Archive | Index funds

The Couch Potato Mutual Fund is Here At Last

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

One of the perennial problems with ETFs is they require you to open a discount brokerage account and learn to trade individual securities. That can be intimidating, especially for those who are accustomed to buying mutual funds.

For several years now, I’ve been investigating ways to bring the Couch Potato portfolios to more investors, including the millions of Canadians who aren’t comfortable with ETFs. So I’m excited to unveil the Complete Couch Potato Balanced Fund, a traditional mutual fund that will launch later this month.

Creating a new mutual fund is far more difficult than many people realize, and I could never have done it on my own. That’s why I decided to partner with a large, well-known investment firm based in Winnipeg. (I’m not yet at liberty to disclose its name because the final prospectus is being translated into French.) This firm’s capable sales force will make sure advisors across Canada sell the funds to clients even if they don’t understand the strategy.

An enhanced strategy

The new fund is based on the Complete Couch Potato in my model portfolios,

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The True Cost of Foreign Withholding Taxes

Back in the fall of 2012, I wrote a pair of blog posts about the impact of foreign withholding taxes in US and international equity funds. The first explained the general idea of this tax on foreign dividends, while the second showed which funds are best held in which types of account (RRSP, TFSA, non-registered). This is a complicated and confusing topic, so I was surprised at the enormous interest these articles generated from readers, the media, advisors and even the ETF providers themselves.

What was missing from those articles, however, was hard numbers: it’s one thing to say this fund is more tax-efficient than that one, but by how much? To my knowledge no one has ever quantified the costs of foreign withholding tax in a comprehensive way—until now. Justin Bender and I have done this in our new white paper, Foreign Withholding Taxes: How to estimate the hidden tax drag on US and international equity index funds and ETFs.

The factors that matter

The amount of foreign withholding tax payable depends on two important factors. The first is the structure of the ETF or mutual fund.

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The One-Fund Solution

[Note: This post was updated in May 2014, when the former ING Direct changed its name to Tangerine.]

What’s the best way to get started with index investing? That’s the question Justin Bender and I ask in our new white paper, The One-Fund Solution. In our opinion, if you’re new to self-directed investing and you have a relatively small RRSP or TFSA, the place to begin is the Tangerine Investment Funds.

I’ve written about the Tangerine funds (formerly the ING Direct Streetwise Portfolios) before, and I often get pushback from readers. They point out these balanced index funds carry an MER of 1.07%, which is expensive compared to my ETF model portfolios, and even the TD e-Series funds. But most of this criticism comes from experienced do-it-yourselfers who forget that reading this blog means they’re among a small minority who consider investing something of a hobby. Most Canadians are not like them. Most people, even if they are good savers—and that’s the most important characteristic of a good investor—would rather watch Say Yes to the Dress than use a rebalancing spreadsheet.

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Equity Index Funds for the Socially Responsible

Last week I shared my interview with Timothy Nash, president of Strategic Sustainable Investments, the blogger behind The Sustainable Economist, and an expert in socially responsible investing (SRI). This week I’d like to profile a number of investment products that may be appropriate for Couch Potato investors who are interested in SRI.

I’m not endorsing any of these investments: I don’t use any of them myself, and although I’ve made an effort to understand what they have to offer, I haven’t performed any due diligence on them. You’re responsible for thoroughly checking out any investment before adding it to your portfolio.

Canadian equities

The iShares Jantzi Social Index Fund (XEN), launched in 2007, tracks the best-known SRI benchmark in Canada. The Jantzi Social Index excludes companies involved in military contracting, nuclear power and tobacco, as well those involved in “significant controversies” such as environmental spills. The index includes 60 companies and is designed to roughly mirror the sector weights of the S&P/TSX 60. For what its worth, XEN has outperformed the iShares S&P/TSX 60 (XIU) over the five years ending in April despite is much higher fee (0.55%).

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More on Socially Responsible Index Investing

Here’s part two of my conversation with Timothy Nash, president of Strategic Sustainable Investments and the blogger behind The Sustainable Economist. (Part one is available here.) Next week I’ll go into more detail about specific investment products that combine passive investing with SRI principles.

Many socially responsible investors seem to think buying a company’s stock is somehow giving them capital they can use to do evil, and that’s why they’re wary about owning index funds. I’m not sure I buy that argument.

TN: I often get asked how much of a difference I’m making by owning socially responsible index funds or ETFs. And it’s tricky, because obviously when you own equities the money doesn’t go directly to the company—at least not once you’re beyond the IPO. But you can make the argument about cost of capital. When companies have a large market cap, the more demand there is for that stock, and the easier it is for them to raise capital.

There is another argument, too. With ethical consumerism—whether you’re buying fair trade, or local, or organic—you are impacting that invisible hand of the marketplace.

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Can Couch Potatoes Be Socially Responsible?

In my latest MoneySense column, I explored whether socially responsible investing is compatible with the Couch Potato strategy. If you’re not familiar with SRI, it’s about finding investments compatible with your ethics, which often means avoiding so-called sin stocks and companies with poor environmental records. It may also involve selecting investments that have a positive social impact.

My main source for that column was Timothy Nash, president of Strategic Sustainable Investments, a company that helps institutions and individuals create portfolios aligned with their values. Tim also has a blog called The Sustainable Economist and recently wrote a post called The Organic Couch Potato, where he shared his ETF suggestions.

Tim is a thoughtful, articulate advocate for SRI and I thought readers would like to hear more from him, so here’s an excerpt from our interview. I’ll run another in a few days, and next week I’ll go into more detail about specific investment products that combine passive investing with SRI principles.

In many ways passive investing and SRI seem incompatible. One of the fundamental ideas behind indexing is that you don’t pick individual companies.

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When You Can Ignore Tracking Error

In Monday’s post, I reviewed the major factors that contribute to an index fund’s tracking error. Here are some other things to consider when you’re comparing your fund’s performance to that of its benchmark. These can cause tracking errors to seem unusually large or small, but they need to be understood in context.

Changes to the index. A number of ETFs changed their benchmark index during 2012, including some core equity funds from BMO and Vanguard. When there is an index change in the middle of the year, measuring tracking error becomes difficult and the numbers can be misleading. Until late September, the BMO S&P 500 Hedged to CAD (ZUE) held just 100 large-cap stocks selected using a different methodology. ZUE ended up lagging the S&P 500 by less than its management fee, which is normally an excellent result, but in this case it was a fluke.

A small number of ETFs in Canada are not tied to any third-party benchmark. The BMO Canadian Dividend (ZDV), for example, includes 30 stocks selected using an in-house methodology. In cases like this,

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How Well Does Your ETF Track Its Index?

The ideal index fund would deliver the precise return of its benchmark, but we all know that’s not realistic. ETFs and index funds may be cheap but they’re not free, and fees almost always cause them to lag slightly. Index investors accept this because they know the alternatives are usually much worse, but they can’t be too complacent. It’s important to periodically check your ETF’s tracking error: that is, the difference between the index return and the fund’s actual performance.

Where do you find this information? Over at iShares, you simply visit the ETF’s web page and click the “Performance” tab. You’ll see the returns of both the fund and its index over various periods from one month to 10 years, as well as calendar-year returns. iShares currently lists fund returns according to net asset value (NAV) only: the market price field is blank. For example, over the 12 months ending March 31 the iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC) lagged its index by 29 basis points:

The process is almost identical at Vanguard: again, simply visit the ETF’s web page and click the “Performance” tab.

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Why Index Mutual Funds Still Have a Place

Responding to a recent article on mutual funds by Rob Carrick, a Globe and Mail reader rehashed a common refrain: “Perhaps mutual funds were once a great way for ‘average Canadians’ to invest, but they have been totally subverted by the greed and mediocrity of the financial institutions who dominate the field … Canadians are generally far better served by ETFs.”

The problem with remarks like this is they present the debate as “mutual funds versus ETFs,” and that’s the wrong way to think about it. The mutual fund industry in this country has enormous problems, to be sure: some of the highest fees in the world, deferred sales charges, and bad advice from salespeople with vested interests. These are all disgraceful practices, but they have little or nothing to with the mutual fund structure.

Index investors have broken free of the worst industry practices, but they still seem reluctant to embrace mutual funds. For example, when Scotia iTrade began offering Claymore (now iShares) ETFs without commissions, I heard from many folks who couldn’t wait to get on board.

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