Archive | Discount brokers

How T+2 Settlement Affects ETF Investors

These days we’re used to financial transactions that happen instantly. Buy groceries with your debit card and you see your bank account updated immediately. Send a friend money with an Interac transfer and it’s in their hands in seconds. Yet when you buy or sell an ETF or mutual fund, the trade doesn’t settle for three business days, a practice known as T+3. It’s a convention that seems as outdated as traveller’s cheques.

The good news is this is about to change: on Tuesday, September 5, markets in Canada and the United States will be moving to a T+2 cycle, with settlement two business days after the trade.

This change will mostly affect financial institutions and their intermediaries, but if you regularly buy ETFs, mutual funds, and other investments through an online brokerage there are a number of details you should understand.

Out of order

Before diving into the details, let’s review what settlement means in this context. A trade is considered settled when the buyer has delivered the cash to the seller, at which point ownership of the security officially changes hands. Strictly speaking, you don’t have to pay for your ETF or mutual fund units until three business days after you make the purchase.

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The ETF Volume You Can’t Hear

Most investors prefer using ETFs that are bought and sold frequently. Although thinly traded ETFs are not always less liquid, experienced investors will tell you that they do tend to have wider bid-ask spreads. A healthy trading volume also suggests there’s a lot of interest in the ETF, which makes it less likely to be shut down.

You can get an idea of an ETF’s trading volume by looking at a quote from your discount brokerage or from free online services such as Google Finance. But you’re probably not getting the whole story: you may be surprised to learn that your ETFs are trading more often than you’ve been led to believe.

Here’s why: when you get a quote from these sources, chances are the data is coming only from the Toronto Stock Exchange. But although the TSX gets all the attention, it’s not the only ETF marketplace in Canada: there are several so-called alternative trading systems (ATS) that match buyers and sellers behind the scenes. These include Alpha, Chi-X, Omega, and many others—even some that aren’t named for a letter in the Greek alphabet.

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Announcing the Couch Potato Robo-Advisor Service

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

One of the most exciting developments in investing is the rise of online wealth managers, also known as robo-advisors. These services offer online portfolio management at a fraction of the cost of a full-service advisor. We’ve seen a number of these services pop up in Canada in the last year so, and I am happy to announce that my colleagues at PWL Capital are set to launch our own online service for Couch Potato investors. Best of all, it will be absolutely free.

We’ve nicknamed our service Bender, in honor of the lovable robot character from TV’s Futurama. (Any resemblance to the name of a human portfolio manager is purely coincidental.) Bender will be unlike any other robo-advisor, because it won’t actually make any trades in your account: it will simply give you voice instructions. Then you’re responsible for carrying them out.

This is something of a revolution in the robo-advisor space. Provincial securities regulators have put up high barriers for online wealth managers: they simply don’t like the idea of robots making bad investment decisions when human advisors are perfectly capable of doing that on their own.

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Taxable Consequences of Norbert’s Gambit

Norbert’s gambit with the Horizons US Dollar Currency ETF (DLR/DLR.U) is often the most cost-efficient way to convert Canadian dollars to US dollars, or vice-versa. Our series of white papers focused on performing the gambit in an RRSP, but if you’re swapping currencies in a non-registered account, you should be aware that it can have tax consequences.

At brokerages such as RBC Direct and BMO InvestorLine, you can place the buy and sell trades within minutes of each other. But several other brokerages do not allow you to journal the ETF from the Canadian side of your account to the US side (or the other way around) until the buy trade settles. In both cases, however, there will be at least three business days for the transaction to be complete, and the US-Canadian exchange rate can move significantly during that time. A big swing could stick you with a capital gain or loss when you make the sale.

What’s more, calculating this gain or loss can be tricky, because both the purchase and sale need to be reported in Canadian dollars. That means any transaction in DLR.U needs to be converted from US dollars.

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Taking ETF Trades to the Next Level

Experienced investors know the theory: ETFs are supposed to trade very close to their net asset value (NAV). And most of the time they do. But this week my PWL Capital colleague Justin Bender and I encountered a glaring exception that could have had expensive consequences.

On Monday, Justin and I wanted to sell the iShares US Dividend Growers Index ETF (CUD) in a client’s account. It was a large trade: more than 5,000 shares, which worked out to over $160,000. As we always do before making such a trade, we got a Level 2 quote, which reveals the entire order book. In other words, it tells you how many shares are being offered on the exchange for purchase or sale at various prices. By contrast, a Level 1 quote—the type normally available through discount brokerages—only tells you how many shares are available at the best bid and ask prices.

If an ETF’s market maker is doing its job, there should be thousands of shares available at the best price. But we were surprised to find the Level 2 quote looked like this:

Source: Thomson ONE

Let’s unpack this.

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Understanding ECN Fees

The promise of commission-free ETFs has steered many index investors toward independent brokerages such as Questrade and Virtual Brokers. These deep discounters have a lot to offer, but before you sign on, make sure you understand the details of their pricing.

Orders at these brokerages may be subject to fees that originate with the exchanges and networks that match buyers and sellers. This includes the big boys such as the Toronto and New York Stock Exchanges, as well as a host of lesser-known electronic communication networks (ECNs) and alternative trading systems (ATSs). Though it’s not technically accurate, you’ll often hear all these costs lumped together as “ECN fees.”

ECN fees are applied on a per-share basis. They vary slightly depending on the brokerage and the specific exchange, but they’re always fractions of a cent. At Questrade, for example, the cost is $0.0035 on Canadian stocks and ETFs, while Virtual Brokers charges $0.0039.

It’s a very small cost—less than $2 on an order of 500 shares—but ECN fees are irritating because it’s hard to understand when and why they apply. So let’s dig a little deeper.

Staying liquid

ECN fees do not apply on every trade: they are only charged when a buy or sell order “removes liquidity.” What does that mean?

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The Limits of Limit Orders

For some time now I’ve been suggesting that ETF investors use limit orders—never market orders—when placing trades in their accounts. A market order will be filled (usually immediately and in full) at the best available price. A limit order allows you to specify the maximum price you’ll pay when buying, or the minimum you’ll accept when selling. But judging from some of the comments I’ve received recently, many investors are not clear on the reasons for this advice.

Some seem to believe that placing limit orders will allow them to get a “better price” than they would have obtained with a market order. But if the exchange functions the way it’s supposed to, that’s not true. Using limit orders is not like haggling with a salesman on a used car lot: you can’t get a good deal just because you drive a hard bargain.

Consider three ETF investors—Mark, Cheryl, and Barney—who want to buy 100 shares of the Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond (VAB). They get the following quote from their brokerage:

Because they’re placing a buy order, our three investors look at the ask price,

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An Interview With Wealthsimple: Part 2

Earlier this week I published an excerpt from my interview with David Nugent, portfolio manager of the online investment service Wealthsimple. In this second part of our interview, Nugent goes into more detail about the firm’s investment strategies, including the individual funds they use in their portfolios.

Let’s say you’ve determined an investor’s appropriate asset mix is 60% equities and 40% fixed income. Can you describe how you would divide that across various asset classes?

DN: Our asset classes are Canadian equities, US equities, foreign developed market equities, emerging markets, dividend stocks and real estate, and then there is a component of tactical stocks. The fixed income piece is Canadian investment-grade corporate bonds, Canadian government bonds, US high-yield bonds and cash.

When it comes to choosing ETFs, we try to get the broadest exposure in each asset class. We’re looking to try to capture large caps, mid caps and small caps because we believe that over the long term there is value in having some exposure to that small cap space: they tend to outperform large caps over extended periods. So for Canadian, US, foreign developed and emerging market equities we use total-market cap-weighted ETFs.

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ShareOwner: Canada’s First ETF Robo-Advisor

Back in February I wrote about the rise of robo-advisors, the online services that allow you to build an ETF portfolio that’s maintained by a computer. These services are already operating in the US, and several are in the works in Canada, including the start-ups Nest Wealth and Wealthsimple. But the first to market has turned out to be ShareOwner, a well-established firm better known to dividend stock investors.

I wrote about ShareOwner more than four years ago, and my review at the time was quite negative. They charged a $79 annual fee for RRSPs, their trading commissions were on the high side, and their menu of ETFs was mostly confined to niche products. But the firm has a new owner in Bruce Seago (a veteran of the online brokerage business) and a revamped offering. Their newly announced Model Portfolio Service has a lot of promise for ETF investors seeking a low-cost, low-maintenance solution.

Here’s an overview of how it works. When you open an account, you can select one of ShareOwner’s five model portfolios,

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