The Quest to be 30% Richer

*A quick note – next week I will be discussing the recent market events, but had this written already last week and didn’t want it to go to waste. 

** Performance numbers presented here all come from Questrade’s own website. They also represent the most recent numbers available.

Money Can 

Questrade is Canada’s fastest growing online advisory service that has built its business on the back of a catchy refrain: “Retire up to 30% richer”. There ads are everywhere and the simple and straightforward message has landed with a punch. The principle behind their slogan is that, over enough time, the amount of money you can save in fees by transferring to their online platform can be worth a substantial amount when that saved money is able to compound.

Competing on the price of financial advice has become common place, especially as people have become increasingly comfortable doing more online. Online “robo-advisors” dispense with all that pesky one-on-one business through your bank and have focused on providing the essentials of financial planning with a comfortable interface. Champions of lowering the costs of investing have hailed the arrival of companies like Questrade and Wealth Simple, believing that they would unsure in an era of low-cost financial advice.

Such a time has yet to materialize. For one thing, traditional providers of investments, like mutual fund companies, have learned to compete heavily in price, while an abundance of comparable low-cost investment solutions have given financial advisors a wider range of investments to choose from while being mindful of cost. Meanwhile, because internet companies have a business model called “scaling” which encourages corporations to rapidly expand on the backs of investors before they become profitable, its not clear whether robo-advisors are actually all that successful. Wealthsimple, one of the earliest and most prominent such services has broadened their business to include actual advisors meeting actual people, a decidedly more retrograde approach in the digital age.

Nevertheless, efforts to win over Canadians to these low cost model continue apace, and the market leader today is Questrade. So, what should investors make out of Questrade’s signature line? Can they really retire 30% richer?

Probably not.

First we should understand the mechanics of the claim. Looking through Questrade’s website we can see through their disclaimers that for each of their own portfolios they have taken the average five year returns for categories that align with each portfolio, the average fees for those categories and added back the difference in the costs. So, for their Balanced Portfolio they refer to the “Global Neutral Balanced Category” and the five-year number associated with that group of funds (the numbers seem to be drawn from Morningstar, the independent research firm that tracks stocks, mutual funds and ETFs).

Questrade assumptions
Figure 1

Thus, they arrive at an assumed ROR of 6.21% for five years, and then project that number into the future for the next 30 years. They also calculate the fee of 2.22% (the average for the category) and subtract that from the returns. And using those assumptions Questrade isn’t wrong. Assuming you received the average return and saved the difference in fees, over 30 years you’d be 30% richer.

Except you probably wouldn’t.

Questrade actually already has a five year performance history on their existing investments, and we can go and check to see how well they’ve actually done. Unfortunately for Questrade, their actual performance in practice is not considerably better than the average return against the categories they are comparing. For the last five years, Questrade’s 5 year annualized performance is 4.92%, less than 0.3% better than the category average of 4.66%.

But wait, there’s more!

Questrade Balanced Portfolio Performance
Figure 2

Keep in mind that Questrade’s secret sauce is not the intention to outperform markets, merely to get the average return and make up the difference in fees, but when put into practice it isn’t even 1%, let alone 2% ahead of their average competitors. In fact, we could go so far as to say the Questrade is a worse than average performer since if we assumed the same fees were to apply, Questrade’s performance would be significantly below the average return. In fact, for the purposes of their own history the above performance is shown GROSS of fees. Yes, if you read the fine print you discover that Questrade has not deducted its own management costs from these returns, meaning that the real rate of return would be 4.54%, officially below the average they are trying to beat!

Questrade Extra Disclaimer
Figure 3

Fidelity Global Neutral Comparison
Figure 4 This has been taken from Morningstar and compares the B Series Fidelity Global Balanced Portfolio performance against its category, Global Neutral Balanced. Performance for the individual fund is better than the 5 year average of Questrade’s comparable investment, and ahead of the five year average for the category of 4.66%. This should not be construed as an endorsement of Fidelity or any investment they have.

There is a temptation towards smugness and finger wagging, but I think its more important to ask the question “Why is this the case?” The argument for passive index ETFs has been made repeatedly, and its argument makes intuitive sense. Getting the market returns at a low price has shown to beat active management over some time periods. So why would Questrade underperform, particularly when markets have been relatively stable and trending up? I have my theories, but it should really be incumbent on Questrade to explain itself. What does stand out about this situation is that if you are unhappy with your performance THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT! Questrade’s portfolios represent their best mix, and do not allow you to make substitutions or even really get an explanation for the under-performance. The trade off in low cost alternatives is all the personalization, flexibility and face to face conversations that underpin the traditional advisor client relationship.

Given all the regulations that surround investing, I remain surprised that Questrade is able to advertise a hypothetical return completely detached from their actual returns, but that is yet another question that should be settled by people who are not me. Questrade has some benefits, not least is their low fees, but investors should be honest with themselves about how beneficial low fees are in a world when there are many options and the cost of navigating those options represents their best chance at retiring happy and secure.

As always, if you have questions, need some guidance or just a second opinion, please contact me directly at

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

COVID-19 is a Black Swan, What Does That Mean?

disease epidemic New coronavirus “2019-nCoV”, handwritten text.

Late last week markets began to take the novel corona virus very seriously, and returns started to walk back from the all time highs earlier in the month. That retreat accelerated this week as COVID-19 virus fears exploded and the potential of a wide ranging global pandemic seemed possible despite the enormous efforts of the Chinese to quarantine and contain the virus. In South Korea, Italy, Iran, Japan, Canada and the United States the virus has appeared in varying states of severity, and are sparking varying degrees of public health responses.

COVID-19 strikes me as a black swan event, an unpredictable outlier that can’t really be planned for. An “unknown unknown”. Governments have plans in place to deal with epidemics, and learn from past outbreaks, but can’t plan for a virus they don’t know about and proves to be better than the precautionary measures already established to contain such events. In the instance of COVID-19, the virus seems very virulent, spreading rapidly but also having a long incubation time. You may not show any signs of the virus, and, in a cruel twist, many people with the disease may only have mild symptoms, making it easily confused with the common cold and less likely for an infected person to seek treatment while being an effective transmitter.

Dow Jones Industrial Average
The Dow Jones Industrial Average over the last month. 

Markets have capitulated to the fear that this virus is dangerous and will have an outsized impact on the global economy, already in a much weaker state than market returns suggested. But like all black swans what happens next will determine how serious it becomes. For my own part I believe the virus is serious, but that the 2% mortality rate may only apply to China, and that it is likely lower with a much larger pool of diagnosed people obscuring the data. This is backed up somewhat by the much smaller number of fatalities in other countries, including Japan and South Korea. What black swans really do is expose a society’s resiliency.

Resiliency is something I’ve discussed before, and it comes into play here. Iran is proving to be one of the more virulent places for the disease, with underreporting of people who have contracted it, a number of government officials who now test positive for it, and a number of cases in foreign countries linking back to Iran, the reality is that Iran’s problem is one of resiliency planning compared to richer countries that have well established protocols for dealing with public health emergencies and the money to dedicate to them. By comparison Iran faces long standing economic sanctions while simultaneously engaging in expensive (and somewhat successful) proxy wars for hegemony in the middle east, ignoring wider investment in public infrastructure.

But resiliency covers a wider range of issues. From an investment standpoint diversified portfolios containing a wide selection of asset classes and geographic allocations are safer because they tend to be more resilient, and not through any confusing magic. Debt, both long term and short term, erode resiliency as they eat away at your ability to respond to new problems while shackling you to existing commitments. In terms of managing the economy, interest rates are also a form of resiliency, and the ability to cut rates or raise them speaks to the strength of an economy. A cursory glance at these issues might give one pause, since Canadians have all time records of debt, and an attempt in 2018 to raise interest rates for the wider health of the economy led to a rapid sell off at the end of the year, while in 2019 central banks cut rates almost everywhere to prop up a softening global economy.

COVID-19 is a significant challenge that I believe the world is up for, but as a black swan I suspect its impact will be felt more in its economic fallout. As we move into the second quarter of the year a clearer picture will emerge at just how serious the economic impact of the virus, and efforts to contain it, really have been. Given some of the existing issues within the economy, as well as those currently being stressed by the fraying of international trade, the corona virus has the potential to push economies into recession. At which point all citizens should ask, just how resilient is my country, and just how resilient am I?

Have questions about the resiliency of your portfolio? Please feel free to give me a call or send an email.

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Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.