When Vanguard announced its arrival in Canada this summer, investors welcomed the company with open arms: perhaps no country would benefit more from Vanguard’s devotion to low-cost investing. The company’s first Canadian ETFs started trading on the TSX on December 6.

On the day of the launch, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Atul Tiwari, managing director at Vanguard Investments Canada; Dennis Duffy, Vanguard’s director of business development for non-US markets; and Joel Dickson, a principal in Vanguard’s Investment Strategy Group.

Here are some highlights from the interview dealing with Vanguard’s overall strategy in Canada. Later this week I’ll run another excerpt that focuses specifically on the new ETFs and Vanguard Canada’s plans for the future.

Why did you decide to enter the Canadian market with ETFs rather than mutual funds? And why did you target advisors rather than retail investors?

AT: Having looked at the Canadian market for at least 14 or 15 years, Vanguard considered a number of different entry strategies. The reason we executed now is that the Canadian marketplace is changing. We are seeing a lot more advisors moving from a commission-based approach to a fee-based approach, and that fits in squarely with the Vanguard model. We don’t pay for distribution anywhere in the world, so to enter the Canadian market with mutual funds would be kind of tough, because it is a very commission-oriented business.

About 20% of advisors’ overall business in Canada uses a fee-based model, whereas in the US it is about 65%. Canada is probably where the US was about eight years ago. The other thing is, there are a lot of regulatory changes going on globally. By the end of next year, commissions will essentially be banned in the UK. Same thing in Australia. In the US, they are discussing the fiduciary standard for brokers, and even the OSC [Ontario Securities Commission] has said recently that they are going to consider a fiduciary standard. So with a little help from the regulatory changes, we think we will be well-positioned.

What were some of the uniquely Canadian challenges that you faced? For example, low-cost, direct-sold mutual funds are extremely popular in the US, but investors in Canada haven’t really embraced them.

AT: You’re absolutely right: a number of companies have tried, but direct-sold funds just haven’t caught on in Canada. And a lot of that is because mutual funds are sold and not bought. We haven’t got any plans to launch mutual funds at this stage, but that is not to say that in the future we won’t. We entered the market with the product that we thought would be the best entry point for Canada, and that is ETFs.

One of our other challenges—and certainly one of the key components of our Canadian strategy—is investor education. We will be doing a lot of thought leadership, a lot of seminars—we will do whatever we can to get the message across to investors and advisors about the effects that costs have on your returns over the long run.                                  

Index investors are well aware of the benefits of low costs. But how do you make that case to advisors?

DD: This has been a challenge for us in every market. Even before ETFs, we had a pretty significant advisor business in the US, but the fee-based business was a relatively small percentage of the overall market back in the early 2000s. We went into the UK prior to the legislation banning commissions: we felt there was enough fee-based business there, and we were willing to make the commitment. We are very patient company: look at how long it took us to get into Canada! But there is a lot of education that is going to be needed.

JD: It’s important to recognize that the advisor’s compensation doesn’t need to change at all [if they start using Vanguard ETFs]. Even if they are getting 1% or 1.5% or whatever for their services, we would hope that there is an opportunity to lower fund costs: if you can show 24 basis points with your ETF holdings as opposed to another 1.5% on underlying mutual funds, that’s a huge benefit.

Yet many advisors—and their clients, for that matter—continue to insist that active management is part of their value-added, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

JD: That is a key issue: the value-added model has been disrupted. We talk about a concept we call advisor’s alpha, which is to say, how do you as an advisor position your value to clients in a world where it is not about picking the best funds, or the best managers? It’s about focusing on things you can control, like costs, and risk, and taxes and behaviour.

The problem is, these things are sometimes hard to measure. Some of the best “performance” an advisor could have provided came when the client called them up in the depths of the market in 2009 saying, “Get me out now!” and the advisor said, “Remember our overall asset allocation for the long run?” That doesn’t show up on your statement as the performance of your portfolio versus some benchmark. But if the investor would have sold out on their own, there is huge value added.

No new models yet

Many readers have emailed to ask me whether I will be updating my model portfolios with the new Vanguard ETFs. I’m not planning to do that just yet—for a couple of reasons.

First, the funds have been trading for only a couple of weeks, and while I have little doubt that Vanguard will do a good job keeping tracking errors and bid-ask spreads low, I would like to wait and see.

Second, Vanguard Canada’s US and international equity ETFs use currency hedging, which I have avoided in my model portfolios. It is possible that Vanguard will eventually launch unhedged versions of these ETFs, at which point I would be more likely to incorporate them.

I am resisting the urge to tinker with the model portfolios every time new ETFs are launched. However, this time next year I will re-evaluate the marketplace, and it’s likely that I’ll make some changes to the portfolios to reduce their cost.

Quicken winner

Thanks to everyone who entered the draw for the copy of Quicken Home & Business 2012 money management software. The lucky winner is Chris, who contributes some of the wisest comments on this blog. Congratulations!