Archive | Indexing basics

Do You Have the Advisor Six-Pack?

When people criticize the financial industry in Canada, the target of their wrath is usually high fees and underperformance. These are huge issues and, of course, they go hand-in-hand. But the more I work with new clients who arrive after using other advisors, the more I’ve come to appreciate a different problem. I can’t understand why so many mutual fund advisors seem incapable of building a portfolio with a coherent strategy.

This seems almost ridiculously easy. Is it so difficult to pick one fund for each of the major asset classes (bonds, Canadian stocks, US stocks, international and emerging market, real estate) and then assign a target weight to each? Instead I see what I’ve dubbed the “advisor six-pack.” No, not the guy at Investors Group with the ripped abs. I’m talking about the portfolio built from a half-dozen mutual funds thrown together randomly. It’s like the advisor swallowed the Morningstar database and then threw up in the investor’s account.

“Hmm, how about a few thousand bucks in the Mackenzie Growth Fund (the sales rep just visited and gave me Leafs tickets), a few more in the CI Canadian Investment Fund,

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Three Reasons to Ignore Market Downturns

“Long-term investors shouldn’t worry about daily or weekly blips in the markets.” How many times have you heard that? It’s true of course, but most investors don’t heed the advice. And to be fair, it’s hard to ignore the financial markets when there’s non-stop commentary in the news and on social media.

Since markets began falling early last month—the S&P/TSX Composite Index shed more than 11% in the six weeks following September 3—some investors are starting to get spooked. As one wrote to me recently: “A word of encouragement would be appreciated for those of us who recently began the Couch Potato plan and are now seeing our ETFs going down.”

Words of encouragement are helpful, but “don’t worry, be happy,” doesn’t cut it. So here are three specific reasons why a falling stock market shouldn’t shake your confidence in a balanced index portfolio.

1. Downturns are ridiculously normal. A reasonable expected rate of return for a global equity portfolio might be about 7% to 8%. But this is an annualized average over the very long term. In any given year, equity returns are likely to be much lower or much higher.

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How One Investor Found Inner Peace

Most people who embrace index investing are attracted to the low fees and the proven performance compared with a majority of active strategies. But another advantage sometimes gets overlooked, and that’s the peace of mind that comes from a long-term plan that allows you to ignore the distractions of daily market movements.

I recently received an email from a long-time reader named Steve, who described his investing journey. “I’m curious if my experience of ‘inner investing peace’ is unique or typical,” he says, so with his permission I’ll share some of the details.

“I’m in my mid-40s and I was already familiar with the theory behind passive investing when your blog was becoming popular back in 2010,” Steve writes. “I’d already had run-ins with expensive mutual funds, and I had already done a fair amount of (unsuccessful) investing in individual stocks as well. I had a friend who traded options, and I even dabbled in that. I then moved on to dividend growth investing for a while. My problem was I was never patient enough: I wanted results immediately.”

Shortly after the crash of 2008–09, Steve began reading about indexing and the evidence won him over,

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What Young Investors Need to Know

When I first became interested in indexing, someone recommended William Bernstein’s The Four Pillars of Investing. Originally published in 2002, the book has become a classic for its insight and wisdom, and for Bernstein’s entertaining, no-nonsense style.

But as much as I loved Four Pillars, the 330-page tome wouldn’t be my top pick for a teen or twentysomething who is just getting started. Fortunately, young investors can now begin with a more inviting volume. Bernstein has just released a brief e-book called If You Can: How Millennials Can Get Rich Slowly, available in Kindle format from Amazon for $0.99. And for the next day or so, you can download it for free.

If You Can reveals what Bernstein calls the Five Horsemen of the Personal Finance Apocalypse: the hurdles young people will need to overcome if they are to become successful investors. (The latter four are the same pillars Bernstein wrote about in his earlier book.) At the end of each section, he makes a recommendation for further reading. Here’s a summary of his advice to the millennial generation.

1. You need to save more.

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A Periodic Review of Diversification

After the financial crisis of 2008–09, financial commentators loved to take shots at “old school” investment strategies. First came the declarations that diversification no longer works, because during a crisis everything goes down together—though this wasn’t true in 2008 unless you ignored bonds, which make up a significant part of most portfolios. Then the investment industry sounded the death knell for the traditional balanced portfolio. Apparently we were in a new era where active investing, tactical asset allocation and alternative asset classes would rule the day.

One of the most effective ways to expose this nonsense is to build a “periodic table” of investment returns. (Norm Rothery has maintained one on his Stingy Investor site for several years.) The resemblance to the poster that hung in your high-school chemistry class is only superficial: this table simply presents the returns of various asset classes ordered from highest to lowest over a period of several years. By adding a colour for each asset class, the results jump off the screen.

I thought it would be interesting to build a periodic table with the returns of the seven individual asset classes in the Complete Couch Potato,

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A Reality Check for Couch Potatoes

The investment industry never misses an opportunity to take credit for outstanding performance. In fact, many mutual fund providers crow about their returns even when they’re mediocre or downright bad compared to appropriate benchmarks. One of my recent favorites was an ad that read: “Over the 1-year period, 91% of Trimark global equity funds returned 10% or more.” This is touted as an impressive accomplishment, but during this one-year period (ending September 30, 2013), the MSCI World Index was up over 21%. An actively managed global equity fund that returned even 15% would have been an absolute dog.

The recent performance of my model portfolios has been excellent: in 2013, the humble Global Couch Potato returned more than 15%, and over the last five years, a balanced index portfolio could easily have achieved 10% annualized returns. But if you’re a passive investor, it’s important to understand this performance simply reflects that we’ve enjoyed a five-year bull market in stocks—not to mention five years of bond returns that were higher than most people expected. Unlike the proud fund managers at Trimark, indexers shouldn’t take credit personally—except to pat themselves on the back for building a diversified portfolio and staying invested.

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Couch Potato Portfolio Returns for 2013

Here are the 2013 performance figures for my Model Portfolios. Last year was one of stark contrasts: huge returns in stocks combined with dismal bond performance. But for anyone who had a balanced index portfolio, the returns would likely have been in the double digits.

As it turns out, the Global Couch Potato and the Über-Tuber performed almost identically in 2013, which can only be attributed to coincidence, since their asset mix is very different. The Complete Couch Potato, on the other hand, dramatically underperformed. That’s easy to explain: the Complete includes three asset classes absent in the Global Couch Potato—real-return bonds, real estate and emerging markets—and they were all duds in 2013.

There were a few other remarkable events in the markets in 2013:

The long-predicted rise in interest rates finally came in the spring, leading to the first negative year for the DEX Universe Bond Index since 1999. It’s easy to say this wasn’t a surprise, but let’s remember commentators have been forecasting rising rates since early 2010 and were wrong for three-and-a-half years.

Real-return bonds had their second-worst year since they were created by the Government of Canada 22 years ago.

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Remodelled Portfolios for 2014

Another new year is upon us, and it’s time review my model Couch Potato portfolios. I’ve been at pains to discourage investors from tinkering with their portfolios every time a new fund comes along, but 2013 did see the launch of some significant ETFs. In a couple of other cases, it was just time to replace the incumbents with less expensive choices. You can visit the Model Portfolios page for full details, but here’s a summary of the changes:

Global Couch Potato

I’ve added the ING Direct Streetwise Balanced Portfolio as a simple option for the Global Couch Potato. While using individual index mutual funds allows for lower costs (especially if you use the TD e-Series option) and more flexibility, the Streetwise Portfolios are ideal for investors who have small portfolios in registered accounts.

The ETF version of this portfolio (now Option 4) has been overhauled completely. I’ve replaced the Canadian  equity and bond funds with cheaper alternatives from Vanguard. And in place of the iShares MSCI World (XWD), I’ve suggested the Vanguard US Total Market (VUN) and the iShares MSCI EAFE IMI (XEF).

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Worst Mutual Fund Ad of the Year?

The mutual fund industry loves to sell past performance, and it’s not above massaging the data to make that performance look even better. But every now and then an advertisement appears that sets the bar even lower. Michael Callahan, a financial planner in Ottawa, recently sent me an ad for IA Clarington Investments that might be the worst one I’ve seen yet. “I figured you might welcome an opportunity to rip this one to shreds,” he wrote. Challenge accepted.

First there’s the time frame. The ad says the company believes active managers “can and do persistently outperform over the long-term.” But as explained in the fine print (microscope not provided), the year-to-date returns in the first column of the table are for the period ending March 31, so we’re talking about three months. We get 12-month returns in the second column, and the third column gives the funds’ returns since their inception. Problem is, the three funds spotlighted here were launched in the late summer of 2011, so they had been around for all of 18 to 19 months when these returns were calculated. That might be long-term if you’re an insect,

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