Archive | Research

It’s Better With Beta

The title of Larry Swedroe’s latest book, The Incredible Shrinking Alpha, raises a question: what happened to the idea that skilled managers can consistently beat the market? In a recent interview with Swedroe, we discussed the idea that this ability hasn’t really disappeared: it’s just that “alpha has become beta.”

What exactly does that mean? In investing jargon, alpha is the name given to the excess return a fund manager achieves through skill. Beta, on the other hand, refers to the returns available to anyone who is willing to accept a known risk. When Swedroe says “alpha has become beta,” he simply means that anyone who understands how to structure a portfolio can increase their expected returns by simply changing their exposure to specific types of risk, known as “factors.”

A factor is a characteristic of a stock that affects its expected return and risk. Factor investing (sometimes marketed as “smart beta”) means identifying which of these characteristics might predict higher returns in the future—even if it also brings more risk—and then building a diversified portfolio that captures those returns in a systematic way,

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Is Beating the Market Harder Than Ever?

Is beating the market harder than it’s ever been? Larry Swedroe thinks so, and he lays out his case in his newest book, The Incredible Shrinking Alpha.

PWL Capital has just published a custom edition of the book, with a foreword I co-wrote with my colleague Ben Felix. In our introduction, Ben and I note that Swedroe likes to use sports analogies when he discusses investing. I recently chatted with Swedroe about the book, and he looked to baseball and tennis to explain why active investors face more difficult obstacles than ever.

Outliers in the outfield

Swedroe begins with an argument that others have invoked before: the disappearance of the .400 hitter in baseball. Since 1903, seven different players have batted .400 or better a total of 12 times. However, that feat has not been accomplished since 1941, when Ted Williams hit .406 for the Boston Red Sox. “Of course, the skill of the pitchers today is much higher, and the fielders are much better,” he notes, so that might explain why batting .400 is considered almost impossible today. However, over the last 50 years,

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How Contributions Affect Your Rate of Return

Whenever I update the returns of my model portfolios, readers ask how the performance would have been different had they added money to the portfolios money each month. This question gets to the heart of the difference between time-weighted and money-weighted returns, which I introduced in my previous post.

In our new white paper, Understanding Your Portfolio’s Rate of Return, Justin Bender and I explain the differences between these two methods using two hypothetical investors with a $250,000 portfolio: the first makes a single $25,000 contribution while the other makes a $25,000 withdrawal. Now let’s look at a different example that includes monthly cash flows.

A tale of two accounts

Meet Buster, an investor with an RRSP and a TFSA that both hold an index fund of Canadian stocks (I’ve used the MSCI Canada Investable Market Index for the calculations). At the beginning of 2014, Buster’s RRSP had a balance of $200,000 and he made $500 monthly contributions throughout the year. Buster’s TFSA has valued at $30,000 at the beginning of the year and he made a single lump-sum contribution of $10,000 in September.

At the end of the year,

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Raining on the All Seasons Portfolio

Investors are hungry for success stories, especially tales that include high returns with low risk. And the investment industry is always happy to stoke that appetite.

One of the most popular stories today is the so-called All Seasons portfolio, whose virtues are trumpeted in the massive bestseller Money: Master the Game, by motivational speaker Tony Robbins. The book has been out since last November and I thought the hype would blow over quickly, but I’m still getting inquiries about it, so I thought I’d take a closer look.

The All Seasons portfolio was created by Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge fund managers in the world. It’s based on Dalio’s similarly named All Weather fund, which reportedly has more than $80 billion USD in assets. The portfolio has the following asset mix:

30%      Stocks
40%      Long-term bonds
15%      Intermediate bonds
7.5%     Gold
7.5%     Commodities

In a backtest covering the 30 years from 1984 through 2013, the All Seasons portfolio had an annualized return of 9.7% (net of fees) and only four years with a loss.

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How Bad Data Leads to Poor Investment Decisions

Making smart investment decisions is difficult enough when you have reliable information. If you’re working with inaccurate or misleading data, good decisions become almost impossible.

The most popular source of confusion and misinformation has to be Google Finance. I don’t want to be too hard on Google: the company offers a suite of extraordinarily useful tools for free. But for Canadian investors, Google Finance provides information about ETFs and mutual funds that is highly misleading, and often flat-out wrong. Let’s look at some examples.

The price is right—but it’s only half the story

Google Finance (and other services offering online stock quotes) is useful for charting the changes in an ETF’s price over time. But it does not measure the effect of reinvested dividends and interest. That means you’re only getting half the story: the total return of an investment fund should always be measured assuming all distributions are reinvested.

This can make a dramatic difference when you’re looking at the performance of a fund that pays large distributions. For example, type ZRE into Google Finance and you’ll see the price change in the BMO Equal Weight REITs Index ETF during the 12 months ending April 30 was just over 5%:

The chart above shows the monthly distributions of $0.08 each,

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Ask the Spud: Do Aggressive Portfolios Pay Off?

Q: I noticed that over the long term (10 to 20 years) the average returns of your model portfolios are quite similar regardless of the asset allocation, but the maximum losses vary dramatically. Would you say that people saving for retirement may as well be less aggressive, since their goal can still be reached with less risk? – L.V.

One of the first principles of investing is that more risk should lead to higher returns, while playing it safe comes at the cost of slower growth. That’s why I was surprised when we compiled the historical returns of my model ETF portfolios. Over the 10- and 20-year periods ending in 2014, you were barely rewarded for taking more risk:

As you can see, a portfolio of 30% equities and 70% bonds enjoyed an annualized return of 7.48% over 20 years, while portfolios with 60% and 90% equities returned only slightly more. Yet equity-heavy portfolios would have endured a much rockier ride: the investor with 30% stocks never suffered a loss of even 8%, while the poor sap with 90% equities lost almost a third of his portfolio during the worst 12 months (which was February 2008 through March 2009).

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The Role of Preferred Shares

Preferred shares are often considered a hybrid security, since they share characteristics of both common stocks and corporate bonds. Like bonds, preferreds typically have a predictable income stream. But unlike bonds, most preferreds do not have a maturity date. And most important, the income from preferred shares is considered dividends rather than interest.

I’ve received many questions about preferred shares over the years: this asset is class is clearly popular with Canadian investors. But the honest truth is that I didn’t have much insight to share: I don’t include preferreds in my model portfolios for DIY investors, and our Toronto team at PWL Capital does not include them in client accounts. But other PWL advisors use them regularly, so I teamed up with my colleague Raymond Kerzérho, director of research at PWL Capital, to write a new white paper on the subject. In The Role of Preferred Shares in Your Portfolio, we describe the different types of preferreds in the Canadian marketplace, consider their risks and potential rewards, and help investors decide whether it’s worth adding them to a diversified portfolio.

In the first of a series of blog posts on this subject,

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After-Tax Returns on Canadian ETFs

When you invest in a non-registered account, you need to be concerned about more than just your funds’ performance: you also need to know how much of your return will be eaten up by taxes. Unfortunately, while regulators are strict about the way ETFs and mutual funds report performance, fund companies in Canada have no obligation to estimate after-tax returns—something that’s been required in the US since 2001.

To help address this problem, Justin Bender spent the last several months creating a calculator for estimating the after-tax returns on Canadian ETFs. He was inspired by Morningstar’s US methodology, but he made many significant changes to adapt it for Canada. The new methodology is fully explained in our latest white paper, After-Tax Returns: How to estimate the impact of taxes on ETF performance. We have also made our spreadsheet available for free download so DIY investors can experiment on their own. (The spreadsheet is protected so the formulas cannot be altered. However, we have included detailed descriptions of these formulas in the appendix to the white paper.)

The methodology is quite complex, but here’s an overview in plain English:

We begin by recording the ex-dividend dates for all the cash distributions an ETF made during the period being considered.

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How to Estimate Stock and Bond Returns

Even the simplest financial plan requires assumptions about how your investments will perform. We know these assumptions can never be perfectly accurate, but they need to be thoughtful and reasonable. If you’re just assuming a balanced portfolio will return 7% every year, then your projections aren’t likely to be useful.

So what exactly are reasonable assumptions for stocks and bonds? In Great Expectations—a new white paper I’ve co-authored with Raymond Kerzérho, PWL Capital’s director of research—we explain the methodology we use when creating financial plans.

There are two main approaches one can use when estimating future returns. The first is to rely on history: for example, if the average return of global stocks over the last century was 8%, one could simply assume the same going forward. The second approach uses valuation metrics to estimate future stock returns based on current market conditions. You can also apply these two methods to expected bond returns, using either the long-term historical average or the current yield on a benchmark index.

As you’ve probably figured out, both methods are flawed. But as we argue in the white paper,

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