Archive | ETFs

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.

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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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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.

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After-Tax Returns on Canadian ETFs

When you invest in a non-registered account, you need to be concerned about more than just your funds’ performance: you also need to know how much of your return will be eaten up by taxes. Unfortunately, while regulators are strict about the way ETFs and mutual funds report performance, fund companies in Canada have no obligation to estimate after-tax returns—something that’s been required in the US since 2001.

To help address this problem, Justin Bender spent the last several months creating a calculator for estimating the after-tax returns on Canadian ETFs. He was inspired by Morningstar’s US methodology, but he made many significant changes to adapt it for Canada. The new methodology is fully explained in our latest white paper, After-Tax Returns: How to estimate the impact of taxes on ETF performance. We have also made our spreadsheet available for free download so DIY investors can experiment on their own. (The spreadsheet is protected so the formulas cannot be altered. However, we have included detailed descriptions of these formulas in the appendix to the white paper.)

The methodology is quite complex, but here’s an overview in plain English:

We begin by recording the ex-dividend dates for all the cash distributions an ETF made during the period being considered.

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Foreign Withholding Taxes in International Equity ETFs

It seems Canadian ETF providers are paying more attention to foreign withholding taxes these days. Not so long ago, you rarely heard anyone discussing this hidden drag on returns. But last month BlackRock announced a significant change to its iShares Core MSCI EAFE IMI Index ETF, ticker symbol XEF, which makes up the international equity component of my Global Couch Potato portfolio. The change was made specifically to reduce the impact of foreign withholding taxes.

When the fund was launched in April 2013 it simply held a US-listed ETF, the iShares Core MSCI EAFE (IEFA). That was a convenient way of getting exposure to the 2,500 or so stocks in this large index. Over the last three weeks, however, XEF has gradually bought up the individual stocks in the index and now holds them directly. According to BlackRock:

“XEF will generally no longer be subject to U.S. withholding taxes. While foreign withholding taxes will continue to apply to dividends paid on certain international equity securities included in the XEF Index, it is expected that the change in investment strategy implementation will reduce the overall amount of withholding taxes borne directly or indirectly by XEF.”

A refresher course on foreign withholding taxes

A few words of explanation will help here.

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Drilling Down into the iShares Core ETFs

When iShares launched its Core ETF series back in March it made some waves in the industry. The company cut the fees on nine ETFs it considers building blocks of a long-term portfolio. Its boldest move was to slash the cost of one of its flagship products, the iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC). At the time XIC was weighed down by a management fee of 0.25%, much higher than its competitors from Vanguard and BMO. After that fee was reduced to a stingy 0.05%—making it the cheapest ETF in the country—it prompted BMO to follow suit less than a month later.

Now more moves are afoot. On July 21, iShares rebranded these nine ETFs to include “Core” in their names. They also launched a new addition to the family: the iShares Core Short Term High Quality Canadian Bond (XSQ).

The new ETF is extremely similar to the iShares Canadian Short Term Bond (XSB) in most respects: both are about 60% government bonds and 40% corporates, and the holdings are all investment-grade (rated A or higher). Their fundamentals are almost identical:

XSB
XSQ

Yield to maturity
1.58%
1.55%

Average coupon
2.98%
2.81%

Duration
2.83
2.77

Average term
2.83
2.92

Source: BlackRock Canada

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Under the Hood: Vanguard FTSE All-World ex Canada (VXC)

This post is part of a series that takes a detailed look at specific Canadian ETFs or index funds.

The fund: Vanguard FTSE All-World ex Canada Index ETF (VXC)

The index: The fund tracks the FTSE All-World ex Canada Index, which includes “primarily large- and mid-capitalization stocks of companies located in developed and emerging markets, excluding Canada.” The index includes approximately 2,900 stocks in 46 countries.

The cost: The management fee is 0.25%. Since the fund is brand new we don’t know the full MER, but it should be less than 0.30% after adding taxes and incidentals.

The details: VXC started trading on July 7 and was one of five new Vanguard ETFs launched that day. The fund is a one-stop solution for those looking to diversify outside of Canada. Not so long ago, investors needed two or three ETFs to get exposure to the US, international developed markets and emerging countries (unless they were willing to buy US-listed ETFs). Now they can get it with a single fund.

VXC weights each country according to the size of its capital markets,

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Calculating Adjusted Cost Base: A Case Study

If you’ve read our ironically titled white paper, As Easy as ACB, you understand how complex it can be to track the adjusted cost base of ETFs. You need to account for all purchases and sales of shares during your holding period and then adjust for any reinvested distributions, return of capital and share splits along the way. Since that paper came out, several readers have emailed to ask whether it’s really necessary to do all that work.

That’s up to each investor to determine, but I wouldn’t want the Canadian Revenue Agency to discover you were paying a lot less tax than you owed. And as we discovered recently with a client of our DIY Investor Service, taking the time to accurately calculate your adjusted cost base can also save you from paying unnecessary taxes.

Our client purchased 300 shares of the iShares S&P/TSX Composite Index ETF (XIC) in September 2005 and added another 200 shares the following year. She eventually sold the entire holding (which by then had more than doubled in value) in April of this year. On the surface that seems like a straightforward set of transactions,

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Ask the Spud: Why Do ETF Yields Differ?

Q: The Vanguard S&P 500 (VFV) currently has a dividend yield of 1.44%, but the US-listed version of the same ETF has a yield of 2.01%. How can these two funds have such different yields when their underlying holdings are exactly the same? – Lindsay

The US and international equity ETFs from Vanguard Canada do not hold their stocks directly: they get their exposure by holding a US-listed ETF. The Vanguard S&P 500 (VFV), for example, simply holds the Vanguard S&P 500 (VOO), which trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

Since the underlying holdings of VFV and VOO are identical, you might expect the two funds to have the same dividend yield. Yet if you visit their respective websites you’ll find the published yields actually vary by 57 basis points. What gives?

More than one way to do the math

Turns out there are several ways to calculate a fund’s yield. Vanguard Canada uses the trailing 12-month yield, which it defines as “the fund’s cash distributions over the past 12 months divided by the end of period net asset value.” The last four quarterly distributions from VFV totaled $0.52905 per share,

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