Archive | December, 2014

Understanding ECN Fees

The promise of commission-free ETFs has steered many index investors toward independent brokerages such as Questrade and Virtual Brokers. These deep discounters have a lot to offer, but before you sign on, make sure you understand the details of their pricing.

Orders at these brokerages may be subject to fees that originate with the exchanges and networks that match buyers and sellers. This includes the big boys such as the Toronto and New York Stock Exchanges, as well as a host of lesser-known electronic communication networks (ECNs) and alternative trading systems (ATSs). Though it’s not technically accurate, you’ll often hear all these costs lumped together as “ECN fees.”

ECN fees are applied on a per-share basis. They vary slightly depending on the brokerage and the specific exchange, but they’re always fractions of a cent. At Questrade, for example, the cost is $0.0035 on Canadian stocks and ETFs, while Virtual Brokers charges $0.0039.

It’s a very small cost—less than $2 on an order of 500 shares—but ECN fees are irritating because it’s hard to understand when and why they apply. So let’s dig a little deeper.

Staying liquid

ECN fees do not apply on every trade: they are only charged when a buy or sell order “removes liquidity.” What does that mean?

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The Limits of Limit Orders

For some time now I’ve been suggesting that ETF investors use limit orders—never market orders—when placing trades in their accounts. A market order will be filled (usually immediately and in full) at the best available price. A limit order allows you to specify the maximum price you’ll pay when buying, or the minimum you’ll accept when selling. But judging from some of the comments I’ve received recently, many investors are not clear on the reasons for this advice.

Some seem to believe that placing limit orders will allow them to get a “better price” than they would have obtained with a market order. But if the exchange functions the way it’s supposed to, that’s not true. Using limit orders is not like haggling with a salesman on a used car lot: you can’t get a good deal just because you drive a hard bargain.

Consider three ETF investors—Mark, Cheryl, and Barney—who want to buy 100 shares of the Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond (VAB). They get the following quote from their brokerage:

Because they’re placing a buy order, our three investors look at the ask price,

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Decoding International Equity ETF Returns

How have international equities performed over the last year? If you research the returns of index funds in this asset class, you may wind up with more questions than answers.

I recently received an email from David, a reader who wanted to know why the recent performance of three international equity index funds looked so different. It’s an excellent question, because unless you understand what’s going on here you’re liable to make a poor decision when choosing one for your portfolio. Exhibit A, their returns over the last year (period ending December 4), according to Morningstar:

TD International Index Fund – e (TDB911)
7.66%

iShares MSCI EAFE Index ETF (XIN)
10.21%

iShares MSCI EAFE ETF (EFA)
1.80%

All of these funds have the same benchmark: the MSCI EAFE Index, which covers developed markets outside North America, including Japan, Europe and Australia. In fact, XIN uses EFA as its sole underlying holding, so the two funds have identical stock exposure. Why, then, is their performance dramatically different?

Peeking over the hedge

Let’s begin with the TD International Index Fund,

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