Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Diversified Income XTR

Income generation becomes a primary goal for your investment portfolio as you enter retirement. Most see bonds and dividend bearing stocks as the primary investment vehicles vehicles for income, although REITs, preferred shares and infrastructure can also play a role in a diversified income portfolio.

While you can purchase a number of individual ETF products to assemble a diversified income portfolio, there can be advantages in  a single fund.  XTR from iShares is one such product, and we review it in this post.

What Does XTR Hold?

iShares XTR is a 'fund of funds' meaning that it holds other iShares ETFs, in this case 11 funds.  I list below in order of weighting the XTR portfolio (including my brief descriptor for each) as of May 2017:
  • XHB (Canadian corporate bond) 20.5%
  • XHY (US corporate bond) 13.7%
  • CBO (Canadian 1-5 y corporate bond ladder) 12.0%
  • XEI (Canadian dividend equity) 11.7%
  • XRE (Canadian REIT) 8.7%
  • XDV (Canadian dividend) 8.0%
  • CUD (US dividend equity) 7.4%
  • CPD (Canadian preferred share) 5.3%
  • XUT (Canadian utilities) 5.2%
  • XST (Canadian staples equity) 4.5%
  • CLF (Canadian 1-5 y laddered government bond) 3.0%
You can get the details, including current portfolio weightings, of XTR directly from iShares here. To make the chart below I've lumped the funds into corporate bond, government bond, dividend equity, preferred share and REIT categories. While I have included XST with dividend equity, it is probably more properly viewed as a low volatility equity rather than strictly a dividend equity ETF.

The overall holdings in XTR are 76.7% Canadian, 19.7% US, and about 3.7% from all other countries combined. This is good for tax benefits when XTR is held outside registered accounts, but not great in terms of diversification.

As a fund of funds, XTR is diversified over a lot of different underlying holdings, a bit over 2200 at the time of writing.


The overall MER for XTR is now 0.60% (some sources still quote the audited 0.62% value), and that includes the fees inherent in the underlying funds that XTR holds.  The current TER is 0.02%, so trading within the fund does not add significantly to the overall costs. XTR is widely traded (typically 45 thousand units per trading day), so the spread between bid and ask is usually slight. While this MER may seem high compared to pure equity or broad bond ETFs, it is competitive with fees associated with most dividend and blended funds.


The performance of XTR is steady but certainly far from spectacular. In the past year it has had a total return of 10.0%, but over 5 years the return averages 4.6% annually, while over 10 years it averages 5.3% annually. The majority of years show positive returns, with only one of the last 5 having a negative return (-5.98% in 2015).

With XTR you are giving up a little bit in return for regular income at modest variability.


Especially if you have a relatively modest portfolio, the idea of holing a single product that effectively represents the various components of a well diversified income fund makes sense. You save commission costs of adding US and Canadian dividend ETFs, along with several corporate bond ETFs.

XTR should be more stable than any one of these individual ETFs (e.g., the total yearly range of XTR over the past 12 months has just been 6% from minimum to maximum value), so it will help you reign in temptation to trade too often for your own good.

XTR pays out its distributions monthly, so it works well in a LIF or RIF where you are withdrawing funds monthly.

While the performance has been less than a simple equity and bond couch potato portfolio, the mix of investment products may (but see below under concerns) help cushion some market volatility.  As we move into retirement ages it is natural to worry more about the ups and downs of the market, so anything to reduce this variability is a positive.

If you don't immediately need the income, you can use DRIP to purchase additional units without commission costs.

While we have too many ETFs in my opinion, I don't think we have enough ETFs that are single products well tailored to a need (such as retirement income, or couch potato type portfolios). XTR is a well designed income ETF, and that is why many tens of thousands of units trade daily on the TSX.


The bond holdings within the portfolio are not entirely investment grade.  For example XHB (the largest single component of XTR) has essentially none of its portfolio in A, with 80.7% in BBB and the rest in lower investment grades (see the explanation of bond ratings here). That being said, XHB has been remarkably stable - e.g. it has not shown a negative return for any of the past 5 years. While they are not in the high investment ratings of government bonds, the companies XHB holds are mainly household names in Canada. The US corporate bonds held in the XHY ETF within XTR have a similar investment quality range.

Also, the bonds in XTR are mainly corporate, with only a few percent in investment grade government bonds.  It is likely that in a major equity market correction these corporate bonds will not help cushion your portfolio the way that investment grade government bonds would.

Another potential concern is the high Canadian bias.  About 76.7% of the portfolio is held in Canadian products, and only 3.7% are held outside Canada and the US. XTR has essentially no emerging market exposure, in bonds or equities.

A fourth potential concern is that there is little in the way of direct inflation protection in XTR, since it does not hold real return or TIP bonds. Also the REIT component is largely restricted to Canada.

Considering these potential concerns, if seeking the most stability in returns, it makes sense to pair XTR with some holding in products such as CBD or XAL that give you more government bonds, inflation protection, and wider international coverage.  A future posting will consider these groupings quantitatively.

Alternatives to XTR

Perhaps the closest alternative to XTR is BMO's ZMI, which is also a 'fund of funds'. ZMI holds 17 other BMO funds, with the majority being a mix of Canadian and US dividend equity ETFs and corporate bond ETFs, with a little dose of REITs and other income ETFs. Compared to XTR, ZMI has slightly higher equity holdings and slightly lower bond exposure, but the differences are so small they hardly matter.  The BMO ZMI includes some of the option linked products that BMO has made popular, including

I slightly prefer XTR for the following reasons:
  1. Longer track record (XTR started in 2005 and ZMI in 2011), with good stability since the end of 2009 (the price did decline in 2015, but has recovered nicely).
  2. More widely traded (on a typical trading day ZMI trades a few thousand units, while XTR several tens of thousands of units).
  3. Better transparency (the 11 ETFs included in XTR are all easy to understand offerings, while  ZMI include the covered call and put write holdings that many individual investors may not fully understand.
  4. Although be careful comparing yields, I do like that XTR has given a very consistent approximately 6% yield (at current price) versus currently just over 4% for ZMI.
That being said, I would point out that if we compare 5 year annualized performances, ZMI has the edge at 5.70% vs 4.54% for XTR. There is also slightly more exposure outside North America in ZMI, an advantage in my opinion. The volatility of the two are very similar - according to Morningstar.ca the standard deviation for XTR is 4.8 while that of ZMI is 4.7.  

If I was grading the two products my overall grade would be very nearly a tie. Morningstar.ca currently also gives the edge to XTR, with *** vs  a ** rating for ZMI.  Either ETF is a good choice. There are of course many other income generating mutual funds and ETFs, although most of them have at least somewhat higher MER than these products.

Those seeking a mutual fund alternative should consider Steadyhand Income Fund.  The MER is slightly higher, but there are no commission charges. It is more conservatively invested than XTR, but returns have in the long run been marginally better (6.0% return per year averaged over the past 10 yr, although only 1.9% per year over the last 2 yr.)  If you are ready to invest at least $10,000, you can open a Steadyhand account directly, or you can buy Steadyhand Income Fund through most Canadian discount brokerages (SIF120).

Another good income alternative would be Tangerine Balanced Income investment fund. Over 5 years it has offered a similar return 5.5% over 5 years, and has been pretty consistent from year to year.  The portfolio is weighted to Canadian bonds, with about 10% in each of US and international equities. Its easy to set up an account with Tangerine,  It does only pay out its distributions once accually (in December), so not as well suited as XTR to directly providing monthly income.

Final Thoughts

XTR plays a major role in my personal retirement LIF, and I think XTR or ZMI make sense for many retirement accounts.  I like that it combines in a single product the components that I want to play a major role in my income funds (bond and dividend funds in US and Canada, REITs), and that it pays a stable monthly distribution.

In investing we should look forward not backward (a central message of the book The 3 Simple Rules of Investing).  If I look backward at returns, I would probably concentrate in an equity and bond portfolio, but if looking forward I see more stability in a broader set of income generating holdings, and XTR fits very nicely into what I want to hold.

That being said, I would not make it the only income product, although it may be the major one. I would consider an additional ETF that helps provide balance outside North America, as well as ideally more government bond exposure and some inflation protection  (such as CBD or possibly XAL that I will cover in a future posts).

Both XTR and ZMI provide a reliable income stream (currently about 5.7% for XTR and 4.0% for ZMI ) that is sufficient for many RIF retirement ratios, and that is paid monthly.  You do give up potential return with these products compared to simple stock plus bond portfolios but in return you obtain slightly more stability across more asset classes.

If considering holding these products outside a registered account, discuss tax implications with your financial advisor.

This posting is intended for education only and should not be considered investment advice. The reader is responsible for his or her own financial decisions.  The writer is not a financial planner or investment advisor, and reading this column should not be interpreted as obtaining individual financial planning or investment advice. For major financial decisions it is always wise to consult skilled professionals. While an effort has been made to be accurate, any statements of fact should be independently checked if important to the reader.

Disclosure:  The author of this column holds XTR (and has held ZMI, although not currently) and CBD. I also hold some SIF120. No compensation by any company has been offered, requested or received for writing this column.

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