DOUG By Guest Blogger Doug Rowat

ETFs are wonderful. There’s a reason why we use them in all our client portfolios. However, it’s not like we’ve discovered a well-kept secret: ETFs are now more than a $100 billion industry in Canada, which has been growing almost 20% annually over the past decade. It’s obvious why: ETFs provide more transparency, tax efficiency and, particularly, lower costs than mutual funds.

However, they’re not perfect.

Below are my concerns, which also highlight the pitfalls to avoid when investing with ETFs.

1. Take the market-mastery sales pitches of smart beta and actively managed ETF providers with a grain of salt. Because plain-vanilla ETFs are now so low cost that they’re, for all intents and purposes, free (a 5 basis point fee for an ETF amounts to a cost of only 50 cents per $1,000 invested), ETF providers have issued more and more higher-cost ETFs with an ‘active’ overlay to juice their margins. The Canadian ETF space is now about 1/3 actively managed and this area continues to grow. The average fee for actively managed ETFs is 0.85% vs. passive ETFs at 0.57%—an almost 50% premium. Certainly some of these ETFs have merit, but investors must be aware that a ‘strategy’ is being applied to the ETF and that this strategy will, at times, fail. Also, investors must ask themselves if the active management is necessary. For instance, why pay for a pricey ‘low volatility’ ETF when portfolio volatility can be controlled simply by adjusting bond weightings in the asset allocation.

2. ETFs have become highly specialized. With more than 6,000 exchange trade products listed globally it stands to reason that there will be many that are narrowly focused. On the market currently are ETFs that specialize in robotics, cyber security, livestock and beef futures, Catholic values (no pornography amongst other sinful businesses) and Nashville (yes, as in the home of the Grand Ole Opry). The ETF market is becoming very…what’s the word? Granular. Investors must be honest and ask themselves if they truly understand the highly specific areas that they’re investing in. Keep this in mind as you eagerly await the first medical marijuana ETF (it’s coming; Horizons just filed its prospectus).

3. Timing of new ETF issuance is not always advantageous for investors. ETF providers are in the business of sales. Fair enough, but just as a company typically only launches an IPO when its industry is red hot (read: expensive), so too do ETF providers with their product launches. For example, a new Bitcoin ETF is seeking approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission and may be released shortly. I’m not going to argue the merits of Bitcoin, but it should come as no surprise that Bitcoin relative to the US dollar is challenging its all-time highs (see chart). Also, the potential volatility of many new ETFs is not always clearly disclosed. It might surprise some investors, for instance, to learn that Bitcoin has been roughly 20x more volatile than the S&P 500 over the past five years.

Bitcoin ETF may be released near all-time highs

Deviation: Bitcoin 20x more volatile than S&P 500

Source: Turner Investments, Bloomberg. Standard deviation measures the amount of variation or dispersion for a particular index or security. In other words, it measures the risk of owning that index or security.


5. Leveraged and derivative-based ETFs, even now, aren’t fully understood by investors. This is not entirely the fault of the ETF as it is only doing what it was designed to do, but many investors are still unaware of the downside of these derivative-based products even after all the media coverage of ‘daily rolling contracts’ and ‘volatility drag’. For example, we have new clients arrive all the time holding VIX (volatility) ETFs that have sat in their portfolios for years. A VIX ETF is meant to be tactically traded (a virtually impossible task, by the way) not bought and held. The most popular VIX instrument, the iPATH S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures (VXX), held over five years has lost 99% of its value! So, ensure that you fully understand how an ETF should be used before buying. Derivative-based/leveraged ETFs also aren’t cheap having an average MER of almost 1.5%—more than double the industry average.

ETFs are wonderful products and have driven costs down across the entire investment industry, but they come with their own baggage and complexities. There are now more than 15 ETF providers in Canada. Fifteen years ago there was essentially one. And mutual fund companies are getting more involved in the space: AGF, Dynamic and Manulife are just a few of the fund companies launching ETFs this year. So, ETFs are only going to get more complex with more providers promising that they’ve built a better mouse trap.

Take care that you don’t get your fingers caught. Or find a financial advisor who’s learned better and safer ways to get the cheese.

Doug Rowat,FCSI® is Portfolio Manager with Turner Investments and Senior Vice President, Private Client Group, Raymond James Ltd.


Why saving sucks

Poor, sodden, misguided savers. Your nation had bad news for you Friday.

The current inflation rate has bloated to 2.1%, thanks to higher energy costs – mostly gas. For many working people, as well as risk-averse savers, this is a disaster. In fact Stats Can has told us wages in many low-end occupations are now declining. Average weekly earnings for retail workers are lower year/year by more than 2% – which sucks, since almost two million people toil in this business (the most of any sector in the entire economy). Down, too, in hotels, tourism and restaurants, by 1.9%.

Overall, wages in Canada have risen in the past year by only 1.2%. Adjusted for the swelling cost of living, it means these millions are earning less now than they were a year ago. This is another reminder of what a fake economy we live in, how fantasy real estate values have become detached from economic reality, and why a growing hunk of our $2 trillion in household debt is absolutely, totally, and forever unrepayable.

Worse, this is creaming seniors with GICs, wuss investors with whimsical “high-yield” savings accounts and anyone misguided enough to keep big bucks in their chequing or regular savings account. In fact, to earn just 2% on a guaranteed investment at one of the big banks, you have to buy a non-cashable five-year GIC. That’s locking up your money for half a decade, and you’re still losing ground. What a dilemma for people too emotional or financially illiterate to properly deploy their capital.

In fairness, the main reason some folks don’t invest is fear. These days they’re afraid of “the markets” which, in popular parlance, means the Dow. Here it is:

Three important thoughts to keep in mind.

First, the Dow Jones Industrial Index (and the S&P 500, and the TSX) are in record territory in terms of their numeric indices. But that’s not the measure to look at – rather the P/E ratios. The P stands for the price of stocks and the E represents the earnings of the underlying companies composing the index. The ratio traditionally (for US markets) is in the 17 range, and lately has floated by to around 21. So, yeah, stocks are not cheap.

But neither are they dangerous. The P/E went to 44 during the dot-com era, or more than twice today’s level. And what were retail investors doing then? You bet – feasting on technology stocks and stuffing their RRSPs with Nortel. Kinda like buying a house in the GTA these days.

Second, a balanced and diversified portfolio with 60% of growth assets divided between Canada, the US and international markets will have maybe 6% exposure to big US companies, and another 7% or 8% invested in medium and smaller enterprises. So when you invest this way you’re hardly “playing the market”, especially when also owning preferred shares, bonds, real estate investment trusts and having exposure across the globe.

Third, there’s a strong case to be made that as robust as markets are now, we ain’t seen nothing yet – with this bull as tawny and pumped as, say, my own glistening abs. The reason is simple. If Trump makes good on his promise to slice corporate tax rates from the current 35% level to 15% (or even 20%, or 25%) then the E in the P/E ratio could  erupt. A tax reduction of that size would drop huge amounts to corporate bottom lines, suddenly making stocks look cheap.

Will he do it?

We might know next week, when the Trumpster makes a key and widely-anticipated speech to Washington lawmakers. Said an economist at Barclays on Friday: “We think that the presentation to Congress will be a good opportunity for the president to more clearly flesh out his policy priorities and goals, especially on trade, taxes, and public investment.” So far this guy has a track record of doing (or trying to do) what he promised on the campaign trail, and slashing both corporate and middle-class taxes was a key plank in getting elected. (The contrast with Canadian politicians is becoming comical.)

By the way, while GICs were collecting between 1% and 2% last year, a highly-balanced and diversified balanced portfolio delivered well north of 8%. Sure, an all-equity account did better, but it came with a ton of volatility. And, after all, what most people want is simple – no losses, and predictable growth.

There are no guarantees financial assets will continue to perform as they have in the past. But neither are there many reasons to think they won’t. The deflationary years that doomers so love have passed. We’re now on the other side. Savers will pay dearly.