If you think my dividend investing approach is boring you haven’t seen anything yet!
Although a major part of our investment strategy is dividend investing, we also believe investing in low-cost, diversified Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) that track a reputable index is very smart.
We use low-cost, indexed ETFs inside our Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) for U.S. and international equity exposure.
Indexing – what the heck is that?
The premise behind indexing is simple:
- You can achieve market performance less minuscule money management fees.
- You can obtain great diversification from companies and countries from around the world.
- You can largely “set and forget” (to some degree) the portfolio and achieve long-term growth.
Index investing is a passive strategy that attempts to generate similar returns as a broad market index.
Investors use index funds to replicate the performance of a specific index – generally an equity or fixed-income index – by purchasing exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that closely track the underlying index. There are numerous advantages of index investing. For one thing, empirical research finds index investing tends to outperform active management over a long time frame. Why? You’re not cherry-picking stocks. By taking a hands off approach to investing eliminates many of the biases and uncertainties that arise in any stock picking strategy. Two, since index investing takes a passive approach, index funds including indexed ETFs usually have lower management fees and expense ratios than actively managed funds. The simplicity of tracking the market without a portfolio manager (to cherry-pick stocks) allows providers to maintain modest fees. Index funds also tend to be more tax efficient than active funds because they make less frequent trades. Third and likely most importantly, index investing is an effective method of diversifying against risks. In other words, an index fund consists of a broad basket of assets instead of a few investments. This serves to minimize unsystematic risk related to a specific company or industry without decreasing expected returns.
I think indexing inside your tax-deferred (RRSP) and/or tax-free (TFSA) accounts using low-cost, diversified ETFs that track a broad market index can work very well for the majority of investors. The main reason?
Like you read above most investors have no hope in beating the index consistently over time although it can be done!
This means instead of trying to beat the market you should be the market.
Give what the market returns, less puny money management fees to any fund provider, and ride that train as long as you can until you need the income from your portfolio.
Even the greatest investor of our time believes in indexing…
Even the greatest investor we know says you should index (Warren Buffett). Here’s a quote, from page 20 of his annual letter to Berkshire shareholders, dated February 28, 2013. After all of his Berkshire shares are distributed to charity, take the cash, Buffett says, and just buy index funds:
My advice to the trustee couldn’t be more simple: Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (I suggest Vanguard’s.) I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors — whether pension funds, institutions or individuals — who employ high-fee managers.
He goes on to say:
Both individuals and institutions will constantly be urged to be active by those who profit from giving advice or effecting transactions. The resulting frictional costs can be huge and, for investors in aggregate, devoid of benefit. So ignore the chatter, keep your costs minimal, and invest in stocks as you would in a farm.
So, be boring. Buy the farm, consider investing in indexed funds.
What could your “farm” look like?
Although I invest in a few individual stocks, I firmly believe most Canadian investors would do well to own any combination of up to three (3) equity ETFs in their portfolio.
Top low-cost indexed ETFs for your portfolio
Here are some considerations for your portfolio, although now there are some great all-in-one funds to consider that don’t require you to do any rebalancing between funds whatsoever. Even better!
Still, consider the following building blocks:
1. Own a Canadian equity ETF. Examples include XIU or XIC or VCN or ZCN. There are others but these are great low-cost products.
2. Own a U.S. equity ETF. Examples include VTI (inside U.S. $$ RRSP) or VUN (inside CDN $$ RRSP). Again, there are others including XUU in Canadian dollars which I have held in the past.
3. Own an international equity ETF. Examples include VXUS (inside U.S. $$ RRSP) or VXC or VDU (inside CDN $$ RRSP). You can also consider owning an iShares product called XAW.
XAW is an ETF I own personally.
Owning XAW is a great way to own US, international, and emerging market stocks. For MER = 0.22%, you own > 8,000 stocks! I’ve started to own XAW to remove my Canadian bias.
Check out my comprehensive ETFs page for more details on these ETFs and why you should consider owning them!
Returns – what can I expect?
With thanks to Vanguard, I’ve captured what passive, lazy investors might expect for the coming decades based on historical data in growth-oriented portfolios:
Want a head start?
Assets are nice but what about “asset location”???
Diversification is great but it comes at a cost unless you put your low-cost ETFs in the right location.
This means asset location for your stocks or ETFs is important investing consideration. You will need to figure out the best place to own your ETFs inside your TFSA, RRSP, LIRA, taxable account and more. Read on!
This stuff is important because many countries levy taxes on ETF distributions paid to foreign investors. Here is a summary of what I’ve learned and how I try and manage my own portfolio. Consider these options below for your portfolio.
1.Currency Hedging – to hedge or not to hedge?
I try to avoid currency hedging with my ETFs. Why? While hedging eliminates currency risks from your portfolio (meaning, you only own assets in Canadian dollars only) you’ll pay higher fees because of this avoidance. Hedging is not free. Personally, I think you want currency exposure. So, consider owning unhedged ETFs.
2.Withholding Taxes – be careful where you put what!
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
First, a Canadian ETF that holds international stocks: Vanguard VEE. VEE is a Canadian-listed ETF. If you look up VEE it is the Canadian version of U.S. version VWO.
Using VEE in a non-registered account withholding taxes will apply (15%) but they are recoverable when investors file their tax returns.
Using VEE in a RRSP or TFSA withholding taxes will apply. Why? A Canadian-listed ETF that holds international stocks with have withholding taxes applies. Those international withholding taxes may double the cost of some ETFs inside a RRSP or TFSA.
Using another example we’ll look at a Canadian ETF that holds U.S. stocks: Vanguard VFV. VFV is a Canadian-listed ETF. VFV is the Canadian version of U.S. VOO.
Using VFV in a non-registered account withholding taxes will apply (15%) but they are recoverable when investors file their tax returns.
Using VFV in a RRSP or TFSA withholding taxes will apply.
example #2: Vanguard Canada VUS. VUS trades in Canadian dollars. VUS uses currency hedging and is the Canadian version of U.S. version VTI.
Using VUS in a non-registered account withholding taxes will apply (15%) but they are recoverable.
Canadian ETFs vs. U.S. ETFs Summary:
- If you don’t have much money to invest (<$25,000) it’s probably best to invest with a Canadian ETF that holds international or U.S. assets. Much easier to manage your portfolio. No currency to convert.
- If you have more money to invest (say >$25,000) then you can start considering investing in U.S. listed ETFs. This way, you avoid 15% withholding taxes on U.S. ETFs inside the RRSP, RRIF or LIRA.
If this stuff is making your head spin, don’t worry. Don’t let the tax tail wag the investing dog.
At the end of the day, by owning low-cost, diversified Canadian ETFs in the first place you’re already on the path to save hundreds if not thousands of your own money that could have been lost to money management fees.
Back to my portfolio here’s what I do!
- I own Canadian equities in my TFSA and taxable account.
- I own a growing % of U.S. equities (stocks and ETFs) inside my RRSP.
This is because Canada has tax treaties with the U.S. and many other countries. Those tax treaties waive withholding taxes on U.S. stocks or U.S. ETFs in registered accounts like RRSPs, RRIFs and Locked-In Retirement Accounts (LIRAs).
TFSAs don’t apply to these tax treaties, it is not considered a retirement account (even though I do).
You can learn more about Foreign Withholding Taxes in these great articles here:
Justin Bender, Portfolio Manager, PWL Capital Inc. and Dan Bortolotti, Associate Portfolio Manager, PWL Capital Inc., “Foreign Withholding Taxes: How to estimate the hidden tax drag on US and international equity ETFs”
Finally, check out my Archives page for some of my favourite ETF products and posts.
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