Archive | Research

Do Bonds Still Belong in an RRSP?

It has long been conventional wisdom that bonds should be held in RRSPs wherever possible, since interest income is fully taxable. Once you run out of contribution room, equities can go in a non-registered account, because Canadian dividends and capital gains are taxed more favorably. But is this idea still valid? That’s the question Justin Bender and I explore in our new white paper, Asset Location for Taxable Investors.

Here’s an example we used to illustrate the problem. Assume you’re an Ontario investor with a marginal tax rate of 46.41%. Your non-registered account holds $1,000 in Canadian equities that return 8%, of which 3% is from eligible dividends and 5% is a realized capital gain. You would pay $8.86 in tax on the dividend income ($30 x 29.52%) and $11.60 on the realized capital gain ($50 x 23.20%), for a total of $20.46. Meanwhile, a $1,000 bond yielding 5% (or $50 annually) would be taxed at your full marginal rate, resulting in a tax bill of $23.21.

In this example, even though the total return on the stocks was higher (8% versus 5%) the amount of tax payable on the bond holding was significantly greater.

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Why Currency Hedging Doesn’t Work in Canada

In the last two years, Canadian ETF providers have finally launched US and international equity ETFs that do away with currency hedging. Yet the strategy remains hugely popular: the hedged versions of Vanguard’s international and US total market ETFs remain much larger than their unhedged counterparts, while investors have more than $2 billion in the iShares S&P 500 Hedged to CAD (XSP), making it the third largest ETF in Canada.

None of my model portfolios include currency-hedged funds: I’ve long argued the strategy is expensive and imprecise. Even when the Canadian dollar appreciates strongly, the high tracking error of currency-hedged funds often reduces any potential benefit. In one dramatic example, Justin Bender looked at the period from 2006 through 2011, when the US dollar depreciated by almost 13% and hedging should have produced a huge boost: in reality, XSP lagged its US-listed counterpart.

This leads to an interesting question. If currency hedging were free and precise—with an expected tracking error of zero—would it be worth considering?

Does hedging lower volatility?

The most common argument in favour of currency hedging is that it lowers volatility.

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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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Ask the Spud: Is There an Optimal Portfolio?

Q: I’m new to passive investing and am deciding how to allocate between the asset classes. The best split between Canadian equity, international equity, etc. should be determinable based on studies of their past returns, volatility and correlations. Obviously this would vary over time, but approximate weightings should be achievable. Based on this research, how would you weight the individual asset classes? – R.T.

It would look impressive if I designed my model portfolios based on an analysis of historical volatility, correlation matrices and expected returns based on Shiller CAPE or some other data. But instead I generally recommend a roughly equal allocation to Canadian, US and international stocks. Nice and simple, with no advanced math required. This is isn’t because building a “portfolio optimizer” is difficult: it’s because it’s a useless exercise.

Investors have a tendency to resist simple solutions, and this bias is exploited by fund managers and advisors who use algorithms and models designed to determine the “optimal” asset mix that will maximize returns and minimize volatility, sometimes down to two decimal places. That sounds more sophisticated than simply splitting your equity holdings in three, but there’s no evidence it produces better results.

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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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Looking for Value in Canadian Equity ETFs

Monday’s post about factor analysis was, I admit, too technical for most readers’ tastes. At least that’s the conclusion I drew when the two most enthusiastic comments came from a professor of statistics and an astrophysicist. But the brave few who managed to read to the end saw my promise to put all this in context. What can factor analysis teach us about where an ETF’s returns are really coming from?

Two decades of research has shown that the returns of a diversified equity portfolio can largely be explained by its exposure to three factors: the market premium, the value premium, and the size premium. A broad-market index fund like the iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC), by definition, should be neutral in its exposure to the value and size premiums. And as we saw in my previous post, it is: the value and size coefficients for XIC are negligible. So, on to the next step.

Let’s now take a look at the iShares Dow Jones Canadian Value (XCV) and the iShares S&P/TSX Small Cap (XCS).

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Going on a Factor-Finding Mission

Pick up almost any financial magazine or newspaper and you’ll find full-page ads touting the recent performance of mutual funds and ETFs. What’s the reason for their outperformance? The fund companies will give the credit to the genius of the manager, but there’s a way you can tease out a more complete explanation: it’s called factor analysis.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all mathy on you—well, maybe a little bit. Performing this kind of analysis is complicated, but understanding the basic ideas doesn’t require a a Ph.D. in statistics. We know  investment returns come from exposure to known risk factors (or premiums), and every equity portfolio is exposed to these in varying degrees. What we want to learn is how much each factor contributed to the fund’s returns. If the fund outperformed or underperformed its benchmark, factor analysis can tell you why.

Just the factors, ma’am

What are the risk factors? The first is the market premium (or equity premium), which is simply the expected excess return from stocks compared with risk-free investments like T-bills. The second is the value premium: stocks with high book-to-market ratios have historically delivered higher returns than growth stocks.

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More Power in Passive Portfolios

Rick Ferri and Alex Benke recently collaborated on an interesting white paper called A Case for Index Fund Portfolios, which I introduced in my previous post. They compared index portfolios to thousands of randomly generated active portfolios to estimate the probability of outperformance. Passive came out ahead in about 80% to 90% of the trials, which is compelling enough. But there were some surprises, too. Let’s look at a few of them.

Indexing gets better with age

Ferri and Benke’s paper was novel in that it looked at portfolios rather than individual funds. They found that combining index funds led to greater outperformance than you would expect from examining the funds in isolation. In other words, the portfolios were greater than the sum of their parts. The authors called these factors Passive Portfolio Multipliers, or PPMs

One of these PPMs highlights the importance of taking a long-term view. Ferri and Benke looked at the five-year periods ending in 2002, 2007 and 2012. The first of those periods includes the dot-com bubble, while the last includes the worst market crash since the Great Depression. Not surprisingly,

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Putting the Portfolio Odds in Your Favour

It’s well known that the majority of actively managed mutual funds underperform comparable index funds over any period longer than a few years. In fact, that statement has become so uncontroversial that even mutual fund salespeople freely acknowledge it. But a recent white paper co-authored by Rick Ferri, A Case for Index Fund Portfolios, takes this idea a step further.

Academic studies of mutual funds go back to the 1960s, and the well-known SPIVA scorecards are updated twice a year. So there’s no shortage of data on individual funds. But investors don’t use mutual funds in isolation: they build portfolios of funds in several asset classes. And there has been surprisingly little research on the performance of actively managed portfolios compared with passive alternatives.

Ferri introduced this idea in The Power of Passive Investing in 2011, and I wrote about his findings when that book came out. Now Ferri and his co-author Alex C. Benke have improved the analysis using more robust data. “The probability of outperformance using the simplest index fund portfolio started in the 80th percentile and increased over time,” the authors write in their summary.

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