Archive | New products

A Tax-Friendly Bond ETF on the Horizon

Bonds should be part of just about every portfolio, but if you have to hold them in a non-registered account the tax consequences can be onerous. Fortunately, Canada’s ETF providers are taking steps to ease that burden with some innovative new products, including an ETF of strip bonds and another that holds only low-coupon discount bonds. The latest entry is the Horizons Canadian Select Universe Bond (HBB), which is set to begin trading this week. HBB is unique: it’s the only bond ETF in North America—and maybe anywhere—that uses a total return swap, which should dramatically improve its tax-efficiency.

The swap structure is the same one used by the Horizons S&P/TSX 60 (HXT) and the Horizons S&P 500 (HXS), which are now more than three years old. Here’s the basic idea: the ETF provider has an agreement with National Bank (called the counterparty) to “swap” the returns of two different portfolios. When you buy units in HBB, Horizons places your money in a cash account and pays the interest to the counterparty. In return, National Bank agrees to pay Horizons an amount equal to the total return of the fund’s index—that means any price change,

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Inside the RBC Quant Dividend Leaders ETFs

In January, RBC launched the Quant Dividend Leaders ETFs, a family of dividend-focused funds covering the Canadian, U.S. and international markets. I recently had a chance to speak with Bill Tilford, Head of Quantitative Investments at RBC Global Asset Management, to learn more about the new ETFs:

RBC Quant Canadian Dividend Leaders (RCD)
RBC Quant U.S. Dividend Leaders (RUD/RID.U)
RBC Quant EAFE Dividend Leaders (RID/RID.U)

The funds do not track a third-party index: rather, the portfolios are built using a rules-based methodology. Unlike the popular S&P Dividend Aristocrats indexes, which focus on past dividend growth, Tilford says the RBC ETFs try to be forward-looking. So in addition to screening for stocks with above-average dividend yield, the strategy also looks at three measures of financial strength to determine the sustainability of the dividends.

The first is called the Altman Z-score, which has been used since the 1960s to estimate the probability of a bankruptcy. “It also does a great job of forecasting dividend growth,” says Tilford. The other factors are the volatility of the firm’s return on equity (ROE) and the amount of short interest.

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How Low Can ETF Fees Go?

Less than a month ago, BlackRock aggressively cut the management fees on several of its core ETFs. The boldest move was to slash the fee to just 0.05% on its broad-market Canadian equity fund, the iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC). That seemed to get the attention of the competition, because BMO has hit back with similar fee reductions on several of its own ETFs. (Good thing I didn’t update my model portfolios.)

On April 30, BMO will reduce the fees on the following ETFs:

Fund name
Old fee
New fee

BMO S&P/TSX Capped Composite (ZCN)

BMO S&P 500 (ZSP)

BMO S&P 500 Hedged to CAD (ZUE)



BMO MSCI Emerging Markets (ZEM)

BMO Short Corporate Bond (ZCS)

In the major equity asset classes, the management fees are now identical on comparable BMO and iShares products. Surprisingly, the Vanguard counterparts are now the most expensive in the group. I’m pretty sure no one saw that coming,

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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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iShares Cuts Its Fees to the Core

That sound you just heard was the latest shot fired in Canada’s ETF price war. iShares has just slashed the management fees on several popular equity and bond ETFs—and just like that the country’s oldest ETF provider has become the cheapest in many categories.

BlackRock has rebranded nine ETFs as the iShares Core Series, “a suite of funds covering key asset classes.” A balanced portfolio of these ETFs now has a weighted management fee of just 0.12% or so, less than half the former cost. (As a rule of thumb, expect the full MERs to be 8% to 10% higher due to taxes.) Here’s what a traditional Couch Potato portfolio might look like when assembled from the Core Series ETFs:

ETF name
Old fee
New fee

iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC)

iShares S&P 500 (XUS)


iShares MSCI Emerging Markets IMI (XEC)

iShares High Quality Canadian Bond (CAB)


The cost of competition

BlackRock launched a family of Core iShares ETFs in the US back in October 2012.

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iShares Advantaged ETFs: Where Are They Now?

Before being bought by BlackRock early in 2012, Claymore Investments pioneered many new services and unconventional products. One of these was its so-called Advantaged ETFs, which used a complicated structure to convert fully taxable bond interest and foreign income into tax-favoured return of capital and capital gains.

Barely a year after these funds joined the iShares family, the 2013 federal budget took aim at this sleight of hand. While the government is grandfathering contracts already in force, it won’t allow new ones, which means the eventual end of the tax break promised by the Advantaged ETFs. A couple of weeks after the budget, iShares stopped accepting new subscriptions for these funds until they decided how to handle the situation.

The ETFs are open for business again, but several have new names and all have new strategies. Here’s a summary:

The iShares Global Monthly Advantaged Dividend has become the Global Monthly Dividend Index ETF (CYH). The tax-favoured structure is gone, but the investment strategy is largely the same: the fund is about half US and half international dividend stocks. However, the older version used two US-listed Guggenheim ETFs as its underlying holdings.

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New Tax-Efficient ETFs from BMO

Bonds are one of the least tax-friendly asset classes: most of their return comes from interest payments, which are taxed at the highest rate. They’re even less tax-efficient when their market price is higher than their par value: these premium bonds are taxed so unfavorably they can actually deliver a negative after-tax return. Unfortunately, because interest rates have trended down for three decades, virtually every bond index fund and ETF is filled with premium bonds. Enter the BMO Discount Bond ETF (ZDB), which begins trading tomorrow. This unique new ETF promises to eliminate the problem that has long plagued bond funds in non-registered accounts.

Let’s take a step back and review the important idea underpinning this new ETF. Consider a premium bond with a coupon of 5% and a yield to maturity of 3%. The bond will pay you 5% interest annually and then suffer a capital loss of 2% at maturity, for a total pre-tax return of 3%. Now consider a discount bond that pays a coupon of 2% and has the same yield to maturity of 3%: now, in addition to the interest payments,

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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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The Failed Promise of Market Timing

I’ve long believed the most difficult part of being a Couch Potato investor is resisting temptation. Index investors are asked to be content with market returns, but they are bombarded daily by fund companies, advisors and market gurus who promise more.

Back in May 2012, I wrote about one of these enticing strategies, described in The Ivy Portfolio by Mebane Faber and Eric Richardson. The so-called Global Tactical Asset Allocation (GTAA) strategy grew out of Faber’s widely read research paper, A Quantitative Approach to Tactical Asset Allocation, first published in 2007. It begins with a diversified portfolio inspired by the Yale and Harvard endowment funds, combining traditional and alternative asset classes. The “tactical” part involves using market timing to move in and out of these asset classes based on 10-month moving averages.

Faber updated the paper in early 2013 and it now includes four full decades of data. From 1973 through 2012, the GTAA strategy shows exactly one negative year: a modest loss of –0.59% in 2008. And over those 40 years, the GTAA delivered an annualized return of 10.48% with a standard deviation of 6.99%,

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