Your Complete Guide to Index Investing with Dan Bortolotti

The Power of Simple Portfolios

2017-04-30T14:34:20+00:00April 29th, 2013|Categories: Behavioral Finance|45 Comments

Carl Richards, author of The Behavior Gap, wrote an insightful article in February called Why We Fear Simple Money Solutions. “People say they want things to be simpler—investing, life insurance, retirement planning, etc.,” he observed. “But when a simpler (and effective) option is proposed, they reject it as too simple.”

I recently came face to face with this idea when working with a client of PWL Capital’s DIY Investor Service. Barbara had a portfolio of dozens of stocks and ETFs that followed no rhyme or reason. She admitted she enjoyed making trades and was inclined to buy simply buy stocks she had read about in the media. There were some blue-chip dividend payers, a couple of precious metal ETFs, plus a few random penny stocks thrown in for good measure. In other words, the portfolio was a complicated mess.

To Barbara’s credit, she realized this sort of seat-of-the-pants strategy wasn’t working: with about half a million in her RRSP and retirement approaching quickly, she knew she needed a more disciplined plan. That’s why she came to us.

After we reviewed Barbara’s spending patterns, pension income and other factors, my colleagues suggested a radically different approach. Not including the cash and GIC holdings, her new portfolio would be built from just five ETFs: one for bonds, one for real estate, and one each for Canadian, US, and international equities. The mix was in line with Barbara’s target rate of return and risk tolerance, and with the spreadsheet and instructions we provided it will be easy for her to rebalance with just a few trades per year.

Is that all there is?

We thought the new portfolio was ideal for Barbara, but when we presented it she was taken aback. Only five holdings for half a million dollars? She was clearly expecting something more “sophisticated.” You know, like those model portfolios that include a tactical position in the US health care sector, some emerging market bonds, and a 3.72% allocation to copper futures. That certainly would have looked more impressive than our simple five-ETF solution.

Fortunately it didn’t take long for Barbara to understand the benefits of simplicity. She had already admitted she’d come to us with no strategy, no long-term plan, and no attention to risk. She had also made it clear she didn’t want to work with an advisor on an ongoing basis. So our job was not only to come up with a sound strategy, but to ensure she could manage on her own. By helping her implement a low-cost, broadly diversified portfolio with just five moving parts, we accomplished those tasks.

And here’s the important point: though we streamlined Barbara’s portfolio from about 50 holdings to just five, we made it less risky. Investors who are used to building a portfolio stock by stock often struggle with this idea. They fail to appreciate that even 30 or 40 individual companies provide less diversification than one broad-market index fund. The equity ETFs we recommended for Barbara include more than 10,000 stocks from around the world.

Our investing brain seems hard-wired to resist straightforward solutions. As Richards writes, “By default, if it’s simple, say only two steps instead of ten, we think we’re missing out.” We need to get past the idea that complex portfolios increase our chances of investing success. In reality, the opposite is more likely to be true.



  1. J A H April 29, 2013 at 10:08 am

    I happen to enjoy telling everyone who asks that I own practically any traded company they care to mention. Makes for good party chatter, and I still don’t have to bother myself worrying about what any of those companies are doing in the market.

    Thanks for the great reminder of the benefits of simple investing, Dan.

  2. brad April 29, 2013 at 10:51 am

    Oddly enough, I’ve noticed this similar pattern (people embracing simplicity in the abstract, but recoiling from actual simple solutions) in cooking: people will sometimes complexify a simple two- or three-ingredient recipe because they think it’s going to be too plain. But if you start with great ingredients you don’t need much to make a delicious meal. I cook lots of meals that have only 2-4 ingredients, and when guests ask for the recipe they’re often disappointed: “is that all there is?” As if meals need to be complicated in order to be good.

  3. HarveyM April 29, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Currently I’m in a three fund port. with XBB, ZCN, and XWD + several Reits.
    I like to keep simple. Do you think changing my foreign equity to XEF and VFV is an advantage? I know it would be in terms of cost and is why I’m considering this. I hate change though.

  4. Canadian Couch Potato April 29, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    @HarveyM: Great question. For someone who makes a point of saying he hates change, I would tend to recommend sticking with the one-fund solution for non-Canadian equities.

    Yes, you could reduce your MER slightly by holding two different ETFs, but this is not likely to have a meaningful impact on your long-term performance, especially if the portfolio is relatively small. Remember, saving 20 basis points works out to just $20 annually per $10,000 invested, and some of that would be offset by doubling your transaction costs.

  5. AlanM April 30, 2013 at 10:22 am

    I’m all for simple ETF-based portfolios as well, and that’s what I have personally. Having said that, I’m always looking to understand which few ETF’s seem to be garnering recommendations, and why. Would you mind sharing which five you picked, and in what allocation (recognizing that this is matched to the client’s needs and risk tolerance)? If they’re different than in the model portfolio(s), then perhaps, why?

  6. Canadian Couch Potato April 30, 2013 at 11:16 am

    @AlanM: They were the same ones in the Complete Couch Potato: ZCN, VTI, VXUS, ZRE and XBB. With other clients we may choose different ETFs for specific reasons (short-term bonds, for example). And we could just as easily have used VCE or VAB instead. The point is that ETF selection is only small part of the service, because it’s a small part of investing.

  7. HarveyM April 30, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks for your reply! You’re right, I don’t like change and the hassle of more assets in my port. to rebalance is not worth the minor MER difference. Now, I’m thinking about my reits which I have bought separately as a diversifier in my port. Since ZCN has moved to a new index I’m seeing some 14 reits in their holdings. So, now is it necessary to add reits or a reit etf to one’s asset mix or is this oversimplyfing?

  8. Canadian Couch Potato April 30, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    @HarveyM: ZCN now tracks the S&P/TSX Composite, which holds the largest 250 or so companies in Canada, so it’s inevitable that some are REITs. But these make up only a tiny share of the the index and don’t really give you meaningful exposure.

    I don’t think REITs are essential in a portfolio, but if you’re going to add them it makes more sense to just use a single ETF rather than trying to pick half a dozen individual ones, especially if you value simplicity.

  9. Matt Becker April 30, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    This is a great post. I’m glad she came around. One thing I think is really interesting is that a lot of people seem to want complexity in their portfolio because it gives them a feeling of control. If they sell stock X to buy stock Y, put a little bit in this other sector, etc., they feel like they’re taking control of their money. The reality is that all of that complexity often means that you’ve lost control of your portfolio, and that keeping things simple is actually what gives you the most control.

  10. Canadian Couch Potato April 30, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    @Matt: It’s so true. I’ve also heard people say they don’t like indexing because picking individual stocks means they’re in control, not the markets. That’s nonsense: owning shares in a specific company gives you no control over its share price. Even being the CEO doesn’t give you that control: just ask Tim Cook at Apple.

  11. Matt M April 30, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    What about those of us who start off with the simple models but are looking to learn and maybe add a bit of complexity trying to enhance returns?

    There are countless examples of this, even among those who use the model portfolio’s here. We all know the “yield hungry” group who substitute equity index’s with dividend funds. Or those who will only buy corporate bonds, and never government bonds. My bias is emerging markets (my international component is 15% TD International index – e, 15% CIBC emerging markets index).

    Obviously the simpler model portfolio’s would work for just about anyone, but is there anything wrong with someone who is willing to do the research and learn about the complexities that *may* enhance returns?

  12. Canadian Couch Potato April 30, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    @Matt: Definitely nothing wrong with using a more complex portfolio if you enjoy the process. The only time it’s a problem is when you feel compelled to complicate things because you feel simple is unsophisticated.

  13. HarveyM April 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    I prefer simple and it’s likely because I’m old. My port. used to be quite complex sliced and spiced to get that extra return that greater asset category diversification might obtain but not always. But, it became too not fun to manage what with rebalancing particularly as the decades advanced and as the port. became larger and the headache at tax time :(. But, unlike me I have friends who continue with very intricate multi-fund ports. and investing has become their life or rather hobby and it works. I also have friends who have just one balanced fund and that is even simpler but I’m not there yet!
    There was an interesting discussion about this at:
    Thanks again for your reply and extremely useful and helpful blog :).
    Yes, I think a agree reits aren’t really necessary. I’m going to sell them and stick with a three fund port. I’m glad for the discussion.

  14. DL May 1, 2013 at 11:13 am

    ok, if i have a couch potato portfolio of $500,000 and the annual cost is o.35%, i calculate that as $1,750 annually. If i have a basket of say 20 diversified blue chip stocks, my annual cost would be less than $200. Is the couch potato approach worth this extra cost?

  15. Andrew May 1, 2013 at 11:34 am

    I use a combination of approaches depending on the account, its purpose, time horizon and with an eye toward overall asset allocation and risk. So this means simple HISAs and GIC ladders, couch potato portfolios and even a mutual fund (Mawer Balanced) but more complexity in an open account that have exposure to more asset classes such as international REITs, high yield, and real return bonds to take advantage of mean reversion and rebalancings effects.
    See this article for an explanation of what I mean by this:

  16. Andrew F May 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    DL, usually the diversification benefit overwhelms any added cost from ETFs. The size of the diversification benefit is stochastic, and depends on which securities you select.

  17. Chris May 1, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I’ve read a few articles where simple models outperform the experts in a vast array of fields. And I believe the quote was along the lines that simple models are the ceiling, not the floor, to which individual discretion can only detract from.

    This all said, I have a question Mr. Potato:

    I came across an article on Seeking Alpha, mentioning that simply alternating bonds and equities (Bonds, May-Halloween; equities the other six months) will outperform a standard 50-50 mix by 45%, with lower risk.

    I was wondering if you might comment on this. Here is the article:


  18. Canadian Couch Potato May 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    @DL: There is no simple answer to your question: you’re essentially asking for a full explanation of the Couch Potato strategy. But the most important argument, which Andrew F mentions above, is that 20 stocks provides nowhere near the diversification of a broad-market index fund. You also need to consider the effect of adding other asset classes to the portfolio, which won’t increase your costs but which will completely change the risk profile.

    @Chris: This strategy is just one of approximately 7.56 million strategies that would have beaten the market during some period in the past. Whether they will work in the future is anyone’s guess. And whether anyone has the discipline to actually execute them over any significant period is doubtful. I’ve touched on this idea in the past:

  19. Kerry May 1, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    With my RRSP and TSFA I cannot invest in the Vanguard Funds and I was hoping you could recommend something else for US Equities and International Equity.

  20. Canadian Couch Potato May 1, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    @Kerry: Can you share the reason you can’t invest in the Vanguard ETFs? That way I can make a suggestion that would be more appropriate.

  21. Mark May 1, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Not sure if this belongs here or not but has anyone watched Frontline’s Retirement Gamble? A great documentary on the fund industry and retirement in general. Anyway, I watched a video response on YouTube by Paradigm Life and he goes through the numbers here:

    He argues that the 9.42% return is actually 6.65% when you account for the ebs and flows and negative compounding. I wondered about this but is this simply not taking into account dollar cost averaging and rebalancing? I would like to hear your response. Obviously, he is trying to promote his company’s insurance annuities. Sleight of hand?

  22. Kerry May 2, 2013 at 12:29 am

    I called CIBC today and they said I could not invest my Investers Edge account for TFSA outside of Canada becasuse of the tax free savings I receive in my TFSA. I also asked about my RRSP and thay also said I had to invest in funds through the TSX. If this is not correct please let me know and I will call them back to get clarification.

  23. Chris May 2, 2013 at 1:49 am

    Hey, thanks for the quick response. I’ve read your links, and ensuing discussions, but I fear the debate tends to slip into philosophical ideals rather than brute existences.

    “This strategy is just one of approximately 7.56 million strategies that would have beaten the market during some period in the past.”

    The period in question would date back to 1694 in one paper. And include 36 of 37 markets, spanning decades, in another:

    I do not know of 7.56 million strategies that can claim the same, nor even 7.55 million … hah!

    “Whether they will work in the future is anyone’s guess.”


    There is no guarantee that a phenomenon that has existed for over three hundred years in the UK will continue, but then one must apply that standard equally to the Canadian Couch Potato, yes? Was Canada even a country 300 years ago?


    Do your model portfolios have academic papers documenting superior results? Or results that are any more attainable? In one of your threads you correctly note that active traders cannot beat the market, but is there any proof that passive investors can succeed? In theory, yes … but, again, we slip into theory.

    “And whether anyone has the discipline to actually execute them over any significant period is doubtful”

    A fair point, but it borders more on whether one has the discipline for passive strategies. Two trades a year require far less discipline than remaining passive while 1/3 of your life savings dissolve overnight … which, you mention, an investor must be prepared for (how that takes place has not been discussed. Perhaps a topic for a later article?). Regardless, we are talking two predetermined trades a year. That’s about as simple and passive as you can get, short of slipping into a coma:

    Bonds: May-Nov
    Equities: Nov-May

    To this we could simply substitute the Canadian Couch Potato recommended ETFs for each.


    The only hiccup I see here is the 100% allocation in either equities or bonds. That makes me uncomfortable, as I don’t entirely trust either. Though, to be fair, I’m not sure pairing them together lets me sleep any easier. Sorta like having two bipolar twins in your same bed. You hope they’ll keep each other in check …

    But things don’t always go to plan.


  24. Canadian Couch Potato May 2, 2013 at 7:49 am

    @Kerry: As far as I know, there are no restrictions on holding US-listed ETFs in a discount brokerage account at CIBC or anywhere else. There must be some misunderstanding. That said, there are plenty of options for US and international equity ETFs that trade on the TSX. My recommendations are listed here:

    @Chris: This could be an endless discussion, so I’ll just make one point. People often ask how we know indexing will produce “superior results” in the future or whether it will “continue to work.” They speak as though an indexing strategy and a market-beating strategy are making the same claim, but this is fundamentally untrue.

    A Couch Potato portfolio is designed simply to deliver the returns of the overall market minus a small fee. That’s it, and it’s easy to do. There is no reason to expect that index funds will somehow be unable to do this in the future. The only “superior results” they claim is relative to the majority of active investors.

  25. Chris May 2, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Fair enough, and thank you for the response.

    “A Couch Potato portfolio is designed simply to deliver the returns of the overall market minus a small fee. That’s it, and it’s easy to do.”

    Ah, I see.

    You’re not interested in beating the market, or maximizing your returns. As you say, you’re giving the individual the simplest and easiest chance of collecting the market’s normal return. Hence the whole “couch potato” thing.

    Pursuing the simplest and easiest way to beat the market is not the goal of this site. So … no disagreement, just different goals.


    All the best,

  26. Canadian Couch Potato May 2, 2013 at 8:34 am

    @Chris: You got it. And the evidence is overwhelming that investors who can simply get close-to-market returns will outperform the vast majority of those who attempt to beat he market using more active strategies. So in that sense, we are indeed interested in “maximizing returns.”

  27. Jin Won Choi May 2, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    How do you fight the perception that customers are not getting their money’s worth if the portfolio is so simple?

  28. Canadian Couch Potato May 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    @Jin: That’s a great point, and I hear it from other advisers, too. We try to stress the idea that investing is about so much more than picking funds. After all, if that’s all there was to it, people could just go to my model portfolios page and be done with it. All of the other work (coming up with a savings plan, assessing risk, asset location for tax efficiency, converting currency, etc.) is much more difficult. But above all, it’s about actually pulling the trigger. There is no way Barbara would have been able to conceive and implement her portfolio on her own, and indeed, we’ve heard that refrain from every client we’ve ever had.

    There’s a weight loss program here in Toronto that has a great motto I’d love to steal: “If you could do it yourself, you would have done it already.”

  29. Friday Links May 3, 2013 at 5:00 am

    […] Canadian Couch Potato shared The Power of Simple Portfolios in their post this […]

  30. Value Indexer May 7, 2013 at 1:34 am

    If it’s hard to follow market timing strategies, that seems to be a good reason to believe that they will continue to work for those who do. After all true outperformance can only come from doing what everyone else isn’t doing.

    That’s why I stay away from them. I have a hard time believing in any kind of market timing strategy, and especially the ones that involve getting out of stocks completely based on certain predetermined calendar dates.

  31. Chris May 7, 2013 at 6:30 am

    “I have a hard time believing in any kind of market timing strategy, and especially the ones that involve getting out of stocks completely based on certain predetermined calendar dates.”

    To me, beliefs aren’t that important. I’m more interested in results. I would like someone to backtest the “Away in May” effect applied to the Canadian Couch Potato models, if for no other reason than to quantify how much our beliefs may be costing us money.

    I believe the Global Couch Potato was backtested for the last 20 years against the Permanent Portfolio. It should be a simple matter for someone so talented to verify the May effect:

    Nov-May: Equity (ZCN, XWD)
    May-Nov: Bonds (XBB)

    I can do it manually via my fingers and toes for the last five years using Yahoo Finance and the results certainly appear strong, but that’s too small of a sample size. I’d like the to see a 20-30 year comparison (up to 2013) of the Global Couch Potato -or its equivalent- vs one utilizing the same equities and bonds, but with the “Away in May” tweak.

    Any takers?

  32. Canadian Couch Potato May 7, 2013 at 8:21 am

    @Chris: I have zero interest in spending hours backtesting market timing strategies, but even if someone took you up on your offer and found that “Sell in May” would have produced higher returns over the last 20 or 30 years, what would you do with that information? Would you really invest this way going forward?

  33. Chris May 7, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Hey Dan,

    You have expressed your position clearly. I respect it, and I do not challenge it. My response was more for others. My position is that of an individual who’s looking to improve on your strategy, with the simplest, strongest, most empirically researched adjustment possible.

    “Would you really invest this way going forward?”

    The evidence suggests a substantial increase in return with lower variance. If this were true over the last thirty years in Canada, I’d have to be presented with some pretty compelling evidence to not embrace it.

    So… hurry up with that sim.


  34. Canadian Couch Potato May 7, 2013 at 10:18 am

    @Chris: You can find dozens of strategies that would have shown substantial increases in return with lower variance over 20 or 30 years. What you won’t find is a single investor who followed any those strategies with discipline during that period.

  35. Value Indexer May 7, 2013 at 11:28 am

    To me, results aren’t that important. I’m more interested in reasoning. We have enough data that you can find anything you want if you just look hard enough. But at the same time the good data is over such a limited time range that we don’t know if it really holds up.

    The only way I can really have confidence in an investment strategy is to know that something outside of the past results causes it to work. As long as public companies are producing profits and cashflows, owning a piece of that is more compelling than any temporary effect in the data.

  36. Chris May 9, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Fair enough, gentlemen. I have a soft spot in my heart for reasonable perspectives. I felt that the research in this particular instance may give pause for thought, but perhaps I’m over-weighting the empiricism.

    In response to the links:

    I fail to see how two trades a year require any more discipline than one. If I can brush my teeth 730 times a year, I think I can make 2 trades a year at predetermined times. Really. Insofar as the efficient market theory goes, it’s been working for the last three hundred years, so I’m not too concerned about it suddenly drying up. Besides, everyone knows about it … yet continues to ignore it. As for becoming demoralized if/when the time comes when two-trades-a-year under performs the market, I will console myself with all the years that it will outperform one-trade-a-year investing.

    And yes, I know I’m not going to get my backtest. And I forgive you Dan. You have a wealth of information, particularly for the Canadian investor. I am a fan.

    Thanks for the great content.


  37. Matt M May 11, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    I think there are a few key points that are missed here:

    #1 No study has gone back 300 years. The farthest is about 38 years (1964-2001). And in all the numbers are much more attractive the smaller the sample size (biased by the 2008-2009 years where the May-Oct period tanked by 30%, and Nov-Apr promptly returned 20% back).

    # 2 There is no good explanation for this. It is also a phenomena of a massive amount of decisions, emotions, etc, of a massive amount of people. Even with strong data this is one that takes guts to actually pull through on.

    #3 The awareness of this phenomenon is increasing and that could play a role. Perhaps we start seeing massive sell-offs in may followed by great value pickups for the summer. Wouldn’t it be a shame to be the guy who sold off with the crowd, and then stubbornly refused to pick it up when the prices were in the basement?

    I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. In fact, it is something I may even be willing to try to a small degree (maybe I’ll buy my stocks Aug-Jan, and my bonds Feb-Jul), but it’s not enough to make me go for massive purchases twice a year and go 100% equities for 6 months. As I said, the potential risk is too great.

    I also don’t think the data gives you the right to claim it’s a sure deal and blast anyone who disagree’s. Science has two components: theory (the explanation) and empirical data. You have some empirical data, and no explanation (as mentioned in #2). Without the explanation you can’t call it a sure thing. Because there IS an explanation, and without KNOWING what it is, you can’t know if/when it will change.

    Example, lets say its a government regulation that for some reason promotes a summer sell-off. Well if the government changes it, and the whole thing reverts to being a winter sell-off then you are killing your returns.

  38. Canadian Couch Potato May 13, 2013 at 9:25 am

    @Chris and Matt: I had forgotten that Justin Bender did backtest the “Sell in May’ strategy last year, using data from 1982 through 2011:

    His data don’t make me want to run out and embrace this strategy.

  39. Value Indexer May 13, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Interesting results… unfortunately that doesn’t seem like a direct comparison since the market timing portfolio uses only the canadian market while the benchmark includes the rest of the developed world, so it’s hard to draw conclusions from this.

  40. Chris May 13, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Dan, you came through with my backtest!

    You big softy.


    And to be quite honest, it’s a little disappointing. I was led to believe that significant out performance with less volatility could be yours with a seasonal tweak. Instead we have basically a wash, with the added risk of placing all your eggs in one basket. Apparently, my Seasonal Potato Strategy is a bit of a dud. At least over the last twenty years in Canada, and that’s specifically what I had asked for. So much for all that empirical research. My enthusiasm for ‘Away in May’ has just been hit by a big, yellow school bus.

    Thank you for the discussion, insights, and education.

    All the best, gentlemen.

  41. Chris May 13, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Hey VI,

    Fair enough, we aren’t dealing with a direct comparisons, but we can extrapolate with what’s presented:

    DEX Universal Bond and S&P/TSX Composite Index:

    Away in May:
    Return: 10.8%
    Standard Deviation: 9.85%
    Sharpe: .49

    Buy and Hold:
    Return : (10.14 + 9.12) / 2 = 9.63%
    Standard Deviation: SQRT(((5.78)^2 + (15.69)^2 ) / 2 ) = 11.82%
    Sharpe: .31

    Hm … that’s a 58% increase in the Sharpe ratio with the seasonal approach over the last 20 years.

    Perhaps I spoke too soon.


  42. Value Indexer May 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Chris, if you look up the Libra Investment Management annual investment returns spreadsheet you might be able to do a more conclusive test including rebalancing for the buy and hold portfolio.

  43. reggie May 19, 2013 at 10:44 am

    FYI There is a seasonal rotation ETF. Ticker HAC.
    Horizons Seasonal Rotation ETF:
    “Investing with historically demonstrated buy and sell dates during times of the year when markets and sectors have traditionally outperformed because of one or more recurring annual events.”

  44. TD e-Series Funds: Not Just For Beginners February 3, 2014 at 1:17 am

    […] The main problem, as he sees it, is behavioural.  People are surprisingly resistant to simple solutions. […]

  45. William January 11, 2015 at 1:21 am

    The Sell Twice A Year Strategy has some pretty horrific tax implications unless it’s all in an RRSP/TFSA

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