Archive | Asset classes

Making Smarter Asset Location Decisions

Last week’s posts about tax loss selling prompted some interesting questions about asset location in the comments section. Holding your ETFs and index funds in the most tax-efficient accounts can have a big impact on your long-term returns. But although it’s often easy to set up a portfolio with proper asset location, it can be a challenge to maintain the right balance when you add new money.

Say you’re using the Global Couch Potato portfolio spread across three accounts. Your TFSA and RRSP are maxed out at $25,000 and $125,000, respectively, and you have another $75,000 in a non-registered account. Your optimal asset location might look like this:

So far, so good. But now you’ve won second prize in a beauty contest and received a $25,000 windfall. Since you can’t add it to your tax-sheltered savings, you put the money in your non-registered account. Then you enter the new values into your rebalancing spreadsheet and discover your portfolio is now off its target:

The naive way to rebalance your portfolio would be to make all the transactions in your non-registered account.

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How Not to Prepare for a Bear Market in Bonds

The risk of rising interest rates has become an obsession in the financial media. Those risks are undeniably real: it’s quite possible that broad-based bond funds will see multiple years with negative returns. (As I illustrated in a previous post, that would likely occur if rates across the yield curve rose 1% annually for three years. This article by Dan Hallett also includes some possible scenarios.) But these risks need to be kept in perspective: if you hold a bond fund with a duration shorter than your time horizon, your capital is not at risk. And if you’re a decade or two from tapping your portfolio, rising rates should even be welcomed.

And yet the bond bears just keep on roaring. The latest example is an advisor featured in a Globe and Mail article this weekend. “For the first time in my entire career,” he says, “bonds are in my opinion riskier than stocks.” He’s recommending his clients abandon the asset class altogether. Whenever articles like this are widely read, I get contacted by worried readers who are ready to follow suit. So here’s my preemptive response to what I believe is dreadful,

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Deep Thoughts on Diversification

Just shy of two years ago—in October 2011—I wrote a post that laid out the year-to-date returns for the Complete Couch Potato portfolio. If you can remember that far back, the third quarter of 2011 was truly ugly. The European debt crisis was all over the news, the US government’s credit rating was downgraded, and the global economic outlook was bleak. If you held a diversified portfolio, your equities were in the toilet, but you were saved by a solid performance from REITs and outstanding returns from bonds, especially real-return bonds. Overall, the portfolio experienced a small loss over the first nine months of the year:

January–September 2011
Ticker
 %
Return

iShares S&P/TSX Composite
XIC
20%
-12.02%

Vanguard Total Stock Market
VTI
15%
-5.26%

Vanguard Total Int’l Stock Market
VXUS
15%
-13.82%

BMO Equal Weight REITs
ZRE
10%
5.77%

 iShares DEX Real-Return Bond
XRB
10%
9.53%

 iShares DEX Universe Bond
XBB
30%
7.20%

Total

-1.6%

Now let’s look at how the Couch Potato has performed so far in 2013. Here are the returns as of August 30:

January–August 2013
Ticker
 %
YTD return

iShares S&P/TSX Composite
XIC
20%
3.2%

Vanguard Total Stock Market
VTI
15%
20.8%

Vanguard Total Int’l Stock Market
VXUS
15%
5.6%

BMO Equal Weight REITs
ZRE
10%
-10.5%

 iShares DEX Real-Return Bond
XRB
10%
-10.5%

 iShares DEX Universe Bond
XBB
30%
-2.1%

Total

1.9%

How’s that for an about-face?

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Seeing Diversification in Action

Why should you add multiple asset classes to your portfolio? That seems like a simple question, but it’s one many investors would answer with only a vague comment about “more diversification.” It’s more precise to say you do so to increase expected returns or to decrease volatility. Sometimes these are mutually exclusive, but Harry Markowitz won a Nobel Prize for explaining that you can sometimes accomplish both at the same time. That insight is the basis for Modern Portfolio Theory.

One of the clearest illustrations of this idea can be found in Larry Swedroe’s book Think, Act, and Invest Like Warren Buffett, which I reviewed late last year. Swedroe shows how the return and risk characteristics of a 60/40 portfolio change as you slice and dice the equity allocations.

A portfolio made up of just the S&P 500 and five-year Treasuries returned 10.6% annually from 1975 through 2011, with a standard deviation of 10.8%. By gradually splitting that equity allocation into multiple asset classes (international stocks, value stocks, small caps, and commodities) the portfolio’s annual return increased 150 basis points to 12.1%,

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Why Diversification is a Piece of Cake

After almost four years of false alarms, the bond bears are finally able to act smug. Broad-based Canadian bond index funds have fallen in price about 4% or so in since the beginning of May. Meanwhile, real-return bonds have taken it on the chin: they’ve plummeted about 13% and are headed for their worst calendar year since first being issued by the federal government in 1992.

In times like these investors question the whole idea of including these asset classes in a balanced portfolio. So it’s time for a reminder about how diversification is supposed to work.

It’s helpful to think about a portfolio like a cake recipe. You probably wouldn’t eat flour, baking powder or raw eggs on their own, but when you mix them with sugar, butter, vanilla and other ingredients the results are delicious. A baker doesn’t view ingredients in isolation: she considers how each interacts with the others to produce the final result.

In the same way, it’s important not to view individual asset classes in isolation. Real-return bonds are a perfect example. It would be hard to make a compelling argument for holding nothing but RRBs: their yields are low,

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Understanding Floating-Rate Notes

By now every serious investor understands the consequences rising interest rates will have on bond portfolios. For more than four years we’ve been reminded that when rates go up, bond prices fall—and the longer a bond fund’s duration, the greater the losses will be.

The conventional wisdom is to keep your bond duration short if you expect rates to rise. The problem is, the iShares DEX Short Term Bond (XSB) has a yield to maturity of just 1.38% these days—once you deduct fees, that’s less than a savings account at an online bank. And unlike a savings account (which effectively has a duration of zero), short-term bonds will still lose value if rates move higher.

It should come as no surprise that the financial industry has come up with a product that tries to address this issue: it’s called the floating-rate note. A “floater” has a maturity date like a conventional bond, but its coupon is tied to a benchmark such as the Canadian Dealer Offered Rate (or CDOR, which is this country’s version of LIBOR). The coupon is adjusted every month or every quarter.

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Ask the Spud: The Role of Real Return Bonds

Why has the iShares DEX Real Return Bond (XRB) dropped so dramatically this year? I thought this asset class was protective in times of rising interest rates (which are correlated with inflation), but perhaps I misunderstood. I also see the yield to maturity is almost zero. Please set me straight about the role of real return bonds in a portfolio. – K.T.

Let’s begin with a refresher on real return bonds, or RRBs. They have a lower coupon than traditional bonds, but their principal gets adjusted every six months according to the current rate of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index.

For example, let’s say an RRB has a face value of $1,000 and a coupon of 3% annually (1.5% semi-annually). This bond would initially pay you $15 in interest every six months. However, if inflation rises by 1% before the next interest payment is due, the RRB’s principal will be adjusted upwards to $1,010. Now the 1.5% semi-annual coupon applies to this larger amount, and your next interest payment would be $15.15.

The coupons on federal RRBs today range from 1.5% to 4.25%,

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What’s On Your ETF Wish List?

It seems like ETFs are appearing in Canada every month, but it’s been a while since I got genuinely excited about a new product. It was great to see both Vanguard and BMO create S&P 500 funds with no currency hedging: they certainly filled a gap in the marketplace. A few other recent launches have been interesting (bond barbells, preferred share ladders, low volatility), if a bit esoteric. Some just induce yawning—do we really need another dividend ETF? It makes you wonder: if you could have one ETF wish, what would you ask for?

Turns out a Canadian ETF provider is granting wishes. First Asset has just announced a contest that invites advisors to submit ideas about what’s missing in the ETF marketplace. They’ll reward the best suggestion with $10,000, which will be donated to the advisor’s favourite charity. Two runners-up will also snag $5,000 for their chosen cause.

“Launching this competition seemed like a natural thing to do as part of our search to find what’s missing in the Canadian ETF landscape,” First Asset’s president and CEO,

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Under the Hood: Vanguard FTSE Canadian Capped REIT (VRE)

This post is part of a series called Under the Hood, where l take a detailed look at specific Canadian ETFs or index funds.

The fund: Vanguard FTSE Canadian Capped REIT (VRE)

The index: The fund tracks the FTSE Canada All Cap Real Estate Capped 25% Index, which includes large, mid and small-cap companies in the Canadian real estate industry as defined by FTSE. The index is weighted by market cap with a limit of 25% on any single company. It currently has 19 holdings.

The cost: The management fee is 0.35%. Because the fund is less than a year old it has not published its full MER, but expect it to be about 0.40% after adding taxes and incidentals.

The details: Vanguard launched VRE last November and continued its tradition of being a cost leader: its management fee is about 20 basis points lower than its competitors.

VRE is not limited to REITs: some of its holdings are developers and real estate services companies that are not set up as income trusts. But even with this expanded definition,

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