors

As the tax filing deadline approaches, many investors are busy calculating the adjusted cost base for their ETF holdings. Last year at this time, Justin Bender and I collaborated on a paper called As Easy as ACB, which explains the rather complicated procedure.

An often overlooked part of ACB calculation involves adjusting for reinvested distributions (also called non-cash distributions). As the name implies, these are typically capital gains that were reinvested in the fund rather than paid to investors in cash. At the end of the year these will appear on your T3 slips and you’ll pay tax on them, even though you didn’t actually receive any income. But here’s the step that can get missed: if an ETF has a reinvested distribution, you should increase your cost base by an equal amount, which will reduce your future capital gains liability. If you don’t, you’ll pay the tax again when you eventually sell shares in the ETF.

The curious case of the missing distributions

If you held shares of the Vanguard FTSE Canada Index ETF (VCE) this year, your job is a little trickier. You probably looked on the fund’s web page to see whether VCE had any reinvested distributions in 2013.

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The Couch Potato Mutual Fund is Here At Last

[Note: This was an April Fool’s joke!]

One of the perennial problems with ETFs is they require you to open a discount brokerage account and learn to trade individual securities. That can be intimidating, especially for those who are accustomed to buying mutual funds.

For several years now, I’ve been investigating ways to bring the Couch Potato portfolios to more investors, including the millions of Canadians who aren’t comfortable with ETFs. So I’m excited to unveil the Complete Couch Potato Balanced Fund, a traditional mutual fund that will launch later this month.

Creating a new mutual fund is far more difficult than many people realize, and I could never have done it on my own. That’s why I decided to partner with a large, well-known investment firm based in Winnipeg. (I’m not yet at liberty to disclose its name because the final prospectus is being translated into French.) This firm’s capable sales force will make sure advisors across Canada sell the funds to clients even if they don’t understand the strategy.

An enhanced strategy

The new fund is based on the Complete Couch Potato in my model portfolios,

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