Wednesday, May 10, 2017

US Equity ETFs for Canadians

A while ago we covered ETF options for Canadian equities and Canadian bonds.  In this post we look at choices in Canadian listed US stock index ETFs.  A well diversified portfolio will have Canadian, US and International equities, along with bond and perhaps other offerings.

Why US Equities?

There are several reasons why every Canadian portfolio should hold at least one US equity ETF.
The US stock markets represent by far the biggest single country component in global equity assets, a bit over 36% currently according to a 2016 paper. The US equity markets are much better diversified than the Canadian equity market. If you believe in the school of  holding stocks that dominate their markets, many of the world's dominant companies are listed on US equity exchanges.

To Hedge or Not To Hedge

Many TSX listed US equity ETFs use currency hedging.  Canadian Couch Potato have provided a nice analysis of the issue of whether currency hedging is a good idea or not. Based on analysts' research. they conclude that in the case of US equities hedged to Canadian dollars that hedging "magnifies volatility rather than reducing it." We urge you to read the white papers linked in their posting, and examine commentary from experts in the last year or two, but overall it seems to us that there is no compelling case for hedging US equity ETFs to Canadian dollars. The market seems to support that view, with most twin products having somewhat larger holdings in the unhedged version.

Go Big or Go Mostly Big

Another choice to make when selecting a passive US equity ETF is whether to select a fund based on the S&P 500 index of the largest companies, or a broader index that includes medium sized companies as well. Wondering which companies are listed on the S&P 500? There is a handy S&P 500 list of companies here. I think there are arguments in both approaches - on the one hand the larger index might be argued to offer more complete diversification, while on the other hand a tiny percentage mainly of the largest companies have produced the vast majority of wealth generation over the long term. A really nice analysis by Michael Batnick shows that over the long term (last 15 years) only 8% of large cap US equities beat the index, only 5% of mid cap, and 7% of small cap.  This, and other analysis, suggests that it is not so much the size of the equity, but other factors, that cause most equities to produce zero or negative returns. While within Canada I think the larger index makes sense since the TSX 60 is so concentrated on banks, in the US the S&P 500 is well diversified across industries.

Good Choices

As was the case for Canadian bond and equity ETFs, we are in the fortunate position that there are multiple excellent choices in the US equity category, all with very modest costs. We suggest that you consider first the choices shown in the following table, but certainly other good choices exist.

As can be seen, all have large asset bases and reasonable MER, so any would be a good choice. If already invested in one, the slight differences probably do not justify the margin and commission costs of moving to another offering from the table. If making a first time purchase, I would probably consider VFV, which ties for the lowest MER, is not currency hedged, and has a large asset base.

HXS has one difference from the others that make it a good choice in certain situations.  It is swap based, which means that it does not hold the actual equities, but rather a bank based promise note that is based on those equities.  Dividends and distributions are built into the base price, but not paid directly.  Therefore income is taxed as a capital gain, and is only triggered when the units are sold. Also, there is not foreign withholding tax on income.  This makes HXS a good choice for some in unregistered accounts for those with variable incomes, and also in RESP and TFSA accounts.  HXS is also included in the Scotia iTRADE commission free list, which makes it a good choice for those purchasing in smaller amounts.

Closing Thoughts

We covered only ETFs listed on the TSX in this post.  Of course it is possible to hold US$ ETFs from the American markets within your discount brokerage.  Generally the MER is slightly less on this option, and the trading volume is much larger so liquidity is excellent. Of course you need to take into account the currency exchange costs, and you will need to do an analysis to see which is a better choice for you.

Rob Carrick annually, as part of his ETF series, has a guide to US equity ETFs, with the 2017 guide available to Globe readers here.  Also, star ratings can be helpful as you make your choice. Moneysense have their 2017 review of US equity ETFs here. They continue to see VUN as an excellent choice for most passive investors, and I would agree. While there is no doubt that the ETFs that concentrate on just the large companies will outperform in some market conditions, overall I see the broader VUN as a better choice, and one that should, in the long run, offer more consistent performance.

As mentioned earlier, I would make a choice centred on the S&P 500 and one which does not use currency hedging.

If your discount brokerage account is with Scotia iTRADE, and you are starting with modest amounts to invest, HXS is a good low cost choice with tax advantages when held outside a registered account. It is also a good choice held within a TFSA, since the foreign agreements that shelter income from foreign tax withholding in RRSP or RIF accounts do not apply to TFSA or RESP accounts.

I have not in this posting considered low volatility US equity ETFs, or international choices that include US equities.  Both of those topics will be considered in future posts.

This posting is intended for education only and should not be considered investment advice. The reader is responsible for their 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 the following ETFs mentioned in this article in one or more account: HXS, VUN.  No compensation by any company has been offered, requested or received for writing this column.

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