Archive | 2015

How Contributions Affect Your Rate of Return

Whenever I update the returns of my model portfolios, readers ask how the performance would have been different had they added money to the portfolios money each month. This question gets to the heart of the difference between time-weighted and money-weighted returns, which I introduced in my previous post.

In our new white paper, Understanding Your Portfolio’s Rate of Return, Justin Bender and I explain the differences between these two methods using two hypothetical investors with a $250,000 portfolio: the first makes a single $25,000 contribution while the other makes a $25,000 withdrawal. Now let’s look at a different example that includes monthly cash flows.

A tale of two accounts

Meet Buster, an investor with an RRSP and a TFSA that both hold an index fund of Canadian stocks (I’ve used the MSCI Canada Investable Market Index for the calculations.) At the beginning of 2014, Buster’s RRSP had a balance of $200,000 and he made $500 monthly contributions throughout the year. Buster’s TFSA has valued at $30,000 at the beginning of the year and he made a single lump-sum contribution of $10,000 in September.

At the end of the year,

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Calculating Your Portfolio’s Rate of Return

Perhaps no number is more important to investors than the rate of return on their portfolio. Yet this seemingly simple calculation is fraught with problems. If you’ve made contributions or withdrawals during the year, calculating your rate of return is not straightforward. What’s more, there are several ways to perform the calculations: the results can differ significantly, and each method has strengths and weaknesses. No wonder so many investors have no idea how to measure or interpret their returns.

In our new white paper, Understanding Your Portfolio’s Rate of Return, Justin Bender and I introduce the various methods used to calculate a portfolio’s rate of return, explain how and why they can produce different results, and help you determine which method is most appropriate to your circumstances. Justin has also updated his popular calculators, which you can download for free on the new Calculators section of the PWL Capital website.

Time and money

Rate of return calculations fall into two general categories: time-weighted and money-weighted. If a portfolio has no cash flows (that is, the investor makes no contributions and no withdrawals),

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Raining on the All Seasons Portfolio

Investors are hungry for success stories, especially tales that include high returns with low risk. And the investment industry is always happy to stoke that appetite.

One of the most popular stories today is the so-called All Seasons portfolio, whose virtues are trumpeted in the massive bestseller Money: Master the Game, by motivational speaker Tony Robbins. The book has been out since last November and I thought the hype would blow over quickly, but I’m still getting inquiries about it, so I thought I’d take a closer look.

The All Seasons portfolio was created by Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge fund managers in the world. It’s based on Dalio’s similarly named All Weather fund, which reportedly has more than $80 billion USD in assets. The portfolio has the following asset mix:

30%      Stocks
40%      Long-term bonds
15%      Intermediate bonds
7.5%     Gold
7.5%     Commodities

In a backtest covering the 30 years from 1984 through 2013, the All Seasons portfolio had an annualized return of 9.7% (net of fees) and only four years with a loss.

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China Grabs a Bigger Share of the Indexes

Traditional international index funds assign a weight to each country based on the size of its stock market. But in the case of China, that’s a bit misleading. Despite having the world’s second-largest economy, China has a relatively small number of publicly traded companies. Moreover, many of those publicly traded companies have been off-limits to foreign investors. As a result, the Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT) allocates just 2.5% to China—considerably less that than the share allotted to much smaller economies such as Canada, Switzerland and France.

This is about to change: during the coming months and years, index investors will be able to access more of China’s vast economy. Vanguard recently announced that its flagship emerging markets ETF, the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets (VWO), will soon be adding China A-shares to its benchmark index. This development will also affect Canadian-listed ETFs that include this fund as an underlying holding.

Taking the A-train

Let’s look at what this means for indexers. Right now, most foreign investors can buy public companies in mainland China only through share classes denominated in foreign currency and traded on exchanges outside the country,

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Vanguard’s VXC Gets a Facelift

The Vanguard FTSE All-World ex Canada (VXC) allows Canadians to get access to US, international and emerging markets equities with a single ETF, and it’s one of the ingredients in my model portfolios. Vanguard recently announced some planned changes to VXC’s benchmark index, so let’s take a closer look.

Right now, VXC holds only large and mid-cap stocks, but it will soon be adding small-caps to the mix—at least for overseas markets. This will come about indirectly as a result of changes to the benchmark indexes of three of the fund’s underlying holdings.

VXC gets exposure to international developed and emerging markets through three US-listed ETFs: Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK), Vanguard FTSE Pacific (VPL) and Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets (VWO). These will soon begin tracking new “all cap” indexes that include small companies as well as large and mid-caps. Vanguard estimates that small-caps will eventually make up about 10% of each ETF. To reflect these changes, VXC will receive a new name: the Vanguard FTSE Global All Cap ex Canada Index ETF.

But it’s not clear whether VXC will add small-caps to its US equity exposure.

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How Bad Data Leads to Poor Investment Decisions

Making smart investment decisions is difficult enough when you have reliable information. If you’re working with inaccurate or misleading data, good decisions become almost impossible.

The most popular source of confusion and misinformation has to be Google Finance. I don’t want to be too hard on Google: the company offers a suite of extraordinarily useful tools for free. But for Canadian investors, Google Finance provides information about ETFs and mutual funds that is highly misleading, and often flat-out wrong. Let’s look at some examples.

The price is right—but it’s only half the story

Google Finance (and other services offering online stock quotes) is useful for charting the changes in an ETF’s price over time. But it does not measure the effect of reinvested dividends and interest. That means you’re only getting half the story: the total return of an investment fund should always be measured assuming all distributions are reinvested.

This can make a dramatic difference when you’re looking at the performance of a fund that pays large distributions. For example, type ZRE into Google Finance and you’ll see the price change in the BMO Equal Weight REITs Index ETF during the 12 months ending April 30 was just over 5%:

The chart above shows the monthly distributions of $0.08 each,

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How Changing Interest Rates Affect Fixed Income

It’s been a tough few months for bonds. Since early February, the yield on Government of Canada five-year bonds has climbed from 0.59% to about 1.07%, and 10-year bonds yielding 1.24% have ticked up to 1.82%. The seesaw relationship between yield and price means bond values have fallen sharply: over the same period broad-based index ETFs such as the Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond (VAB) have lost well over 3%.

A 3% decline over several months is modest—it’s a bad day for stocks—but bond investors have been so accustomed to steady gains in recent years that it’s caused a lot of anxiety. More worrisome, it’s revealed that many investors have some fundamental misunderstandings about the relationship between bonds and interest rates, which admittedly can be confusing. Inaccurate information leads to poor investment decisions.

If the last five years have taught us anything it’s that forecasting the direction of interest rates is futile, and countless armchair economists have paid the price for trying to do so. A better approach is to get out of the guessing business and simply understand the risks of various fixed income investments.

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Should You Replace Bonds With Cash?

Not many investors are enthusiastic about bonds these days, and it’s hard to blame them. While rates have ticked up in the last few weeks, they’re still so low that even some sophisticated investors have abandoned them altogether. I’ve spoken to some investors who are ready to follow that advice, though they are not prepared to ride the roller coaster of a 100%-equity portfolio. So they’re asking whether they should just swap their bonds for cash.

At first blush, this looks like a good strategy. As of May 6, the yield to maturity on short-term bond ETFs is barely 1% after fees. Even broad-based bond ETFs (which have average maturities of about 10 years) have a yield to maturity well below 2% after accounting for management fees. Meanwhile, most investment savings accounts (ISAs) are paying at least 1%, and if you hunt around you can find high-interest savings products with much better yields: Equitable Bank offers one at 1.45%, while People’s Choice has a savings account at 1.60% and a TFSA savings account at 2.25%. Why take risk with a bond ETF when you can get a higher yield from cash,

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How Budget 2015 Will Affect Investors

Yesterday’s federal budget included several changes that will affect investors—in the future if not immediately. Let’s look at the three most important announcements, with a focus on how they may apply to those who use an index strategy with ETFs:

The biggest headline was the increase in annual TFSA contribution room from $5,500 to $10,000, beginning immediately.

Minimum withdrawals from RRIFs were reduced significantly.

Investors who hold foreign property (including US-listed ETFs in non-registered accounts) will be able to report this to the Canada Revenue Agency in a more efficient way.

Asset location just got more interesting

If you’re juggling TFSAs, RRSPs and non-registered accounts, asset location is a challenge. To manage your portfolio in the most tax-efficient way, you should consider which asset classes (equities, bonds, REITs and so on) are best held in which type of account. This isn’t straightforward. You can make a strong argument for holding bond ETFs in a registered account because they are so tax-inefficient. But if a TFSA can shelter you from taxes over an entire lifetime, shouldn’t it be reserved for assets with the highest growth potential—in other words, stocks?

There is no single right answer: an awful lot depends on individual circumstances such as your current tax rate,

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