[This post was updated in February 2015 to reflect recent changes at some brokerages.]
Norbert’s gambit remains the least expensive way to convert Canadian and US dollars at a discount brokerage. For investors looking to buy US-listed ETFs, learning this technique can save hundreds of dollars by sidestepping the wide currency spreads charged by brokerages.
With the 2013 launch of excellent unhedged foreign equity ETFs from Vanguard and iShares, there’s less of an incentive to use US-listed ETFs than there used to be. In fact, in a non-registered account or a TFSA it may not even be worth the added cost and inconvenience if the only difference is a few basis points of MER. But in an RRSP, there’s a significant benefit: using US-listed ETFs can dramatically reduce the impact of foreign withholding taxes, which can add an additional cost of 0.30% to 0.70% to US and international equity holdings.
The problem with learning to pulling off Norbert’s gambit, however, is that there’s no simple set of instructions that works at every brokerage. RBC Direct Investing and BMO InvestorLine both allow you to hold US dollars in registered accounts, but only RBC allows you to do Norbert’s gambit online: at BMO you need to pick up the phone. Scotia iTRADE doesn’t even allow Norbert’s gambit in an RRSP: instead, they offer a unique service that eliminates the retail spread on currency exchange for a flat fee.
As part of our DIY Investor Service, we helped clients do Norbert’s gambit at all of the big-bank brokerages. And for the last few months, Justin Bender and I have pulled that experience together and created a series of five white papers—one for each brokerage—with step-by-step instructions you can follow on your own. Each of the papers includes screenshots and detailed descriptions of each part of the process, all specific to each brokerage’s unique quirks:
Norbert’s Gambit: A better way to buy US dollars in a TD Direct Investing RRSP [Update: As of late 2014, TD Direct Investing allows investors to hold USD in registered accounts, which makes “automatic wash trades” no longer necessary. A TD representative discusses the new process here.]
Norbert’s Gambit: A better way to buy US dollars in a CIBC Investor’s Edge RRSP [Update: CIBC apparently now converts currency very close to the spot rate in RRSP accounts. However, they have not been forthcoming with the details: we recommend calling the brokerage before making a USD trade in your account.]
We’ve worked hard to make sure these papers are accurate and up to date, but we welcome your feedback. If you have had different experiences at any of the bank brokerages, please let us know and we’ll keep these resources up to date.