Archive | ETFs

Foreign Withholding Taxes Revisited

It might be the most eagerly anticipated sequel since The Force Awakens. Justin Bender and I have just completed the second edition of our popular white paper, Foreign Withholding Taxes: How to estimate the hidden tax drag on US and international equity ETFs.

Originally published in 2014, the paper explains how many countries impose a tax on dividends paid to foreign investors—most notably a 15% levy on US stocks held by Canadians. When the first edition appeared, foreign withholding taxes were not well understood by many investors and advisors, and even the ETF providers rarely discussed them. In the two years since, the issue seems to be getting more recognition. Both Vanguard and iShares, for example, have made changes to their international equity ETFs to make them more tax-efficient. That’s great news, though it also made the first version of our paper somewhat dated.

In this new edition, we’ve made some significant changes. First, we’ve removed corporate accounts from the discussion and focused on personal accounts only. We’ve also used some different ETFs in our examples, including the Vanguard U.S. Total Market (VUN),

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Cost Versus Convenience in “ex Canada” ETFs

I used to own one of those one-piece cutlery tools designed for hiking and camping—the kind with a knife, fork and spoon that all fold into a single unit. It was hardly ideal for eating, especially if you needed the fork and knife at the same time. But it was more convenient than trekking around with three individual pieces of flatware that might tear your pack or get left behind on the trail.

As investors we often make similar trade-offs. Consider the Vanguard FTSE Global All Cap ex Canada (VXC) or the iShares Core MSCI All Country World ex Canada (XAW), which both offer one-stop global diversification by holding thousands of US, international and emerging market stocks. But as with folding cutlery, you give up something to get that convenience. These two “ex Canada” funds get at least some of their exposure by holding underlying US-listed ETFs rather than holding their stocks directly. This structure can result in additional foreign withholding taxes on dividends.

In a recent blog post, Justin Bender estimated the impact of foreign withholding taxes on RRSP investors who hold VXC.

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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

Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond

iShares Core High Quality Canadian Bond

BMO Aggregate Bond

iShares Canadian Universe Bond

Sources:  BMO ETFs,

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How Long Will You Wait for Smart Beta to Work?

In my last post I shared some insights from Ben Carlson’s A Wealth of Common Sense, which argues that investors are generally better off keeping their portfolios simple and straightforward. This idea has little appeal for index investors who hope to improve on plain-vanilla funds by using so-called smart beta strategies.

“Smart beta” refers to any rules-based strategy that attempts to outperform traditional cap-weighted index funds. Now more than a decade old, fundamental indexing is the granddaddy of smart beta, while factor-based strategies are the newer kids on the block. In each case, the goal is to build a diversified fund that gives more weight to stocks with certain characteristics (value, small-cap, momentum, and so on) that have delivered higher returns than the broad market over the long term.

Many proponents of passive investing see huge potential in factor-based strategies because they combine the best features of indexing—low-cost, broad diversification, and a rules-based process—with the potential to overcome the shortcomings of traditional cap-weighting. Indeed, many of our clients at PWL Capital use a combination of traditional ETFs and equity funds from Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA),

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Decoding Vanguard’s New International Equity ETFs

This year has been another reminder of why international equities are such an important part of a diversified portfolio: in the first 11 months of 2015 the Canadian market was down almost 6%, while international developed markets were up close to 15%.

On December 9, Vanguard Canada launched two new ETFs tracking international equities: the Vanguard FTSE Developed All Cap ex North America (VIU) and a currency-hedged counterpart that uses the ticker VI. These new funds are a welcome addition to Vanguard’s ETF lineup, but they make the choices more confusing, because there are already similar funds on their menu. So let’s try to sort it all out.

First, the background. Vanguard Canada seems to have been put in an awkward position by recent changes to their benchmark indexes. Back in June, their US parent company announced that four international equity indexes provided by FTSE would expand to include mid-cap and small-cap stocks as well as China A-shares. Those were potentially useful changes that added more diversification. However, they also announced that the FTSE Developed ex North America Index would eventually become the FTSE Developed All Cap ex US Index.

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Vanguard’s New World Order

If you follow my model ETF portfolios, you may have noticed that one of your holdings has a new name.

The Vanguard FTSE All-World ex Canada (VXC), launched in the summer of 2014, is a simple, low-cost way to get exposure to stocks in the US as well developed and emerging markets overseas. Now VXC has evolved to cover even more of the global equity market, and further expansion is planned for the coming months. To reflect these changes, the fund recently changed its name to the Vanguard FTSE Global All Cap ex Canada Index ETF. The ticker symbol remains unchanged.

VXC is an “ETF of ETFs” with four underlying holdings: the Vanguard Large-Cap (VV), the Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK), the Vanguard FTSE Pacific (VPL), and the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets (VWO). The latter three ETFs recently adopted new benchmark indexes that include small-cap stocks as well as large- and mid-caps. As a result, the total number of stocks held by VXC has swelled from just over 3,000 at the end of August to more than 5,100 today.

The addition of all those stocks makes VXC more diversified than ever,

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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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Ask the Spud: My ETF Is Shutting Down

Q: I received a notice that an ETF I own will be closed within the next few months. Is it better to sell it now or wait until the termination date? – S.H.

ETFs are now available for just about every niche sector and exotic asset class, so it shouldn’t be surprising when some of these fail to attract investor dollars. If an ETF cannot attract enough assets to be sustainable within a couple of years, the provider may decide to shut down the fund.

ETF closures have been relatively uncommon in Canada, but this year has seen several death sentences. In June, BlackRock announced it will be shuttering six products, including the iShares Broad Commodity (CBR), the iShares China All-Cap (CHI), iShares Oil Sands (CLO) and the iShares S&P/TSX Venture (XVX). Earlier in the year Horizons also terminated its broad commodity ETF as well as couple of its leveraged ETFs.

What should you do if you learn that an ETF you own will soon be shut down? To help answer this question, I reached out to Mark Noble,

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Vanguard’s VXC Gets a Facelift

The Vanguard FTSE All-World ex Canada (VXC) allows Canadians to get access to US, international and emerging markets equities with a single ETF, and it’s one of the ingredients in my model portfolios. Vanguard recently announced some planned changes to VXC’s benchmark index, so let’s take a closer look.

Right now, VXC holds only large and mid-cap stocks, but it will soon be adding small-caps to the mix—at least for overseas markets. This will come about indirectly as a result of changes to the benchmark indexes of three of the fund’s underlying holdings.

VXC gets exposure to international developed and emerging markets through three US-listed ETFs: Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK), Vanguard FTSE Pacific (VPL) and Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets (VWO). These will soon begin tracking new “all cap” indexes that include small companies as well as large and mid-caps. Vanguard estimates that small-caps will eventually make up about 10% of each ETF. To reflect these changes, VXC will receive a new name: the Vanguard FTSE Global All Cap ex Canada Index ETF.

But it’s not clear whether VXC will add small-caps to its US equity exposure.

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