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The Canadian Financial Advisor

Smart investment decisions are simpler than you think

Benjamin Felix

Do you ever wonder what it’s like to be a smart investor? Chances are that you do; most Canadians own investments that underperform the market. If a financial advisor says that they know when to buy gold, they may be perceived as smart, and their clients will likely listen to them. The ability to predict is associated with investing intelligence. This approach to investing is known as active management – figuring out which stocks or assets will do well, or knowing when to get in and out of the market. As intelligent as it may seem, there is no evidence to support its efficacy.

Most Canadians own mutual funds, and pay over 2% per year to have their mutual fund assets actively managed. The idea behind that fee is that the fund manager will be able to outperform a benchmark index; it makes sense to pay a higher fee for better performance. This would be great if mutual fund managers delivered above-benchmark returns, but year after year the data on mutual fund performance is disappointing. Most funds underperform over any given time period. What about the good funds? Unfortunately, funds that have done well in the past are no more likely to do well in the future. Stock prices move randomly based on the development of new information. No amount of analysis or intelligence can predict randomness. If knowing when to buy gold doesn’t make you a smart investor, how does anyone do well with investing?

Luckily, there is an investment strategy that some of the smartest people in the world agree on. Four winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and Warren Buffett, one of the most successful and well-known investors in history, are proponents of investing in low-cost index funds. An index fund passively owns all of the stocks that represent a market, for a fraction of the typical 2% cost of a mutual fund. Being smart by avoiding prediction altogether, and eliminating the high fees and commissions associated with trying to make the right calls, has proven over time to deliver excellent results.

One of the greatest challenges for Canadians is that, in general, those providing financial advice do not have an incentive to recommend index funds. Unlike actively managed mutual funds, index funds do not pay commissions. When many financial advisors earn their income based on commission, asking them what they think about index funds is like asking the butcher if you should eat salad for dinner. Try as your financial advisor might, there is no way to refute the evidence. The simple investment strategy of owning low-cost index funds is the smartest thing that you can do with your money.

It’s not your fund manager, it’s you.

Benjamin Felix

Actively managed investment strategies are not inherently bad, they just introduce a different kind of risk to the investment experience. A well-diversified passive investor chooses to own the market as a whole, taking on market risk. An active manager is making a promise to not own the market as a whole, but to instead select a subset of securities within the market that they believe will perform better than the market. The additional risk added by not owning the market as a whole is called active risk.

Active managers themselves are not bad people. They will likely work extremely hard to research securities and trends in their effort to deliver above-market returns. The problem that active managers have is that, statistically, it is extremely unlikely that they will be able to deliver on their promises. It is by no lack of effort or resources, but simple mathematics. Active investors invest in the market. In aggregate, the average return of all active investors will be the return of the market, less their fees. Based on this simple arithmetic, less than half of active managers should be expected to outperform the market after their fees.

Further to this, we know empirically that in any given year a disproportionately large portion of market returns come from a small number of the stocks in the market. This makes outperforming the market a greater challenge as it requires the identification of the relatively small number of stocks that can drive outperformance.

Fund performance data backs these assertions up. As at June 2016, the S&P SPIVA Canada Scorecard shows that only 28.77% of Canadian domiciled Canadian Equity mutual funds have outperformed their benchmark index (S&P/TSX Composite) over the trailing five-year period. In the Canadian domiciled US Equity mutual funds category, 0.00% of actively managed funds were successful in outperforming their benchmark index (S&P 500 in CAD) over the trailing five years.

This information is available to everyone, but, based on the dollars invested in actively managed funds compared to passive index funds, most Canadians continue to invest their money in actively managed strategies. The decision to invest this way is either driven by a lack of information, or greed. In either case, when Canadian investors inevitably suffer from poor investment performance and high fees, they are themselves as much to blame as anyone else.

Original post at pwlcapital.com


Tracking error is not a risk, you are

Benjamin Felix

Research has shown that small cap, value, and high profitability stocks have higher expected returns than the market. They also exhibit imperfect correlation with the market. Building a portfolio that tracks the market, and then increasing the portfolio weight of small cap, value, and high profitability stocks increases the expected return and diversification of that portfolio. From a human investor’s perspective, the problem with higher expected returns is that they are expected, not guaranteed. And that imperfect correlation? It looks great on paper, but it means that when the market is up, the portfolio might not be up as much, or it might even be down. Performance that is different from a market cap weighted index is called tracking error. For the investor comparing their performance to a market cap weighted benchmark, negative tracking error can be unnerving, especially when it persists for long periods of time.

But tracking error is not risk. Risk is the probability of not achieving a financial goal. Diversification is well-established as a means to reduce risk, but it does not result in higher returns at all times. When a globally diversified portfolio underperforms the US market, it is not a reason to forget about International stocks. When stocks underperform bonds, as they did in the US between 2000 and 2009, we do not abandon stocks. Dismissing small cap and value stocks after a period of underperformance relative to the market is no different. They are factors that increase portfolio diversification and expected returns, leading to a statistically more reliable investment outcome. This remains true through periods of underperformance.

The real risk is investor behaviour. Think about enduring portfolio underperformance relative to the market for ten years or longer due to a small cap tilt. You made a conscious decision to tilt the portfolio based on the academic evidence, but there are no guarantees of outperformance. If an investor chooses to abandon their tilted portfolio after a period of underperformance, it is akin to selling low. If they subsequently invest in a market cap weighted portfolio, they are selling low and buying high. That increases the probability of not achieving a financial goal. That is risk.

We do not know how different asset classes will perform in the future. You may always wish that you were overweight US stocks before the US outperformed or underweight small caps before small caps underperformed. Hindsight is pretty good. Looking forward, all we can reasonably base objective investment decisions on is the academic evidence. The evidence indicates that, over the long-term, stocks can be expected to outperform bonds, small stocks can be expected to outperform large stocks, value stocks can be expected to outperform growth stocks, and more profitable stocks can be expected to outperform less profitable stocks. Tilting a portfolio toward these factors is expected to achieve better long-term results, but it will almost definitely result in tracking error relative to the market.

Bad investor behaviour due to tracking error is a real risk that needs to be managed in portfolio construction. If it can be managed, the door is opened to a statistically more reliable long-term investment outcome.

Original post at pwlcapital.com

Should you make RRSP withdrawals in a no-income year to contribute to your TFSA?

Benjamin Felix

This common question usually arises when one spouse has retired while the other is still working. The spouse that has retired has no income, and they see these years as a good opportunity to make RRSP withdrawals before CPP income and RRIF minimums bump them up into a higher tax bracket. Knowing that you can earn up to $11,474 of income without paying Federal tax, it seems like an obvious decision. Take $11,474 out of the RRSP at a 0% tax rate, contribute it to your TFSA, and when you take it back out of the TFSA in the future, you won’t pay any tax. Seemingly the perfect move.

As with many things in personal finance, this is more complicated than it seems. In any year that you have no income, your spouse is able to claim something called the spousal amount on their tax return. It’s kind of like that $11,474 that you can earn tax-free transfers to your spouse if you have no income in a given year. This applies at both a Federal and Provincial level, though the amount is smaller at the provincial level. The result is a Federal tax credit of $1,721, and a provincial tax credit of $429 – that reduces the amount of income tax that your spouse has to pay by $2,150. On top of that, on $11,474 of income, you would still owe $74 of provincial tax.

Let’s say that your RRSP has $11,474 in it and you decide to leave it there, earning 5%. Your spouse has also saved $2,150 in tax, which we can deposit in a TFSA, also earning 5%. Five years later the RRSP is worth $13,497, and the TFSA is worth $2,703. Now it’s time to make an RRSP withdrawal to supplement income. We will say that income is taxed at 30%, and we are below the threshold for OAS claw-back. Withdrawing the full $13,497 results in an after-tax value of $9,763. The total after-tax combined value of the RRSP and TFSA $12,466.

Alternatively, let’s say that you decide to take the $11,474 in your RRSP as income. It is your only income source for the year. We will ignore withholding tax on the RRSP withdrawal. The value of the RRSP drops to $0, and the TFSA is worth $11,474. With the loss of the spousal credit, your spouse now has to pay an additional $2,150 in tax, and you owe $74. We will deduct these amounts from the value of the TFSA, leaving a balance of $9,250. After five years at 5%, this is worth $11,243.

It can be seen from the calculations that we were better off leaving the money in the RRSP. However, this changes if we factor in OAS claw-back. When your income is above a certain threshold, you lose $0.15 of your OAS pension for every dollar that your income exceeds that threshold. The number is $73,756 in 2016, but it is indexed each year, so we do not know what it will be five years from now.

If we run the same two scenarios again with OAS claw-back factored in, assuming that every dollar of RRSP income will trigger OAS claw-back, leaving money in the RRSP becomes less favourable. OAS claw-back will remove an additional $2,092 from the equation, dropping the value of the RRSP and TFSA to $10,374 in the case of leaving the money in the RRSP. The scenario where we moved money from the RRSP to the TFSA is not affected by OAS claw-back because TFSA withdrawals are not taxable income.

If there is no OAS claw-back, we prefer to leave the funds in the RRSP in a no-income year. If OAS claw-back will be a factor, moving money from the RRSP to the TFSA can be a good strategy. This leaves us with two unknowable variables: what will your taxable income be in retirement, and what will the threshold for OAS claw-back be at that time. Making an RRSP withdrawal in a low-income year is not as obviously beneficial as it seems.

Original post at pwlcapital.com