Archive | Research

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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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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