The Stale Market Blues

Nearly halfway through 2018, we are still flat in the markets. Sure, January was a rush up. But then February saw those gains wiped out in two weeks. Since that time, we've been bobbing back and forth but going nowhere.

There's also a continuing divergence between stock markets around the world. U.S., U.K. and European stocks are just barely positive; Japanese markets are barely negative. Basically, most developed markets are flat for the year.

In the meanwhile, Emerging markets are showing a particularly steady downtrend. Let's take a look at a few of their charts.

China A-Shares

Source: Yahoo Finance

MSCI Brazil

Source: Yahoo Finance

MSCI India

Source: Yahoo Finance

MSCI Russia

Source: Yahoo Finance

All the major Emerging markets are below the popular 200-day SMA and a few are well below that indicator.

If lackluster stock performance were the only problem, maybe investors would be pretty happy. After all, in prior stock declines in recent history we saw the bond portion of the portfolio increase.

However, this year longer term bond performance across the board has been negative. Here are the Year-to-Date performance numbers for a few popular bond ETFs in Canada.

XBB.TO:  -0.82%
VAB.TO:  -1.08%
HAB.TO:  -0.21%

At the same time, short term bonds have actually grown a bit this year. In this rising rate environment, short term bond ETFs might actually be setting up for solid future performance as they are rolling over their holdings at increasingly higher interest rates on their notes.

XSB.TO:  +0.11%
XSH.TO:  +0.18%

Moving Forward With Your Portfolio

I believe the direction we are seeing here emphasizes the benefits of short term bonds over longer term bonds when it matters. No one cares if your bonds go up when your stocks go up because your entire portfolio is moving higher with the more growthy, more volatile stock elements.

However, when stocks are falling, you want your bonds to be stable and that stability is best delivered by short term bonds. We are not even close to a "crisis situation" in the stock market, but it's often psychologically satisfying to have a portion of your portfolio moving up at any given time.

This is one of the benefits of Leveraged Barbell Portfolios. When bonds, particularly short term bonds, make up the majority of your portfolio, you automatically worry less about the stock side. Even when those stocks are leveraged up 2x or 3x. Your stocks deliver the growth when the market provides it, but you systematically peel away profits and stash those profits into super-safe bonds.

So how do you deal with a stale market? You pick a long-term strategy that is proven to work. You choose elements of your portfolio carefully so there is nearly always something rising in value. You recognize how your chosen investment strategy should perform in a wide variety of market conditions, including these wobbly stale markets. You stick to your long-term plan and ignore the daily headlines. You check your account balances less often. You focus on what you can control: spending, saving, and strategy.

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New Vanguard All-in-One Portfolio ETFs

I know I promised to talk more about leveraged strategies in February. I have been back-testing these strategies diligently and, believe me, I’m excited to start tracking them so you get an idea of my thought process.

However, Vanguard Canada just came out with some game-changing ETFs for passive investors! Now any investor can buy a single ETF and get great, automated results for a super low price (0.22% management fee).

This is the kind of competition stuff I love and it’s going to trigger a new price war for similar products with Blackrock (iShares Canada) and BMO ETFs. I just had to do a post on this!

It’s also why I stopped tracking the Couch Potato-like portfolios each month in the Portfolio Updates. There is no longer any compelling reasons to buy three or four ETFs and do the re-balancing yourself.

One-Solution Fund Products

One solution funds are a great way to make investing easy for investors. A single fund—usually categorized as “Conservative”, “Balanced”, "Aggressive", or “Growth”—will automatically re-balance stocks and bonds to a specified allocation on a regular basis.

These funds will mix Canadian stocks, U.S. stocks, International stocks, Canadian bonds, U.S. bonds, and International bonds for you. They may also add in other components like REITs, gold, commodities, and other asset classes.

Conservative funds target about 40% stocks and 60% bonds, Balanced funds target 60% stocks and 40% bonds, and Growth funds target 80% stocks and 20% bonds. There are some variations depending on the fund manager, but it looks pretty close to this.

There are also funds that tailor to other needs like Income funds, or Tax-efficient funds. Both are questionable in my view as they tend to be heavily marketed. In my skeptical mind, heavily marketed products are not doing a good job selling themselves so there is often a “catch”. In the case of these products, it’s usually higher fees while pushing the emotional sell of “less tax”. They tend to provide meaningful tax benefits to the small portion of investors who are very, very wealthy, but are often sold to the typical investor with less than $1 million in financial assets.

One solution funds do all the work for you. So instead of trying carefully to re-balance once or twice a year, maintaining balance with new contributions, or letting your allocations get out of wack—you just mindlessly buy the one ETF and get back to knitting, racing bicycles, or whatever else you enjoy. (Money is quite ho-hum after all).

Until now there was no great way to invest in a one-fund solution. You could choose Tangerine Funds and pay 1.07% in fees, you could buy a big-bank/insurance company rip-off mutual fund for 1.5 - 3% in fees, or you could invest in an iShares CorePortfolio product and pay 0.25% plus expensive fees in the underlying products up to 0.65%. In a nutshell, you were getting soaked one way or another on these total portfolio products.

New Vanguard Canada Multi-Asset ETFs

This month, Vanguard began offering a new suite of ETFs labelled Multi-Asset ETFs. These are one-solution funds that are truly low cost. The management fee is set at 0.22% and the underlying holdings are all low-cost Vanguard ETFs. I expect the true MER (Management Expense Ratio) with all costs included to be around 0.25%, but that’s a guess. That would land around $250 in total hidden costs per $100,000 invested.

These new ETFs are a fantastic deal as they are. In my mind, they are so cheap it’s not worth buying the separate ETFs and re-balancing yourself anymore if you're a passive buy-and-hold investor. You don't have to worry about tax triggers, screwing up your portfolio, humming and hawing about which ETF to buy this month, or any other worries that newer investors deal with.

All of these new Vanguard ETFs trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange in Canadian dollars—so no fuss with currency or exchange hassle. I think these new, cheap one-fund ETFs are the answer for most Canadian investors who want to manage their own money.

If you use Questrade or National Bank Direct as your brokerage, you can purchase these ETFs for free! Because you never need to re-balance, you don’t incur any extra costs directly. Basically you pay the MER (automatically deducted from your ETF) and that's it.

Vanguard Growth ETF Portfolio (VGRO.TO)

This is the new Growth ETF offered by Vanguard Canada. Consistent with it’s brand, it targets an 80% allocation to stocks and a 20% allocation to bonds. It’s an ETF wrapper product that holds other low-cost Vanguard ETFs, so let’s take a look at what the approximate holdings will be.

U.S. Broad Stocks:  30%
Canadian Broad Stocks:  24%
Developed Countries Stocks:  20%
Emerging Markets Stocks:  6%
Canadian Broad Bonds:  11.7%
International Broad Bonds:  4.7%
U.S. Broad Bonds:  3.6%

This portfolio is for younger savers with higher risk tolerances. It’s going to provide similar results as the Growth Portfolio I've been tracking monthly to this point. Returns are likely to be quite high in rising stock markets, but during a broad market downturn this ETF could fall around 40% in value.

Vanguard Balanced ETF Portfolio (VBAL.TO)

The new Balanced ETF is going to target 60% stocks and a 40% allocation to bonds. Again, it’s an ETF wrapper product and here are the underlying holdings rounded to approximate allocations.

U.S. Broad Stocks:  22.5%
Canadian Broad Stocks:  18%
Developed Countries Stocks:  15%
Emerging Markets Stocks:  4.5%
Canadian Broad Bonds:  23.5%
International Broad Bonds:  9.5%
U.S. Broad Bonds:  7%

This portfolio ETF will provide similar results to the Moose Income Portfolio, but it won’t have the tilt to dividend income. The downside risk is lower than the Growth ETF Portfolio (VGRO.TO), so this is designed for a middle of the road investor who can stomach a 30% drop in the value of their portfolio.

This portfolio configuration would typically be used by an investor with moderate risk tolerance and a longer timeline, or a retiree with larger savings and a margin of safety.

Vanguard Conservative ETF Portfolio (VCNS.TO)

The Conservative ETF will target a 40% allocation to stocks and 60% allocation to bonds. Here are the underlying holdings and their approximately target allocations.

U.S. Broad Stocks:  15%
Canadian Broad Stocks:  12%
Developed Countries Stocks:  10%
Emerging Markets Stocks:  3%
Canadian Broad Bonds:  35%
International Broad Bonds:  14%
U.S. Broad Bonds:  11%

This portfolio ETF is designed for a more risk-averse investor. I would say it might be most appropriate for a more risk-averse retiree or someone who gets nervous about even the smallest losses. It might also be a good choice for someone who needs to use their money in the mid-term (5-10 years).

In a relatively bad stock market situation, this portfolio will probably drop around 20% in value. That’s really quite small! In my view, if you can’t stomach a 20% drop, you should not be investing. Life is about risk management, not risk avoidance.

The Future of Portfolio ETFs

Vanguard seems to be the trend-setter in Canada when it comes to ETF products. However, you can expect that iShares, and maybe BMO, will soon offer competitive products.

Both iShares and BMO have the building blocks in place for low-cost portfolio ETF offerings, so I think it’s only a matter of time. In the past, iShares especially has really pushed to make the price of their competing products even lower than Vanguard. BMO tends to focus on being slightly different, so they might stick with more specialty products and drop the price a little on their Income Portfolio ETF (ZMI.TO). I guess we'll see.

I would not be surprised to see fees on portfolio ETFs drop to the high-teen range by 2020. This would put the fees just a few basis points higher than the massive portfolio mutual funds offered to Vanguard’s U.S. investors.

All in all, this is a huge win for investors! If you are an ambitious new investor, I would say you can still put all your money into XAW.TO and keep making those monthly contributions. However, once you hit around $50,000, you might want to change gears and throw money into VGRO.TO or VBAL.TO to temper the volatility of your portfolio. You might also choose to wait and see what iShares and BMO come up with…

Comments & Questions

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