Archive | New products

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
Allocation
Old fee
New fee

iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC)
20%
0.25%
0.05%

iShares S&P 500 (XUS)
20%
0.14%
0.10%

iShares MSCI EAFE IMI (XEF)
15%
0.30%
0.20%

iShares MSCI Emerging Markets IMI (XEC)
5%
0.35%
0.25%

iShares High Quality Canadian Bond (CAB)
40%
0.30%
0.12%

Total
100%
0.26%
0.12%

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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A Touch of (Corporate) Class

ETFs are generally more tax-efficient than mutual funds, but there is one area where they’re at a disadvantage. Investors who use non-registered accounts can take advantage of corporate class mutual funds, which can reduce or defer taxes. Well, now the country’s newest ETF provider, Purpose Investments, has launched the first corporate class ETFs in Canada.

It’s little surprise the innovation comes from Purpose. The company’s CEO is Som Seif, who founded Claymore Investments back in 2005. Claymore was an ETF pioneer: they were the first to offer pre-authorized cash contributions (PACCs), dividend reinvestment plans (DRIPs) and systematic withdrawal plans (SWPs). Then they teamed up with Scotia iTRADE to offer the first commission-free ETF program. Seif exited Claymore after they were bought by BlackRock in 2012, and it was only a matter of time before he got behind a new project that shook up the ETF business.

Before looking at the new ETFs, let’s review how corporate class funds work. Most mutual funds are structured as trusts. Income flows through to investors and retains its character: in other words,

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More Swap-Based ETFs on the Horizon

I have to admit I was skeptical when the Horizons S&P/TSX 60 (HXT) appeared back in September 2010. In an interview with a Horizons executive a few months later, I asked why the company would go head-to-head against the iShares S&P/TSX 60 (XIU), the largest ETF in the country.

It turns out HXT has become an extremely successful fund. Not only for Horizons’ bottom line (the fund now has close to $1 billion in assets and is the largest non-iShares ETF in the country), but for investors as well. As of September 30, its three-year annualized return was 3.75%, compared with 3.81% for the S&P/TSX 60 Index. As tracking errors go, 0.06% is about as good as it gets. Over the same period, the venerable XIU returned 3.59% for an annual tracking error of 0.22%.

Swapping returns

HXT tracks its benchmark so tightly because it uses a total return swap: rather than holding the underlying stocks in the index, the fund has an agreement with a counterparty—in this case, National Bank of Canada—who agrees to deliver the full return of the S&P/TSX 60,

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Inside the New Vanguard ETFs

Vanguard Canada launched some new ETFs this week, and I spoke with managing director Atul Tiwari about the funds. Let’s take a closer look.

Cross-Canada coverage

The Vanguard FTSE Canada All Cap (VCN) expands on the older Vanguard FTSE Canada (VCE). While VCE holds 78 large-cap stocks, the new index includes 255 holdings and covers 96% of the Canadian equity market. That makes it roughly equivalent to the S&P/TSX Composite Index, which holds 234 companies and claims 95% coverage.

This is about as close as you can get to a total-market index in Canada: dig further and you run into serious liquidity problems with small, thinly traded stocks. “We started out with a very large universe and pared it back to a number we thought would be terrific,” Tiwari explains. “But once you get to the practical aspects it gets pretty tough. Our partners on the capital markets side, who are creating units and doing the market making, have to be comfortable they can find these securities. Obviously there’s a cost associated with that, and at some point it gets too unwieldy and it doesn’t make sense.”

With a management fee of just 0.12% (the MER will be a few basis points higher),

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