Less than a month ago, BlackRock aggressively cut the management fees on several of its core ETFs. The boldest move was to slash the fee to just 0.05% on its broad-market Canadian equity fund, the iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite (XIC). That seemed to get the attention of the competition, because BMO has hit back with similar fee reductions on several of its own ETFs. (Good thing I didn’t update my model portfolios.)

On April 30, BMO will reduce the fees on the following ETFs:

Fund name Old fee New fee
BMO S&P/TSX Capped Composite (ZCN) 0.15% 0.05%
BMO S&P 500 (ZSP) 0.15% 0.10%
BMO S&P 500 Hedged to CAD (ZUE) 0.15% 0.10%
BMO MSCI EAFE (ZEA) 0.30% 0.20%
BMO MSCI EAFE Hedged to CAD (ZDM) 0.35% 0.20%
BMO MSCI Emerging Markets (ZEM) 0.45% 0.25%
BMO Short Corporate Bond (ZCS) 0.30% 0.12%

In the major equity asset classes, the management fees are now identical on comparable BMO and iShares products. Surprisingly, the Vanguard counterparts are now the most expensive in the group. I’m pretty sure no one saw that coming, and I would be surprised if it stayed this way for long.

Asset class BMO iShares Vanguard
Canadian ZCN 0.05% XIC 0.05% VCN 0.12%
US ZSP 0.10% XUS 0.10% VFV 0.15%
International ZEA 0.20% XEF 0.20% VDU 0.28%
Emerging markets ZEM 0.25% XEC 0.25% VEE 0.33%

One of the disappointments in the BlackRock announcement last month was the iShares Canadian Universe Bond (XBB) was not among the ETFs with a fee reduction. Instead, the newly launched Core Series included the iShares High Quality Canadian Bond (CAB), which has just $65 million in assets, compared with $2 billion for XBB. That gave BMO little incentive to reduce the fee on its own core bond ETF, the BMO Aggregate Bond (ZAG). Though to be fair, ZAG’s fee was reduced in late 2012 and last year its MER was just 0.23%, identical to that of the Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond (VAB), and a full 10 basis points lower than XBB.

However, BMO aggressively cut the fee of the BMO Short Corporate Bond (ZCS) from 0.30% to just 0.12%: that undercuts the Vanguard Short Corporate Bond (VSC) by a few basis points and is less than half the fee of the iShares 1-5 Year Laddered Corporate Bond (CBO). (The iShares Canadian Short Term Corporate + Maple Bond is comparable at 0.12%.)

What does this mean for investors?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: the ongoing price war among Canada’s big three ETF providers has been a boon for index investors. The total MER on a balanced ETF portfolio is now about half what it was in 2011, before Vanguard arrived on the scene and shook things up. Can fees go any lower? I doubt it, but I have been wrong before.

Now to the more subtle point. Costs are always an issue, but incremental fee reductions are relatively unimportant, and even a bit distracting. Reducing your portfolio’s fees from 2% or more in actively managed mutual funds to below 0.20% with ETFs could mean the difference between investment success and failure over your lifetime. Shaving 0.10% from your fees—or $100 a year on every $100,000 invested—means you’ll be able to afford an extra dinner at a nice restaurant. A sweet bonus, to be sure, but not a game changer. For young people just starting out, increasing your savings by a couple of bucks a month would have a far more dramatic impact.

Moreover, lowering your MER a few basis points doesn’t guarantee your performance will improve accordingly: the ETFs from BMO, iShares and Vanguard don’t always track the same indexes, so their returns will vary from year to year in unpredictable ways. In a year where large caps outperform, for example, VDU will likely beat XEF, even if its fee is 0.08% higher.

It’s especially important to be aware of these differences when selecting a bond ETF. Fixed income provides the stability in a balanced portfolio, so your mix of government, corporate, short and long bonds needs to be chosen carefully. The BMO Short Corporate Bond (ZCS) isn’t a substitute for ZAG simply because it’s cheaper: the latter ETF has about 70% government bonds and a much higher duration. Similarly, CAB might be cheaper than VAB, but the former has double the amount of corporate bonds and will therefore be more volatile.

So once again, remember that risk management and strategy come first. Then you can pick the cheapest product that meets your goals. The good news is that finding cheap products is now easier than ever.