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…

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National Bank Direct: Now With Free ETF Transactions

Edited Photo. Source: Flickr - Dinesh Kumar

I love competition. It lowers costs for consumers, requires companies to innovate, and ensures consumers get a good product at a fair price.

Since Questrade and other online discount brokers stormed on the brokerage scene nearly two decades ago, we have seen a steady drop in the cost of commissions and a steady increase in the quality of services and tools offered by discount brokerages.

In 2006, Questrade dropped commissions to as low as $4.95 per trade. Absolutely amazing considering many other brokerages were charging ten times that! Then, in 2013, Questrade began offering no commissions on the purchase of ETFs. This was a game changer for passive index investors!

Virtual Brokers basically copied Questrade with no commissions on ETF purchases, but are somewhat notorious for questionable customer service and they charge higher commissions on other trades. Other brokerages offered commission free ETF transaction on a very limited number of ETFs (think Scotia iTrade and QTrade).

However, Questrade does charge ECN fees for transactions that take liquidity out of the market. This means you are charged an exchange fee for any transaction that does not equal a round lot—some multiple of 100 shares/units. The ECN fees are tiny, but do amount to a very small “commission” of sorts when making small purchases.

Well, in summer 2017, National Bank Direct has really come out to challenge Questrade and Virtual Brokers. National now offers commission-free ETF purchases and sales on all ETFs listed on Canadian or U.S. stock exchanges—with a small catch. Each transaction must include at least 100 units.

Who Can Benefit

Considering that most ETFs in Canada trade at a price ranging from $20 - $50 per unit, this means you could eliminate all commissions and ECN fees if you are an aggressive saver, or a retiree living off your ETF portfolio.

If you are still in those accumulation years, to benefit from National Bank Direct’s ETF program, you should be saving at least $2,500 a month. This means you could make a 100% commission free purchase of ETFs every month or two. ETF sales—for rebalancing purposes or withdrawals—shouldn’t be an issue because they would almost always include more than 100 units in the transaction.

This free commission offer can also be effective for investors who are using a Dual Momentum investment strategy. The Dual Momentum strategy calls for periodic turnover of your entire portfolio; you would make transactions to sell your entire holding of one ETF and buy a different ETF once or twice per year (on average). That transaction is bound to include more than 100 units.

Other National Bank Direct Considerations

RESPs

National Bank might be the best place for you to open a self-directed family RESP account—especially if you are a lower income family. RESP contributions are often made in lump-sums and your contributions get topped up by government programs, so the 100-unit transaction minimum shouldn’t be a problem.

National Bank is possibly the only self-directed discount brokerage in Canada that is eligible to get funding from every federal and provincial education grant program available. This includes the Canada Education Savings Grant, the Additional Canada Education Savings Grant, Canada Learning Bond, the Saskatchewan Advantage Grant for Education Savings, and the BC Training and Education Savings Grant. Check the list here.

Margin Accounts

While not quite competitive with Interactive Brokers, National Bank Direct has really stepped up their game with margin pricing as well. This, combined with the commission-free ETF transactions, can be a nice option for more aggressive investors employing margin.

National Bank Direct currently charges the bank prime rate for margin amounts in excess of $100,000. As of January 2018, that’s just 3.45% interest which is completely tax deductible off your income. That translates to a net interest rate in the range of 2% for many people, less than the current rate of inflation.

Aside from Interactive Brokers, which is cheaper still, the only other brokerage I’m aware of that charges interest rates this low is RBC Direct for their Royal Circle members (investors with combined account values over $250,000).

Is It Worth Switching

While the National Bank Direct pricing package is very compelling (we all love FREE), I don’t think it is the best option for most people. The benefit of no commissions can easily be eroded if you have cash sitting in your accounts for months at a time while you try to save up enough money to purchase 100 units of more.

The National Bank Direct offer will be most attractive to retirees who will always be making transactions involving over 100 ETF units without thinking out it. It may also attract some very aggressive savers who are also higher earning individuals that can easily make regular purchases involving more than 100 ETF units. That means people saving $5,000 a month or more—a very small portion of the Canadian population.

It’s a smart offer on the part of National Bank Direct because it means they will generally be attracting a higher net-worth client who is probably familiar with self-directed investing and requires less customer service work.

Personally, I will keep my registered accounts with Questrade for the time being. My trading is very minimal—even with my trend strategy. I currently spend less than $50 a year on trading commissions. For that price I get instant price quotes, great customer service, and a platform that I’m familiar with and is incredibly easy to understand and use. Questrade gives me nothing to complaint about!

I’m not saying that National Bank Direct won’t give me the same experience, but I’m just not sure it’s worth switching from a service I’m very happy with for the potential of saving less than $50 per year in trading costs. However, if Questrade ever fails me in a big way, or if their current commission structure changes for the worse, it’s nice to know there’s another competitive option out there.

Comments & Questions

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Comments containing promo links or "trolling" will not be posted. Comments with profane language or those which reveal personal information will be edited by moderator.