It’s not your fund manager, it’s you.

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.

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Tracking error is not a risk, you are

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.

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

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.

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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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