22 February 2019

Comparison of the All-in-One Diversified ETF Portfolios

The Globe and Mail, Dan Bortolotti, 22 February 2019

In many aspects of our lives, we embrace convenience. We buy prepared meals instead of assembling and cooking the ingredients ourselves. We shop in malls rather than driving to four or five individual stores. We recognize our time is valuable and our mental bandwidth is limited, so we look for very good solutions, not perfect ones.

Except when it comes to investing. It’s the one area where simple, excellent options are available, yet too many people resist them because they’re too, well, simple. Here’s hoping a recent trend in the ETF marketplace will help investors overcome that tendency.

In the past year or so, all three of Canada’s largest exchange-traded-fund providers have launched products that allow investors to own a complete portfolio with just one trade. Each includes a mix of global stocks and bonds, so anyone with a brokerage account can get extremely broad diversification with minimal maintenance and rock-bottom costs.

Vanguard Canada was the first ETF provider to launch one-ticket solutions just over a year ago, and iShares followed in December. Earlier this month, BMO joined the party with its own family of all-in-one portfolios.

Let’s look at a typical example: the Vanguard Balanced ETF Portfolio (VBAL). Like its counterparts, it’s a “fund of funds” built using seven underlying ETFs. There are three for fixed income: one each for Canadian, the United States, and global bonds. Then there are four equity components: Canadian, U.S., international developed and emerging markets. Vanguard has estimated that the portfolio offers exposure to about 94 per cent of the world’s public markets.

VBAL has a long-term target of 40-per-cent bonds and 60-per-cent stocks, which is the traditional split for a balanced portfolio. But there are other options for people with different risk profiles, ranging from just 20-per-cent stocks in the Vanguard Conservative Income ETF Portfolio (VCIP) to 80-per-cent stocks in the aggressive Vanguard Growth ETF Portfolio (VGRO). All the funds have the same components, just in different proportions.

The iShares and BMO families are very similar. They vary in their specific holdings, but they all include a target allocation of Canadian and non-Canadian bonds, plus an equity mix with one-quarter to one-third domestic stocks, with the remainder split between the U.S. and overseas markets. In all, we’re talking about thousands of stocks and bonds from around the world, which is all the diversification anyone needs.

Moreover, as markets move in different directions and at different rates, the ETFs will be rebalanced so they maintain those long-term targets. This feature makes them virtually maintenance-free, and it puts some competitive heat on robo-advisers, the online services that charge about 0.50 per cent and advertise automatic rebalancing as one of their key benefits.

And the price tag for this elegant portfolio? The management fees range from 0.18 per cent to 0.22 per cent, which is about 90-per-cent cheaper than traditional balanced mutual funds. On a $100,000 portfolio, the monthly cost is a little more than you’re paying for Netflix.

The good news is that these all-in-one ETF portfolios have been embraced by many do-it-yourself investors: VGRO, for example, has attracted more than $570-million in assets in barely a year. But there has been resistance, too. I’ve heard from many investors who are concerned the funds are not optimized for tax-efficiency, or that you could reduce your fees even further by buying the underlying holdings individually. But how many honestly believe they can build and maintain a better portfolio? In the real world – where people are busy with work and family, and would rather watch the hockey game than fiddle with a spreadsheet – no one manages their portfolio optimally.

Others dismiss these funds as cookie-cutter solutions, or argue that they’re only appropriate for very small accounts or unsophisticated investors. What nonsense. I’ve reviewed a lot of portfolios over the years, with six- and seven-figure balances, many of which were designed by people who manage money for a living. Almost none of them were more thoughtfully structured than what Vanguard, iShares and BMO have packed into a single ETF.

Are these products right for everyone? Certainly not. Are they perfect? No, but neither is any other option. And here’s the thing: You don’t need an optimal portfolio, you just need an excellent one. No one has ever failed to meet their financial goals because they had exposure to only 94 per cent of the world’s stock and bond markets, or because they failed to keep their investing costs lower than 0.18 per cent. Countless millions have failed by trying to do better.

Eating well and staying in shape takes a lot of effort: It’s much easier to flop on the couch and order pizza. Learning to speak Gaelic, playing the trombone, nurturing a romantic relationship – these take a lot of work. But successful investing is the opposite: You usually thrive by doing less, not more. With the appearance of these all-in-one ETFs, building an extremely well-diversified portfolio has never been easier or cheaper. The only problem that lingers is the one in the mirror.

Dan Bortolotti, CFP, CIM, is a portfolio manager at PWL Capital in Toronto. He is the creator of Canadian Couch Potato, an award-winning blog about index investing.

18 February 2019

Preview of Q1 2019 Earnings

The Globe and Mail, David Berman, 18 February 2019

Canada’s biggest banks are set to report their fiscal first-quarter results starting this week, and once again the focus is on deteriorating economic conditions and slower loan growth – a theme that ran through the latter half of 2018.

Royal Bank of Canada will kick things off on Friday, when it reports results for the three-month period ended Jan. 31. Next week, Bank of Montreal and Bank of Nova Scotia will report their respective financial results on Tuesday, followed by National Bank of Canada on Wednesday.

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Toronto-Dominion Bank will conclude the reporting season with their results on Feb. 28.

On average, analysts are expecting profit to increase just 3 per cent for the Big Six banks, year-over-year, and a mere 1 per cent from the previous quarter.

The subdued forecast reflects dimming optimism for the Canadian economy.

Many economists believe that the Bank of Canada has put interest-rate increases on hold, at least for the first half of this year. While employment gains were strong in January, there are continuing concerns about the Canadian housing market – where sales in Vancouver and Toronto have declined – and the energy sector, along with global uncertainty regarding trade and even the waning strength of the U.S. economy.

Bond yields, which surged last year in anticipation of rate hikes, fattening bank margins on loans, have fallen substantially. While lower yields will reduce borrowing costs for consumers, they suggest that demand for loans could be tempered if the economy stumbles.

RBC Dominion Securities recently reduced its price targets on a number of Canadian bank stocks, arguing that the various headwinds will leave shares trading at subdued valuations (or relatively low price-to-earnings ratios).

“Our forecast for relatively slower EPS [earnings per share] growth for the banks in 2019 and 2020 largely reflects our view that continued deceleration in domestic loan growth will slow revenue growth,” Darko Mihelic, an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities, said in a note.

He expects that personal loan growth will slow to just 2.9 per cent in 2019, down from 4.1 per cent in 2018, as today’s higher interest rates and sluggish economy weigh on mortgage underwriting activity. As a result, he estimates that revenue expansion for the Big Six banks will slow to 4.3 per cent in 2019, down from 5.7 per cent last year (when adjusted for acquisitions).

But the first-quarter results, in particular, have something else pressing on them: Volatile markets. The S&P/TSX Composite Index, among other major indexes, fell sharply from the end of August through most of December, overlapping with the banks’ fiscal quarter.

Analysts expect that the declines will weigh on banking activities such as trading and asset management.

“Everything from mutual fund fees to underwriting revenues will likely have been down. Trading, as ever, is a wildcard, but we do expect a sequential decline on that line as well,” Robert Sedran, an analyst at CIBC World Markets, said in a note.

The good news? Dividends are set to rise. Analysts expect that RBC, Scotiabank and TD will boost their quarterly pay outs in keeping with their recent pace of increases.

As well, bank stocks, which were hit hard last year, are now recovering nicely. The Big Six are up more than 9 per cent in 2019.

The rebound suggests that share prices may have been reflecting concerns over the economy back in December, when bank stock valuations fell to their lowest levels since the financial crisis a decade ago, and are now anticipating an improvement over the remainder of the year.

Indeed, some analysts believe that the low profit growth for the big banks in the fiscal first quarter will mark a starting point from which the banks will add earnings power as the year progresses, as loan losses remain low, profit margins expand slightly and bank revenue grows at a faster pace than expenses.

Mr. Sedran expects that the Big Six will report earnings growth of 6.5 per cent for fiscal 2019. While that marks a notable slowdown from 12 per cent in 2018, it implies that earnings will improve after a weak first quarter.

“While we share at least directionally the market’s concerns about the age of the economic cycle, we are unconvinced that it will show its age in fiscal 2019,” Mr. Sedran said.

01 February 2019

RBC Lowers Outlook on Banks

The Globe and Mail, David Berman, 1 February 2019

Canadian bank stocks have rebounded over the past six weeks after touching their lowest valuations since the financial crisis. But an enduring recovery rests on profit and revenue growth over the year ahead, and the outlook here is murky at best.

For sure, the stocks are enjoying some momentum right now. The Big Six have risen 11.4 per cent since Dec. 24, when the stocks traded at just 9.2-times estimated earnings, the lowest price-to-earnings ratio in nearly a decade.

But in the run-up to the start of the banks’ fiscal first-quarter reporting season on Feb. 26, some observers see potential hurdles, given a slowing Canadian economy and weak lending growth.

“We anticipate the economy will pick up again in 2020 – but during the slower economic period in 2019, risks will be elevated,” Darko Mihelic, an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities, said in a note to clients.

He cut his target prices (where he sees Canadian bank stocks trading within 12 months) by an average of 7.7 per cent on Friday, suggesting dimming enthusiasm. His target on Bank of Montreal fell to $112 from $126 previously, marking the biggest revision. His target on Toronto-Dominion Bank fell to $83 from $92.

Okay, the new targets imply average gains of about 17 per cent over the year ahead, which sounds good. But the revisions also suggest that bank stocks may be cheap for a good reason, which other analysts have also pointed out.

Gabriel Dechaine, an analyst at National Bank Financial, noted last month that low valuations imply serious concerns about the Canadian housing market. Of particular note: Residential mortgage growth – just 3 per cent in November, year-over-year – has descended to its lowest level in more than 20 years.

“Low valuations alone won’t attract investors to the sector. Indeed, we believe early 2019 housing issues could weigh on re-rating potential at least until we see stabilization in housing prices/mortgage volumes etc.,” Mr. Dechaine said in his mid-January note.

Mr. Mihelic put some numbers to his concerns. He reduced his 2019 and 2020 profit outlook for five of the Big Six banks (since he works for Royal Bank of Canada, RBC falls outside his coverage), by an average of 1.6 per cent.

He also cut his valuation targets for four banks (excluding National Bank of Canada, which is being buoyed by a strong Quebec economy, where it generates 58 per cent of its revenue), each by 0.5-times earnings. For example, he now expects TD will trade at 11.5-times earnings, down from a prior valuation target of 12-times earnings. His target for BMO falls to 11-times earnings, down from 11.5.

“We are lowering our target multiples for a number of reasons including a softer economic outlook and rising recessionary risks/late cycle concerns which could potentially lead to higher provisions for credit losses (PCLs) under IFRS 9,” Mr. Mihelic said, referring to new financial reporting standards.

Some of his numbers are sobering. He expects that personal and commercial loan growth will subside to just 2.9 per cent in 2019, down from 4.1 per cent in 2018 and 5 per cent in 2017.

Although business loan growth this year should be much stronger, at 6.9 per cent, that would mark a substantial slowdown from 11.3-per-cent growth last year.

Investors can always hope that the big banks will be able to squeeze more profit out of their revenues by cutting costs and introducing new technology. But even here, Mr. Mihelic is anticipating far more modest gains ahead. He expects that the banks’ efficiency ratios, which compare expenses with profit (lower is better), will dip only slightly in 2019, to 54.6 per cent from 54.8 per cent in 2018.

The takeaway here? Low valuations aren’t a compelling reason to bet big on banks right now, unless you can handle some bumps. “While the medium-term outlook is shrouded by uncertainty, we still like bank stocks over the longer-term,” Mr. Mihelic said.