Archive | Taxes

Tracking Error on International Funds

I recently received an email from a reader, J.W., who wanted to know why the tracking error on some popular Vanguard international equity ETFs were so high in 2014. He noted, for example, that the Vanguard FTSE Developed ex North America (VDU) lagged its benchmark index by 1.62% last year, far more than one would expect.

An index fund’s tracking error is the difference between the performance of the fund itself and that of its benchmark. If the index returns 10% on the year and the fund delivers 9.8%, the tracking error is 0.20%, or 20 basis points. But what could possibly cause a fund to show a tracking error of 162 basis points?

Any time you see a surprising number like this, it’s important to determine the reason: otherwise you risk making a bad decision because you’re working with inaccurate or misleading information. If an index were to lag its benchmark by more than 1.6% because it was badly managed, then you should look for a better alternative. But Vanguard has a long record of tight tracking error, so something else has to be going on here—and indeed it is.

Back on track

To understand VDU’s large tracking error—and why it’s not as bad as it looks—let’s look at the reasons its performance deviated so far from the index.

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The Couch Potato Goes Abroad

Andrew Hallam’s Millionaire Teacher remains one of the best introductions to index investing. When I reviewed it three years ago, I stressed that Andrew writes with authority because he follows his own advice.

In his new book, The Global Expatriate’s Guide to Investing, Andrew shares more of his first-hand knowledge about managing an indexed portfolio outside your home country. Andrew left Canada in 2003 and spent years as a teacher in Singapore before settling (at least for now) in Mexico earlier this year. So he knows all about the challenges—and the surprising benefits—of being an expat investor.

Most of his book’s advice applies equally to homebodies: the first several chapters lay out the case for using a passive strategy, whether with plain-vanilla ETFs, a fundamental index strategy, or the Permanent Portfolio. Then he explains how expats can put these ideas into practice. I asked Andrew to elaborate on some of the key points for Canadians living abroad.

What are the most important tax issues that Canadian expat investors need to be aware of?

AH: So much depends on where the expat is living.

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Ask the Spud: Bond ETFs in Taxable Accounts

Q: Can you share your thoughts about the BMO Discount Bond (ZDB) and the Horizons Canadian Select Universe Bond (HBB) as long-term holdings in a taxable account? – D. F.

Earlier this year BMO and Horizons both launched bond ETFs specifically designed for taxable accounts. These two funds have very different structures, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. So let’s dig more deeply into each fund to help you decide which might be right for your portfolio.

Before we discuss these specific funds, let’s review the problem with holding traditional bond ETFs in non-registered accounts. Most bonds these days trade at a premium (higher than their par value), because they were issued when interest rates were higher. Premium bonds are perfectly fine in your RRSP or TFSA, but they are notoriously tax-inefficient and should not be held in non-registered accounts.

 Do you want a discount or a swap?

The BMO Discount Bond (ZDB), launched in February, is similar to traditional broad-market bond ETFs, such as the iShares Canadian Universe Bond (XBB), the Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond (VAB) and the BMO Aggregate Bond (ZAG).

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Tax Loss Harvesting Revisited

No one likes to see their investments plummet in value, but it’s going to happen many times over your lifetime. If you’ve got a strategy for tax loss selling, you can make the best of the situation by harvesting capital losses that can be used to offset capital gains. That gives you an opportunity to reduce or defer taxes in the future, or even recover taxes you paid in past.

In a blog post on September 26, I noted that Canadian equities had fallen by about 5% since the beginning of the month, which could have triggered one such opportunity. (A useful rule of thumb, courtesy of Larry Swedroe, says a security should be sold when the loss is at least 5% and at least $5,000.) If you had recently made a large purchase of the Vanguard FTSE Canada All Cap (VCN), for example, you might have sold it that week to realize a capital loss and then repurchased the iShares Core S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC) or a comparable fund. As long as the replacement ETF tracks a different index you’ll maintain your exposure to Canadian stocks while also steering clear of the superficial loss rule.

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How Taxes Can Affect ETF Performance

In our recent white paper, After-Tax Returns, Justin Bender and I introduced a methodology for measuring the effect of income taxes on ETF returns. Justin also created a downloadable spreadsheet you can use to estimate the after-tax returns of funds in your own portfolio.

As we explain in the paper, funds with similar pre-tax returns can look quite different when you compare their performance after the CRA has taken its cut. Remember that on a pre-tax basis investment gains are reported in the same way whether they’re Canadian dividends, fully taxable income or capital gains. If you’re investing in a tax-sheltered account, it’s all the same. But in a non-registered account, distributions are taxed in different ways, and this can dramatically affect the amount of money you actually keep.

Here’s a real-world example that illustrates how large the difference can be. Justin collected the distribution and price data for the iShares Core S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC) and the DFA Canadian Core Equity Fund (DFA256) over the nine years ending in 2013. Both funds track the broad Canadian stock market, so you would expect similar returns.

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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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Is It Time for Tax Loss Selling?

Last October, Justin Bender and I published a white paper on tax loss selling with ETFs. It explained how index investors can harvest capital losses while maintaining a consistent exposure to the equity markets. We were proud of the paper (which was even adapted as a continuing education course for advisors) but it proved to be rather useless during the subsequent year. Indeed, it would have been irrelevant during much of the last three years, as the charging bull market never stopped to catch its breath. There were simply no capital losses to harvest.

Well, it may be time to dust off the paper. September has been a difficult month for stocks, especially in Canada, and investors with large portfolios might now have their first tax-loss selling opportunity since 2011.

No gain, no pain

Let’s start with a refresher on how tax-loss selling works. In a non-registered account, when you a sell a security that has declined in value, you realize a capital loss. You can use these to offset any capital gains you’ve incurred in the current year, which can reduce your tax bill. Moreover,

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Foreign Withholding Taxes in International Equity ETFs

It seems Canadian ETF providers are paying more attention to foreign withholding taxes these days. Not so long ago, you rarely heard anyone discussing this hidden drag on returns. But last month BlackRock announced a significant change to its iShares Core MSCI EAFE IMI Index ETF, ticker symbol XEF, which makes up the international equity component of my Global Couch Potato portfolio. The change was made specifically to reduce the impact of foreign withholding taxes.

When the fund was launched in April 2013 it simply held a US-listed ETF, the iShares Core MSCI EAFE (IEFA). That was a convenient way of getting exposure to the 2,500 or so stocks in this large index. Over the last three weeks, however, XEF has gradually bought up the individual stocks in the index and now holds them directly. According to BlackRock:

“XEF will generally no longer be subject to U.S. withholding taxes. While foreign withholding taxes will continue to apply to dividends paid on certain international equity securities included in the XEF Index, it is expected that the change in investment strategy implementation will reduce the overall amount of withholding taxes borne directly or indirectly by XEF.”

A refresher course on foreign withholding taxes

A few words of explanation will help here.

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Managing Multiple Family Accounts

Model portfolios like those I recommend are ideal for investors who have a single RRSP account. But life isn’t so simple once you’ve accumulated a significant portfolio: chances are you’ll be managing two or three accounts, and if you have a spouse there may well be a few more.

In most cases, it’s most efficient to consider both partners’ retirement accounts as a single large portfolio. In other words, there’s no my money and my spouse’s money: there’s only our money. This strategy has a couple of advantages: first, it allows the family to make the most tax-efficient asset location decisions. Second, it keeps the overall number of holdings to a minimum, which reduces transaction costs and complexity.

Meet Henry and Anne, who have a combined portfolio of $480,000. Let’s assume they are the same age and plan to retire at about the same time. Their financial plan revealed that a mix of 50% bonds and 50% stocks is suitable for their risk tolerance and goals. Anne has a generous defined benefit pension plan and therefore has little RRSP room: most of her personal savings go to a non-registered account.

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