Archive | 2017

Bond Basics 1: Why Bond Prices Fall When Rates Rise

Bonds have a reputation for being conservative, even boring. But no one ever accused them of being easy to understand. I get a steady stream of emails and blog comments about bonds, and they reveal that many investors are very confused by how bond ETFs work, how they’re affected by changes in interest rates, whether investors can use alternatives to bonds, and even whether it’s OK to abandon them altogether. So my next podcast (which goes live on April 19) is devoted to answering common questions about bonds, with the hope of clearing up some of this confusion. As a companion to the podcast, I’ve also created a short series of blog posts addressing the same questions.

In this first installment, let’s dig into one of the most fundamental concepts for bond investors to understand: the inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates: when one goes up, the other goes down. This is confusing for many people—after all, investors regularly complain that bond yields are low, so shouldn’t higher interest rates be a good thing? And why are we told to stay away from bonds because yields might rise? You never hear people say you should avoid stocks because their dividends might get higher.

Continue Reading 37

Can ETFs Make the Market Go Up in Smoke?

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

Does the growing popularity of indexing and ETFs pose a real danger to the markets? As I discussed on a recent podcast, some market experts are concerned that the swelling ranks of index investors is creating a bubble. I used to brush off these concerns as the paranoid ramblings of money managers who are losing billions in assets as investors discover they add no value. But I’m starting to wonder if it might be true. After all, there are lots of articles on the Internet that say so.

A recent piece in the Globe and Mail, for example, featured billionaire hedge fund manager Seth Klarman, who worries that the growth of indexing is making markets less efficient: “The inherent irony of the efficient market theory is that the more people believe in it and correspondingly shun active management, the more inefficient the market is likely to become.”

I appreciate that index investors want to get broad diversification at the lowest possible cost, and that they’re attracted to a strategy that has the weight of academic evidence behind it.

Continue Reading 18

How TD Put the “Managed” in ETF Portfolios

What Canadian bank was first to launch a line of ETFs? You might think it was BMO, which is by far the biggest bank in the industry today, with more than 70 ETFs and some $37 billion in assets. But in fact it was TD, who were ahead of the curve when they created a small family of ETFs way back in 2001. Five years later, with truly terrible timing, they shuttered those ETFs because of lack of interest. Of course, the industry exploded in popularity almost immediately afterwards.

TD re-entered the ETF marketplace in 2016 with six funds covering the core asset classes: Canadian, US and international stocks (the latter two available with or without currency hedging) and Canadian bonds. The ETFs were copycats of what’s long been available from iShares, BMO and Vanguard, and the launch had almost no fanfare: one suspects TD just wanted to provide another option for their advisors who had been fielding questions about ETFs from clients.

But this week TD launched something innovative: a lineup of five mutual funds that use the bank’s ETFs as their underlying holdings. Each has a different target asset allocation:

Fund name
Bonds
Stocks

TD Managed Income ETF Portfolio
70%
30%

TD Managed Income &

Continue Reading 75

Podcast 6: Wishing Upon a Morningstar

Are truly active managers more likely to beat the market than those who stay closer to their benchmark index? In my latest podcast, I discuss this idea with Christopher Davis, a strategist and researcher at Morningstar Canada.

The idea of active share was introduced in a 2009 paper called How Active is Your Fund Manager? A New Measure That Predicts Performance, by Martijn Cremers and Antti Petajisto. For example, a large-cap US equity fund that holds only half the stocks in the S&P 500 would have an active share of 50%. An index fund, by definition, has an active share of zero.

The researchers presented evidence that the most active funds “significantly outperform their benchmarks, both before and after expenses, and they exhibit strong performance persistence.” A year later, Petajisto published a follow-up paper called Active Share and Mutual Fund Performance, which included more support for the idea that the most active stock pickers can be expected to add value.

Both papers take aim at so-called closet index funds, which charge the higher fees one expects for active management yet differ little from their benchmark.

Continue Reading 19

A New ETF Structure for Accumulators

ETF launches are generally unexciting these days: most new products focus on increasingly narrow niches or exotic strategies. But last week BMO unveiled an innovative ETF structure that may just have some lasting appeal. They launched a new share class of four existing short-term bond ETFs: called “Accumulating Units,” these new funds do not pay their distributions in cash like traditional ETFs. Instead, they reinvest all the interest payments immediately and increase the net asset value (and market price) accordingly.

An example will help. Consider a bond ETF with a unit price of $15 at the beginning of the year. Over the next 12 months it pays out 3% in interest and falls in price by 1%. The fund’s one-year total return would therefore be 2% (the 3% interest minus the 1% capital loss). If this ETF were available in both the traditional and Accumulating Units structure, both would report the same performance. But they would arrive there in different ways:

Traditional ETF
Accumulating Units

Unit price at beginning of year
$15.00
$15.00

Cash distributions (3%)
$0.45
$0

Reinvested distributions (3%)
$0
$0.45

Capital loss (1%)
-$0.15
-$0.15

Unit price at end of year
$14.85
$15.30

Value of ETF unit + cash
$15.30
$15.30

One-year total return
2%
2%

What they’re not

The idea of reinvested distributions is not new,

Continue Reading 25

Podcast 5: Master Class with the Millionaire Teacher

My newest podcast features an interview with Andrew Hallam, author of Millionaire Teacher, a compelling introduction to building wealth through smart saving and disciplined investing.

Andrew grew up in Canada, but he’s a citizen of the world. He spent several years as a teacher at the Singapore American School and has lived and travelled all over the globe. As this podcast goes live, Andrew is touring the Middle East to speak to expatriate investors about how to avoid getting fleeced by the financial industry. And he’s not being paid for his appearances: “I’m not a saint,” he writes on his blog. “But when I’m teaching people about money, I’ll do almost anything so others can learn.”

Andrew has an interesting backstory, which I featured in my MoneySense Guide to the Perfect Portfolio. He was both comically frugal and a tremendously successful stock-picker for many years. This combination of talents allowed him to amass a tidy nest egg in his 40s. “So what did I do after a decade of stock-picking success?” he told me. “Apply for a job as a Wall Street analyst?

Continue Reading 25

Ask the Spud: Can I Make Taxable Investing Easier?

In Episode 4 of the Canadian Couch Potato podcast, I answered the following question from a listener named Jakob:

I’m currently investing with all my ETFs in RRSP and TFSA accounts. This year, however, I’ll finish paying off my mortgage, so I will have more surplus cash and will have to start using taxable accounts. I have been reading your blog posts about adjusted cost base, and they’re helpful, but it still sounds like a pain to track and calculate. I’d consider paying some extra fees for help with this. What options do I have?

Investing in a non-registered account involves a lot more hands-on work than RRSPs and TFSAs. While there’s no such thing as a maintenance-free taxable portfolio, you can certainly make your life easier with a few simple strategies:

1. Consider alternatives to ETFs. Make no mistake: ETFs are generally tax-efficient and they can be a great choice in non-registered accounts. But if you’re a novice index investor, consider other good products that require a lot less recordkeeping. Mutual funds, for example, track your adjusted cost base at the fund level,

Continue Reading 89

Podcast 4: Charles Ellis and the Index Revolution

For the latest episode of the Canadian Couch Potato podcast, I was privileged to have the opportunity to interview Charles Ellis, who has been called “Wall Street’s wisest man.”

Mr. Ellis’s best-known work is Winning the Loser’s Game, a book that had a big impact on me when I was beginning my education on index investing. After spending decades as an analyst and consultant for pension and endowment funds, here was Ellis arguing that individuals—and even many institutional investors—would be better off simply using index funds. And while that seems like a familiar argument today, Ellis first made it some 42 years ago, in a hugely influential article called The Loser’s Game. That paper appeared in The Financial Analyst’s Journal in the summer of 1975, a few months before John Bogle launched the first index fund at Vanguard.

In our interview, Mr. Ellis and I discuss his latest book, The Index Revolution, which looks back over his long career and concludes that, alas, things haven’t changed very much. The financial industry still behaves as though the data in favour of indexing doesn’t exist—or at least doesn’t apply to them.

Continue Reading 32

Model Portfolio Update for 2017

After two years with no changes to my Couch Potato model portfolios, the 2017 edition comes with an update to the ETF version.

Before I get to the details, I feel compelled to stress that if you’re currently using the older ETF portfolio, there is absolutely no reason to change. The funds I’ve swapped here are a wee bit cheaper, but the cost of selling your existing ETFs and buying the new ones almost certainly outweighs the benefits. And if the transactions would involve realizing taxable gains, then making a switch is downright nutty. To put this in perspective, the new portfolios will reduce your management fees by 0.03% annually, which works out to 25 cents a month on every $10,000 invested.

I’ve also updated my model portfolios page with historical returns to the end of 2016. As always, we’ve used actual fund performance wherever possible: for earlier periods we’ve used index data, subtracting the fund’s current MER to account for costs.

With that out of the way, here are the changes.

Zigging over to ZAG

First, I’ve replaced the Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond Index ETF (VAB) with the BMO Aggregate Bond Index ETF (ZAG).

Continue Reading 283