Archive | March, 2016

What (Returns) to Expect When You’re Expecting

Investing decisions should always be made in the context of your overall financial plan. And although we know short-term forecasts are futile, a retirement plan needs to include some assumptions about returns and risk over the long term. To help with this important task, my colleague Raymond Kerzérho, PWL Capital’s director of research, has just updated our white paper, Great Expectations: How to estimate future stock and bond returns when creating a financial plan.

As we explain in the paper, there are two main approaches to estimating future stock returns. The first is to rely on a historical premium: over the last 50 years, stocks have delivered returns of about 5% above inflation, so one could simply expect that to continue. The second approach raises or lowers that expected premium depending on whether stocks are currently undervalued or overvalued. You can apply similar methods to expected bond returns, using either the long-term premium (about 2.7% over inflation) or the current yield on a benchmark index.

Both methods are flawed, but an average of the two is likely to be a useful estimate.

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Ask the Spud: Is It Time to Hedge Currency?

Q: “I use non-hedged ETFs for US and international equities, which worked out well as the Canadian dollar tanked. But the loonie is now so low that I wonder if it makes sense to move to the hedged versions. My thinking that there is limited risk from the loonie falling much further, and a bigger risk from its recovery.” – B.G.

It’s hard to believe it was just three years ago that the loonie was at par with the US dollar. Since 2013 our currency has trended steadily downward, reaching a low of $0.68 USD in late January, a level not seen since 2003.

My model portfolios recommend US and international equity index funds that do not hedge their currency exposure. That means when the loonie falls in value relative to the US dollar and other foreign currencies, these funds get a boost in returns. That was particularly dramatic in 2015, when US and international equities posted only modest returns in their native currencies but netted close to 20% for Canadians on the strength of the currency appreciation.

Expecting a repeat of that performance is foolishly optimistic.

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The Curious Case of the BMO Discount Bond ETF

When the BMO Discount Bond Index ETF (ZDB) was launched back in February 2014, it was unique: the first broad-market ETF in Canada made up primarily of bonds trading below their par value. By avoiding premium bonds, ZDB promised to deliver similar returns to traditional bond funds, but with greater tax efficiency, making it ideal for non-registered accounts. With a little more than two years of real-word performance, it’s time for a checkup. Has ZDB delivered on its promises?

Top of the heap

The first question we’ll examine is whether ZDB achieved pre-tax returns similar to other broad-market bond ETFs. The fund was designed to match the popular FTSE TMX Canada Universe Bond Index in credit quality, average term, duration and yield to maturity. But ZDB set out to achieve this profile using bonds with lower coupons to reduce the amount of taxable income.

As it turns out, ZDB outperformed all of its competitors in 2015. Here are the NAV returns for the calendar year:

BMO Discount Bond
ZDB
3.60%

Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond
VAB
3.48%

iShares Core High Quality Canadian Bond
XQB
3.38%

BMO Aggregate Bond
ZAG
3.24%

iShares Canadian Universe Bond
XBB
3.15%

Sources:  BMO ETFs,

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