Archive | Bonds

RBC Gets Back to Basics With New ETFs

When RBC entered the ETF marketplace back in 2011, it tested the waters with a family of specialized bond ETFs. Since then they’ve created a number of equity ETFs, all with active strategies. However, RBC recently filed a preliminary prospectus for a new family of plain old index ETFs covering the core asset classes you’ll find in a classic Couch Potato portfolio.

Normally the appearance of more “me too” ETFs wouldn’t be newsworthy, but RBC’s entry is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the new lineup will include at least one unique product: a global bond ETF. And second, it will significantly improve the bank’s lineup of index mutual funds.

I’ll discuss the mutual funds in my next post. For now let’s look at RBC’s seven new ETFs, which will hit the market in early September. The four equity ETFs are traditional cap-weighted funds of large and midcap stocks:

ETF name
Ticker
Benchmark index

RBC Canadian Equity Index ETF
RCAN
FTSE Canada All Cap Domestic Index

RBC U.S. Equity Index ETF
RUSA
FTSE USA Index

RBC International Equity Index ETF
RINT
FTSE Developed ex North America Index

RBC Emerging Markets Equity Index ETF
REEM
FTSE Emerging Index

All of the new funds track indexes from FTSE,

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Bond Basics 3: Should You Wait for Higher Yields?

In my last podcast, I set out to answer a series of common questions about bonds. Here’s one I’ve been hearing on and off since 2009: “With yields so low now, is it even worth it to invest in bonds? Wouldn’t I be better off waiting until interest rates go up?”

It’s true that interest rates are near historical lows: as of early May, 10-year Government of Canada bonds are yielding just over 1.5%, and a broad-based bond index fund like the ones I recommend in my model portfolios yield a little less than 2%. It’s hard to get excited about that, especially when equity returns have been so strong in recent years.

It’s also hard to tune out the financial media, which is still populated by gurus who warn interest rates have “nowhere to go but up.” Since rising rates will cause the value of bonds to fall, why not just stay out of bonds until yields are higher?

The first thing to discuss is this idea that interest rates are highly likely to go up in the near future. I don’t think we can take people seriously anymore if they continue to beat this drum.

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Bond Basics 2: Why Your ETF Isn’t Losing Money

In my latest podcast, I answer a series of frequently asked questions about bonds. The second of these came from a reader named Andrew: “I have been investing using your Couch Potato strategy for just over three years now,” he wrote. “However, does it still make sense to invest in bonds when they are continually losing money?”

As it happens, bond ETFs have not been “continually losing money” at all. Indeed, over the three years ending March 31, broad-based funds such as the BMO Aggregate Bond Index ETF (ZAG) and the Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond Index ETF (VAB) returned close to 4% annually, with positive returns in each calendar year. A $1,000 investment in either ETF would have grown to about $1,120 over that period. So why would an investor think he had lost money?

I don’t blame Andrew for being confused, as this one trips up a lot of investors. The problem lies in the way brokerages display the holdings in your account. Rather than calculating the total return on your investments—which would include both price changes and all interest payments and dividends—your list of holdings reflects only the change in market price.

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Podcast 7: Making Sense of Bonds

I’ve always felt that being a defenseman is the toughest job on a hockey team. Forwards score most of the goals, and goalies can steal the show with a few timely saves, but fans rarely notice a defenseman until he makes a mistake. Bonds get that same lack of respect from investors: everyone seems to forget the times they provided a safety net when stocks plummeted, but if they lose a few percentage points they get kicked to the curb.

Part of the problem is that bonds can be difficult to understand. So in my latest podcast, I devote the full episode to answering common questions about the asset class investors love to hate.

I previewed this episode in my last post about why bond prices fall when rates rise, and I’ll continue with a series of blog posts that expand on some of the other issues discussed in the podcast:

If you started investing in bond ETFs about three years ago, chances are good that your holding is showing a loss on your brokerage statement. So you might be surprised to learn that broad-based bond index funds returned close to 4% annually over the three years ending March 31.

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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.

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The Real Problem With Inflation-Protected Bonds

When I announced my stripped-down model portfolios at the beginning of last year, one of the asset classes I dropped was real-return bonds (RRBs). Part of the reason was simplicity: it’s easier to manage a portfolio of three or four funds compared with five or six, and you’re not giving up much diversification. But there was a more important reason for booting real-return bonds from my recommended portfolios.

First, a quick refresher. RRBs are a type of government bond designed to protect investors from the effects of inflation. Both their face value and interest payments are pegged to the Consumer Price Index and adjusted twice a year, which means you’re guaranteed to maintain your purchasing power over the life of the bond. That feature overcomes one of the biggest shortcomings of traditional bonds.

There’s little question that RRBs are useful in theory. Consider a retiree who needs $50,000 annually to meet her expenses today. She could build a 10-year ladder of traditional bonds with a face value of $50,000 each, but by the time that last bond matures $50,000 won’t buy as much as it used to.

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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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The Trouble With Bashing Bond Indexes

In my last post, I looked at a tired criticism of traditional equity index funds. Similar arguments have been made against fixed-income index funds, most recently in a blog post called The Trouble With Bond Indices produced by Mawer Investment Management. And once again, they don’t hold up to scrutiny.

First the background. Bond indexes, like their equity counterparts, are usually weighted by market capitalization. This means governments and companies that issue the most bonds (by dollar value) receive the largest weight in the index. Most index investors in Canada use funds that include only domestic bonds, and typically these are roughly one-third federal government bonds, one-third provincial and municipal bonds, and one-third corporate bonds. Global bond index funds are much less common in Canada (only Vanguard offers an ETF in this asset class), but the principle is the same: countries that issue the most debt receive the greatest weight in the index.

You may have already spotted the potential red flag: the more debt a country or company has on its books, the more of its bonds you’re likely to own if you use an index fund.

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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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