Archive | March, 2015

Ask the Spud: GICs vs. Bond Funds

Q: I would appreciate it if you could write an article contrasting the advantages and disadvantages of holding bond funds versus GICs. – A.R.

All of my model Couch Potato portfolios include bond funds, and I’m frequently asked whether a ladder of GICs would be a good substitute. In many circumstances the answer is yes. Indeed, our clients at PWL Capital often hold a combination of bond funds and GICs in their portfolios, because these two investments each have strengths and weaknesses. Let’s look at the relative advantages of each.

When GICs are preferable to bond funds

Higher yields. As of March 25, the yield on five-year federal bonds was 0.75%, while you can easily find five-year GICs paying over 2%. Normally higher yield means higher risk, but both federal bonds and GICs are backed by the Government of Canada: GICs up to $100,000 are insured against default by the Canadian Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Tax efficiency. These days just about all bond funds are filled with premium bonds, which are notoriously tax inefficient. Premium bonds pay a lot of taxable interest and then suffer capital losses when they mature.

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Are Preferred Share Indexers Dumb Money?

It’s hard to keep a straight face while arguing for active strategies in asset classes like large-cap stocks or government bonds. Those markets are so liquid and so well covered by analysts that it’s almost impossible to find and exploit inefficiencies. But many would argue that active managers at least have a fighting chance in less efficient asset classes like, say, emerging markets or small-cap stocks.

On the heels of my previous posts on Canadian preferred shares, let’s consider whether this is another asset class where active managers can be expected to add value compared with a simple indexed approach using ETFs. I recently explored this idea in a conversation with Nicolas Normandeau of Fiera Capital, who manages the Horizons Active Preferred Share ETF (HPR). I think it’s worth having these debates occasionally, because if you believe in indexing, you should be able to defend the strategy with rational arguments and not ideology.

Here are the main arguments in favour of using an active strategy with preferred shares:

The market is complex and inefficient. The entire preferred share market in Canada is about $60 to $65 billion—about the same as the market cap of Canadian National Railway.

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Does Your Portfolio Need Preferred Shares?

Last week’s blog introduced a new white paper, The Role of Preferred Shares in Your Portfolio, coauthored with my colleague Raymond Kerzérho, director of research at PWL Capital. That article looked at the reasons investors might consider adding Canadian preferred shares to a diversified portfolio: namely high yields relative to corporate bonds, tax-favoured dividend income, and low correlation with other asset classes.

Those are three tempting reasons to use preferred shares. But as Raymond and I explain in our paper, the overall risk-reward trade-off in this asset class is not particularly compelling. In my opinion, most balanced portfolios would likely be better off without preferred shares. For those who want to add them to the mix, we make the following recommendations:

Only use preferreds in non-registered accounts. While preferred shares may be a diversifier in any portfolio, their largest benefit is their tax-advantaged dividend income. If you need current income from a non-registered account, preferreds can be a good alternative to corporate bonds, which are often very tax-inefficient. While preferreds carry more risk than bonds issued by the same corporation, this tax advantage should provide adequate compensation.

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The Role of Preferred Shares

Preferred shares are often considered a hybrid security, since they share characteristics of both common stocks and corporate bonds. Like bonds, preferreds typically have a predictable income stream. But unlike bonds, most preferreds do not have a maturity date. And most important, the income from preferred shares is considered dividends rather than interest.

I’ve received many questions about preferred shares over the years: this asset is class is clearly popular with Canadian investors. But the honest truth is that I didn’t have much insight to share: I don’t include preferreds in my model portfolios for DIY investors, and our Toronto team at PWL Capital does not include them in client accounts. But other PWL advisors use them regularly, so I teamed up with my colleague Raymond Kerzérho, director of research at PWL Capital, to write a new white paper on the subject. In The Role of Preferred Shares in Your Portfolio, we describe the different types of preferreds in the Canadian marketplace, consider their risks and potential rewards, and help investors decide whether it’s worth adding them to a diversified portfolio.

In the first of a series of blog posts on this subject,

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When Discount Bonds Are Hard to Find

Everyone loves a discount, but if you’re buying bonds these days you may be out of luck.

Just over a year ago, the BMO Discount Bond (ZDB) was launched as a tax-efficient alternative to traditional bond ETFs. ZDB tracks the broad Canadian market, but it selects bonds trading at a discount, or at a very small premium. Discount bonds have a lower coupon than comparable new bonds, and they will mature with a small capital gain. That combination is more tax-efficient than premium bonds, which have higher coupons and mature at a loss.

A discount bond ETF is a great idea for non-registered accounts, but it faced challenges from the beginning. After many years of interest rates trending downward, there simply aren’t many discount bonds in the marketplace. Traditional broad-market bond ETFs hold between 500 and 900 issues, but ZDB holds just 55.

This constraint has become more urgent after the Bank of Canada unexpectedly cut short-term rates in January. Yields on intermediate and longer-term bonds also fell, driving bond prices up sharply. Suddenly bonds that were trading at a discount were priced at or above par.

In my blog post introducing ZDB,

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Which Bond ETF Is Most Tax-Efficient?

Back in September, my colleague Justin Bender and I published a white paper entitled After-Tax Returns: How to estimate the impact of taxes on ETF performance. Justin has now updated his Excel calculator and made it available for free download on his blog.

Recently Justin put his own methodology to work by measuring the 2014 after-tax returns of 10 short-term bond ETFs. As it happens, 2014 was a relatively good year for short-term bonds: as interest rates fell again, ETFs in this asset class delivered returns between 2.3% and 3.5%. But as we have written about before, traditional fixed income ETFs tend to be full of premium bonds, which are notoriously tax-inefficient because of their high coupons. If you held one of these ETFs in a non-registered account, your after-tax return would have been lower.

Launched in 2013, the First Asset 1-5 Year Laddered Government Strip Bond (BXF) was designed to be a tax-friendly alternative. Strip bonds do not make interest payments like traditional bonds do: rather, they are sold at a discount and mature at par value.

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