Spotting subtle conflicts of interest with your financial advisor

In Canada, it is currently up to the investor to ensure that their interests are truly being put first when they are receiving investment advice. Most Canadian financial advisors are held to a suitability standard, rather than a best interest standard – meaning that as long as their advice is suitable, it does not have to be in the best interest of the client. Conflicts of interest are generally subtle, and they are ingrained in the way that many Canadian financial advisors do business. I often hear disbelief when I explain to someone that the advice they have received was likely influenced by an incentive (commission) for the advisor. Financial advisors do not generally have malicious intent, but they are often in a situation where the nature of their compensation puts their interests at odds with the interests of their clients.

A financial advisor licensed to sell mutual funds might receive 1% per year on the investment assets that they manage. However, rather than earn 1% throughout the year, the advisor has the option of generating a 5% up front commission at the time that they invest a new client’s assets, plus 0.5% per year ongoing. This is referred to as a deferred sales charge (DSC) or back end load. The catch for the client is that only funds with high management fees offer the DSC form of compensation for the advisor. Low-cost index funds and ETFs do not offer large DSC commissions for financial advisors. We know, from academic research, that fees have been the best predictor of fund performance through time, but most financial advisors are oblivious to the fact that high fee products are likely to do more harm than good for their clients. Their heads are full of attractive sales pitches and compensation structures from fund companies instead of the academic evidence that should be driving decisions in the client’s best interest. Any time a financial advisor mentions DSC, low load, or back end load, it is a red flag. It means that the advisor is going to earn a large commission, and the client is going to be locked in to a high-fee fund for at least three years.

When receiving investment advice from a financial advisor that is only licensed to sell insurance, the investment vehicle that they are likely to recommend is a segregated fund. Segregated funds are insurance products that are effectively similar to mutual funds, with some insurance features. The insurance features usually include a death benefit guarantee, maturity guarantee, and the ability to assign a beneficiary for the assets on death. To pay for these features, segregated funds tend to have higher fees than mutual funds. The reality is that the features of segregated funds will usually be unable to justify their significantly higher fees. If a financial advisor is recommending segregated funds, it is likely because that is the only thing that they are licensed to sell, even if it may not be the best thing for the client. Any time an advisor is recommending segregated funds, it is important to understand exactly what their reasoning is, and why a mutual fund or ETF is not a better solution. If you ask the butcher what you should have for dinner, they are unlikely to recommend salad.

There are plenty of financial advisors in Canada who are good people with good intentions, and who are trusted by their clients. A significant portion of these financial advisors are in situations where their advice is naturally conflicted due to their compensation structure; they may not even be aware that they are giving conflicted advice. In my experience, the advisors giving conflicted advice have done their own version of due diligence (maybe something like finding funds with good past performance to justify higher fees) in order to rationalize the advice that they are giving, making it even harder for a client with limited investment knowledge to notice that something is not right. By looking out for DSC funds and segregated funds, and asking questions about them when they come up, investors are in a position to spot some of the most common conflicts of interest.

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Smart beta is growing rapidly, but who’s reviewing the research?

Dan Bortolotti’s April 1st post about Dr. Molti Fattore’s data mined index strategy was an April Fool’s joke, but the beauty of the post was that it could have easily been true. Some ETF providers were likely drooling at the thought of a “factor lasagna” that they could package and sell for 0.75%.

Data around the average active managers’ failure to outperform a low-cost index fund has resulted in investors’ assets shifting into low-cost index funds. Market cap weighted index funds have quickly become commodities, resulting in the lowest fund fees in history. An S&P 500 index fund with a 0.05% MER was once an anomaly, and it is now an expectation. In an effort to differentiate their products, index providers have started producing factor-based research which can be implemented in smart beta index portfolios, or funds which have been designed to outperform a simple cap-weighted index by capturing a specific part of the market. Of course, a smart beta fund is no longer a commodity and will accordingly command a higher fee.

The problem with the rapid proliferation of smart beta products is that mashing a handful of back-tested factors together does not necessarily result in a robust portfolio. The research behind the factors needs to be impeccable, and the implementation of the research requires significant care and expertise.

Momentum and quality are two factors that have been showing up in smart beta and factor ETFs. The momentum premium has been well-documented but it does not have a sensible explanation, raising the question of whether it is likely to persist. Momentum as an investment factor also decays quickly, making it very difficult to capture without a high level of portfolio turnover. High turnover increases costs and erodes any premium that may have been available. This is an obvious challenge with implementation.

Quality, based on earnings variability, has presented a past premium. However, when profitability is controlled for unusual items and taxes on the income statement, the variability of profitability contains little information about future profitability. In short, the quality factor does not have significant explanatory power over returns compared to well-documented factors such as size, value, profitability, and investment, and it is not useful to add it as an additional factor in a portfolio.

There is a tremendous amount of data available about markets, and it is relatively easy to find patterns that appear to point to higher expected returns based on a factor. Implementing an investment portfolio based on this type of research requires significant due diligence to mitigate the risk that observed differences in returns have not simply happened by chance. An excellent example is the Scrabble score weighted index reported in this paper by Clare and Motson. They found that if they weighted an index based on the Scrabble score produced by the ticker of each stock, they significantly outperformed a market cap weighted index. The Scrabble factor is, of course, not reliable data, but not all poorly thought out smart beta strategies will be so easy for investors to spot.

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The TFSA is not a Toy

It may be a flaw in the name. The government-intended use of the registered retirement savings plan is clear, retirement, but the tax free savings account is less commonly viewed as a long-term savings vehicle. I often meet investors who are using their TFSA to trade individual securities; the TFSA is their ‘play’ account. They are likely acting under the influence of their own overconfidence bias, imagining the large tax-free profits that they are going to make when their bet on a stock pays off, and not considering the significant negative consequences of taking unrecoverable losses within the TFSA.  An unrecoverable loss occurs when a security loses its value and never recovers, something that can easily happen when trading individual securities.

Something lost, nothing gained

If a stock picker loses on a bet in a taxable investment account, they are able to claim a capital loss which can be used to offset a future capital gain, dampening the blow of the loss. When losses are taken within the TFSA, this is not the case. Just as capital gains are not taxed in the TFSA, capital losses cannot be claimed. Assuming an investor is taxed at the highest marginal rate in Ontario in 2016, and they have taxable capital gains to offset, a $1,000 capital loss is worth about $268 in tax savings. Losing out on this tax savings makes an unrecoverable loss in a TFSA about 37% more damaging than an unrecoverable loss in a taxable account.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses their TFSA room

Any amount withdrawn from the TFSA generates an equal amount of new room the following calendar year. For example, if a $5,500 TFSA contribution was invested and grew to be $6,500, the full $6,500 could be withdrawn before December 31 and $6,500 of new room would be created on January 1 of the following year. Conversely, in the event of an unrecoverable loss, the amount of the loss will permanently reduce available TFSA room. If a similar $5,500 investment in the TFSA decreases in value to $4,500 and never recovers, there is only $4,500 available to be withdrawn, and the TFSA room has suffered a permanent decrease.

Losing a bit of TFSA room may seem trivial, but consider that $5,500 invested in a well-diversified portfolio* held in a TFSA for 30 years would be expected to grow to about $34,000, while the same investment in a taxable account would be expected to grow to about $15,000 assuming the highest marginal tax rate in Ontario in 2016. A seemingly meaningless loss of TFSA room today has meaningful long-term repercussions.

Between the significant future value of properly used TFSA room, and the lack of recourse for losses in the TFSA, it is an especially risky account to gamble with.

*80% globally diversified equity, 20% globally diversified fixed income, 6.11% return comprised of 1.94% interest, 0.49% dividends, 1.84% realized capital gains, 1.84% unrealized capital gains, net of a 1% management fee.

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Don’t follow the crowd into cash

It’s easy to imagine that when markets are declining everyone is selling their stocks and hiding cash under their mattresses. Sensationalist news reports will often reference increasing cash balances as nervous investors rush for the exits. While this perception is common, it misses half of the story; for every seller there must be a buyer. Cash isn’t piling up everywhere while everyone waits on the sidelines. For each nervous seller running for the hills, there is a level-headed buyer capturing the equity premium.

When contemplating the action of selling investments to hold cash in anticipation of a market crash, one must consider the following:

Do you know more than whoever is on the other side of the trade? Someone is happily buying the securities that you are in a hurry to sell. In 1980, 48% of U.S. corporate equity was held directly by households, and by 2008 that number had dropped to 20%*, meaning that the someone buying your securities is likely a skilled professional at a large institution; do you know something they don’t?

When are you going to get back in? Markets deliver long-term performance in an unpredictable manner. Over the 264 months from January 1994 – December 2015, a globally diversified equity portfolio returned 8.51%** per year on average. Removing the five best months reduces that average annual return to 6.46%. That is a 24% reduction in average annual returns for missing 1.9% of the months available for investment. Peter Lynch famously stated "Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections or trying to anticipate corrections than has been lost in corrections themselves."

Should you have been in the market to begin with? If you need your cash in the short-term, it probably shouldn’t be invested in stocks and bonds. If a portfolio has been properly structured to meet a specific financial goal, it should remain in the market regardless of the market conditions. Portfolio volatility can be controlled by selecting an appropriate mix of stocks and bonds, not by jumping between stocks and cash.

A positive investment experience is largely dictated by discipline. There is no evidence that market timing results in better returns, and plenty of evidence that it is detrimental. While it may sometimes seem like everyone is going to cash to avoid a downturn, they’re not. Those choosing to go to cash are effectively being exploited by those taking a disciplined approach, rebalancing into stocks when stocks are declining.

*Investment Noise and Trends, Stambaugh

**Dimensional Returns 2.0

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Canadian investors are slow to adopt evidence-based investing

It is becoming common knowledge that Canadians pay the highest mutual fund fees in the world, and are often receiving advice from commissioned sales people selling expensive actively managed mutual funds rather than fiduciary financial advisors acting in their best interest. Index funds and passive investing have gone mainstream on Canadian personal finance blogs and media outlets, giving the impression that we are becoming sensible investors. The data tells a different story.

In 2008, 6.9% of Canadian mutual fund and ETF assets were invested in passive vehicles, compared to 21% of U.S. assets. At the end of December, 2015, Canadians’ passive investment assets had increased to 12% , while passive assets in the U.S. had climbed to 32%. In the U.S., the market share of passive investment assets has been increasing each year by an average of 1.75%, while in Canada the passive market share has been flat since 2013, and increased by an average of only 0.65% per year since 2008.

Estimated Canada & U.S. Market Share of Passive and Active Funds 2008-2015

Passive investment vehicles in Canada have seen positive net inflows each year since 2008, while flows into active funds have been much more volatile with negative flows in 5 of the last 8 years. The steady flows into passive funds, and the volatility of flows into active funds, support the idea that a passive, evidence-based investment philosophy fosters investment discipline while active management results in performance-chasing behaviour. In 2015, active funds in Canada attracted nearly $15B of assets, while passive funds attracted $8B. Like in Canada, the U.S. has seen consistent positive flows into passive funds, and volatility in active fund flows. In 2015, U.S. investors extracted $207B from active funds, while pouring a near-record $414B into passive funds.

Estimated Canada & U.S. Net Fund Flows 2008-2015 ($ Billions)

The overall trend is that while Canadians are adding assets to passive funds, they are doing so at a much slower pace than Americans. It is possible that this is due to the rise in the Registered Investment Advisor in the U.S.; an RIA is registered with the SEC, is fee-based, and has a fiduciary duty to clients. RIAs tend to use more passively managed investment vehicles. In Canada, the vast majority of investment fund assets are in mutual funds, and the vast majority of mutual fund assets are in commission-based actively managed funds. Most financial advisors in Canada are not legally obligated to act in the best interest of their clients, and their recommendations may be tainted by the need to earn commissions or meet sales targets. Index funds and other low-cost vehicles do not pay commissions.

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What if investing right before a market crash isn’t that bad?

Imagine having $1,500,000 of cash. With a long time horizon, and no immediate needs, you decide to invest $500,000 in a globally diversified portfolio* consisting of 80% stocks, and 20% bonds. It is March 1, 2000. Within days, the dot com bubble bursts, followed by the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. By the end of September, 2002, your invested portfolio has dropped from $500,000 to $480,724.

By May of 2007, the $500,000 that you have invested is worth $992,714. You make the decision to invest another $500,000 on June 1st, 2007, increasing your market portfolio to $1,492,714 on that date. The global financial crisis swiftly ensues, seemingly vaporizing your additional $500,000 investment, and dropping your portfolio’s value down to a low of $891,013 in February of 2009 – a drop of 40.3% from the 2007 high.

At the end of July, 2011, your portfolio is worth $1,448,537, and you decide to deploy your remaining $500,000 on August 1st, 2011, resulting in a total portfolio value of $2,006,521 on that date. The market declines sharply for several months. At the end of September, 2011 your investments are worth $1,754,722.

On November 30th, 2015, your portfolio has increased in value to $2,670,809. In hindsight, you have invested immediately before each market crash in recent history. Despite your poor timing, you have earned an average money-weighted rate of return of 5.82% per year, compared to the S&P 500’s 4.16%, and the Canadian Consumer Price Index’s 1.94% over the same time period.  A luckier person may have outperformed you by not investing at the worst possible times, but you undoubtedly outperformed the person sitting in cash on the sidelines.

Without the ability to predict the future, long-term investment assets are better off in the market, even if the market is about to crash.

*The portfolio returns come from the Dimensional Global 80EQ-20FI Portfolio (F). Where fund data is not available, Dimensional index returns net of current fund MERs are used.

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Forget about fees: new research highlights a compelling reason for active manager underperformance

In a recent paper, Heaton, Polson, and Witte set out to explain why active equity managers tend to underperform a benchmark index. It is commonly accepted that the driving force behind active manager underperformance is high fees, however new research suggests that there may be another culprit. The research concludes that “the much higher cost of active management may be the inherently high chance of underperformance that comes with attempts to select stocks, since stock selection disproportionately increases the chance of underperformance relative to the chance of overperformance.”

This conclusion is based on the empirical observation that the best performing stocks in an index perform much better than the remaining stocks in that index. Worded mathematically, the median return for all possible actively managed portfolios will tend to be lower than the mean return. In plain English, the average performance of an index tends to be attributable to a small number of stocks. While choosing a subset of the total available stocks in an index (as an active fund manager does) leads to the possibility of outperforming the index, it also leads to the possibility of underperforming the index, where the chance of underperforming is greater than the chance of outperforming.

This can be (and is in the paper) explained with a simple mathematical example:

If we have an index consisting of five securities, four of which will return 10% and one of which will return 50% over a given time period, and we suppose that active managers will create portfolios using an equally weighted subset of one or two securities, there will be a set of fifteen possible actively managed portfolios. Ten of the fifteen portfolios will earn a 10% return due to omitting the 50% stock, and five of the fifteen portfolios will earn either a 30% return or a 50% return due to holding the 50% stock, depending on whether it is a one or two security portfolio. In this example, the mean average return of the stocks in the index, and all active fund managers, will be 18% (before fees), while the median will be 10%; two-thirds of the actively managed portfolios will underperform the index due to their omitting the 50% returning security, which is always included in the index.

We have been aware that higher explicit fees are a major factor in active manager underperformance, but the risk of missing top performing stocks due to holding only a subset of the total market may be an even bigger hurdle for active managers to overcome.

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If interest rates have nowhere to go but up, do bonds still have a positive expected return?

In answering this question, the first thing to note is that interest rates could remain where they are currently, or go lower. There are already instances of negative bond yields across the globe. However, for discussion, we will assume that interest rates have nowhere to go but up.

The factors that matter most are the magnitude and time span of the interest rate increase, and the average duration of the bond portfolio. If interest rates were to increase by 0.5%, the effect on bond prices would be minimal. If interest rates increased by 10%, bond prices would be impacted significantly. If interest rates climb to a peak over the course of one month, the impact on bond prices will be more pronounced than if it occurs over a number of years. Large, short term increases in interest rates will likely result in negative performance for fixed income holdings. These negative effects become more pronounced as the duration of the bond portfolio increases.

Price risk is top of mind in a low interest rate environment. If interest rates can only go up, it seems like fixed income returns have nowhere to go but down. However, as interest rates go up, new bonds are issued at the new higher rates. As a bond portfolio receives coupon payments from the bonds that it owns, these coupon payments are reinvested in new bonds, at higher rates. Bond prices may decline with rising interest rates, but over time it is expected that purchasing new bonds with higher coupons will result in positive performance. Expected returns are independent of future interest rate scenarios, but realizing an expected return may come with periods of bond price volatility. As interest rates rise, a bond portfolio may exhibit negative performance over the short term, however, as coupon payments and principal repayments are reinvested at the new higher rates, the bond portfolio will be positioned for recovery.

If an investor is concerned about large negative returns in their fixed income portfolio, it is advisable to tend toward shorter-maturity bonds. Diversification can also help, reducing the bond portfolio’s dependence on any single country’s interest rate environment. In a rising rate environment, a globally diversified short-maturity bond portfolio is positioned to benefit.