Archive | ETFs

Are Preferred Share Indexers Dumb Money?

It’s hard to keep a straight face while arguing for active strategies in asset classes like large-cap stocks or government bonds. Those markets are so liquid and so well covered by analysts that it’s almost impossible to find and exploit inefficiencies. But many would argue that active managers at least have a fighting chance in asset classes that like, say, emerging markets or small-cap stocks.

On the heels of my previous posts on Canadian preferred shares, let’s consider whether this is another asset class where active managers can be expected to add value compared with a simple indexed approach using ETFs. I recently explored this idea in a conversation with Nicolas Normandeau of Fiera Capital, who manages the Horizons Active Preferred Share ETF (HPR). I think it’s important to have these debates occasionally, because if you believe in indexing, it’s important to be able to defend the strategy with rational arguments and not ideology.

Here are the main arguments in favour of using an active strategy with preferred shares:

The market is complex and inefficient. The entire preferred share market in Canada is about $60 to $65 billion—about the same as the market cap of Canadian National Railway.

Continue Reading 14

When Discount Bonds Are Hard to Find

Everyone loves a discount, but if you’re buying bonds these days you may be out of luck.

Just over a year ago, the BMO Discount Bond (ZDB) was launched as a tax-efficient alternative to traditional bond ETFs. ZDB tracks the broad Canadian market, but it selects bonds trading at a discount, or at a very small premium. Discount bonds have a lower coupon than comparable new bonds, and they will mature with a small capital gain. That combination is more tax-efficient than premium bonds, which have higher coupons and mature at a loss.

A discount bond ETF is a great idea for non-registered accounts, but it faced challenges from the beginning. After many years of interest rates trending downward, there simply aren’t many discount bonds in the marketplace. Traditional broad-market bond ETFs hold between 500 and 900 issues, but ZDB holds just 55.

This constraint has become more urgent after the Bank of Canada unexpectedly cut short-term rates in January. Yields on intermediate and longer-term bonds also fell, driving bond prices up sharply. Suddenly bonds that were trading at a discount were priced at or above par.

In my blog post introducing ZDB,

Continue Reading 22

Which Bond ETF Is Most Tax-Efficient?

Back in September, my colleague Justin Bender and I published a white paper entitled After-Tax Returns: How to estimate the impact of taxes on ETF performance. Justin has now updated his Excel calculator and made it available for free download on his blog.

Recently Justin put his own methodology to work by measuring the 2014 after-tax returns of 10 short-term bond ETFs. As it happens, 2014 was a relatively good year for short-term bonds: as interest rates fell again, ETFs in this asset class delivered returns between 2.3% and 3.5%. But as we have written about before, traditional fixed income ETFs tend to be full of premium bonds, which are notoriously tax-inefficient because of their high coupons. If you held one of these ETFs in a non-registered account, your after-tax return would have been lower.

Launched in 2013, the First Asset 1-5 Year Laddered Government Strip Bond (BXF) was designed to be a tax-friendly alternative. Strip bonds do not make interest payments like traditional bonds do: rather, they are sold at a discount and mature at par value.

Continue Reading 42

iShares Expands Its Core ETF Lineup

iShares shook up the ETF marketplace last March when it launched its Core family of low-cost ETFs in the major asset classes. This week iShares announced some new additions to its Core lineup, including two broad-market funds that go head-to-head with recently launched ETFs from Vanguard. Let’s take a peek at these compelling new offerings.

Blanket coverage of the US

First up is the iShares Core S&P U.S. Total Market (XUU), which provides exposure to the broad US stock market, including large, mid and small cap stocks.

This is iShares’ answer to the Vanguard U.S. Total Market (VUN), and it comes in five basis points cheaper, with a management fee of just 0.10%. However, the coverage is not quite as complete: VUN holds more than 3,800 stocks, compared with 1,500 for XUU. Although XUU’s benchmark is the S&P Total Market Index (which includes almost 3,900 companies) the fund actually holds three US-listed ETFs that make up the S&P Composite 1500 Index. But we should keep this in perspective: the other 2,300 companies are so small that they collectively make up just 10% of the US market,

Continue Reading 56

Tracking Error on International Funds

I recently received an email from a reader, J.W., who wanted to know why the tracking error on some popular Vanguard international equity ETFs were so high in 2014. He noted, for example, that the Vanguard FTSE Developed ex North America (VDU) lagged its benchmark index by 1.62% last year, far more than one would expect.

An index fund’s tracking error is the difference between the performance of the fund itself and that of its benchmark. If the index returns 10% on the year and the fund delivers 9.8%, the tracking error is 0.20%, or 20 basis points. But what could possibly cause a fund to show a tracking error of 162 basis points?

Any time you see a surprising number like this, it’s important to determine the reason: otherwise you risk making a bad decision because you’re working with inaccurate or misleading information. If an index were to lag its benchmark by more than 1.6% because it was badly managed, then you should look for a better alternative. But Vanguard has a long record of tight tracking error, so something else has to be going on here—and indeed it is.

Back on track

To understand VDU’s large tracking error—and why it’s not as bad as it looks—let’s look at the reasons its performance deviated so far from the index.

Continue Reading 34

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.

Continue Reading 29

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,

Continue Reading 36

Vanguard Makes Its Move

You knew it was coming: Vanguard Canada has dramatically reduced the fees on 11 of its ETFs. The announcement came this week, and it affects some of the most popular funds in the Vanguard lineup:

ETF
Ticker
Old fee

New fee

Vanguard FTSE Canada
VCE
0.09%
0.05%

Vanguard FTSE Canada All Cap
VCN
0.12%
0.05%

Vanguard FTSE Canadian High Dividend Yield
VDY
0.30%
0.20%

Vanguard S&P 500
VFV
0.15%
0.08%

Vanguard S&P 500 (CAD-hedged)
VSP
0.15%
0.08%

Vanguard FTSE Developed ex North America
VDU
0.28%
0.20%

Vanguard FTSE Developed ex North America (CAD-hedged)
VEF
0.28%
0.20%

Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets
VEE
0.33%
0.23%

Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond
VAB
0.20%
0.12%

Vanguard Canadian Short-Term Bond
VSB
0.15%
0.10%

Vanguard Canadian Short-Term Corporate Bond
VSC
0.15%
0.10%

Normally the leader when it comes to low costs, Vanguard actually got scooped by its competitors in Canada this year. iShares slashed fees on several ETFs back in March, and BMO followed up a month later with dramatic cost cuts of its own. In a blog post last spring comparing the core equity ETFs of the three providers I wrote: “Surprisingly, the Vanguard counterparts are now the most expensive in the group.

Continue Reading 40

How Taxes Can Affect ETF Performance

In our recent white paper, After-Tax Returns, Justin Bender and I introduced a methodology for measuring the effect of income taxes on ETF returns. Justin also created a downloadable spreadsheet you can use to estimate the after-tax returns of funds in your own portfolio.

As we explain in the paper, funds with similar pre-tax returns can look quite different when you compare their performance after the CRA has taken its cut. Remember that on a pre-tax basis investment gains are reported in the same way whether they’re Canadian dividends, fully taxable income or capital gains. If you’re investing in a tax-sheltered account, it’s all the same. But in a non-registered account, distributions are taxed in different ways, and this can dramatically affect the amount of money you actually keep.

Here’s a real-world example that illustrates how large the difference can be. Justin collected the distribution and price data for the iShares Core S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC) and the DFA Canadian Core Equity Fund (DFA256) over the nine years ending in 2013. Both funds track the broad Canadian stock market, so you would expect similar returns.

Continue Reading 17