Forever In Search of Greener Pastures

Takabisha_roller_coaster
Fun for the family, not for your RRSP…

Over the past few years, the growing chorus from the media about Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and their necessity within a portfolio has approached a near deafeining volume. In case you’ve forgotten, ETFs are the low cost investment strategy – frequently referred to as passive investments – that mimic indices, providing both the maximum up- and down-sides of the market.

I continue to harbour my doubts about the attractiveness of such investments, though I do use them from time-to-time when the situation calls for it. On the whole, though, I find it interesting that Canadian investors have been reluctant to walk away from their mutual funds, despite the assurance by talking heads that costs are too high and that ETFs are more attractive.

businessweek_png_CROP_article568-large

This isn’t the first time that Canadians have been encouraged to broaden their investment horizons and adopt “better” vehicles for their money. Hedge funds were once an investment option for only the most wealthy, but eventually they found their way into the mainstream of investment solutions. The result was a flood of new money, which made some star managers household names, extensively broadened their investment reach and lined their pockets. The industry, once a niche, became far more commonplace. And why wouldn’t Canadians want a slice of an investment strategy that promised to be able to make money regardless of the market conditions? There has been a regular supply of managers promising to short stocks, juggle derivatives, and leverage cash to deliver positive returns regardless what was transpiring in the world. All of them (or almost; I will assume that there were some lucky ones) have fallen decidedly short. Canadians were largely let down by the last “big thing”.

The appeal of investments that are not mutual funds is understandable. Mutual funds are boring, and ubiquitous. Canadians have a lot of them, and almost without exception they make up the majority of any average portfolio. The workaday nature of these investments gives people the nagging feeling that the wealthiest among us very likely have something different, something better than what can be bought at any bank or offered by any financial advisor.

In some respects, this is true: more money does, in fact, open doors to different investment opportunities. However, people might be surprised at how small a percentage they make of any portfolio, even those that belong to the wealthiest 0.01% of Canadians, and before seeking to participate in these, we should be mindful of the lessons associated with the broadening hedge fund market. For the last three years, hedge funds have been badly underperforming in Canada, well out of line with either mutual funds or indexes. The reasons for this are not immediately obvious, as hedge fund managers offer many explanations as to their lacking performance while giving a mix of investment bombast and optimistic views about “next year.” 

One idea, floated back in 2013, was that hedge funds were good because they were smaller, when money was limited but opportunities seemed abundant. As more money has poured into the hedge fund world, that balance has shifted. Now there is too much money and the opportunities are too sparse. This is an explanation that I think has merit, but will unlikely be echoed by the proprietors of such products.

ETFs, of course, are a different animal altogether and are therefore unlikely to befall the same existing fate of hedge funds and their rock star managers. But the ease and cost effectiveness of these funds has inspired a slew of new products that either invest in smaller, more volatile markets, or are so complicated that they cannot be properly understood, and thereby expose investors to risk they may not be prepared for.

screen%20shot%202015-04-13%20at%207_46_04%20am

A colleague of mine described the coverage in the press as being one of “getting all the facts right and still drawing the wrong conclusion”. Canadians don’t continue to stick with Mutual funds because they are oblivious to higher costs, but because volatility and the fear of loss is of much greater concern and poses a bigger set of risks for investors than the cost of their holdings. And while it is true that, over time, ETFs may perform slightly better than actively managed funds, most of us cannot afford to be approaching our investments on a decade-by-decade level. In bad markets people are loath to sit back and simply “wait it out” as their portfolio value continues to drop without alternative. As a result, this “passive investment” strategy, while seemingly attractive, is not realistically an appropriate alternative to the traditional “active management” strategy of mutual funds, which provide an opportunity to deal with risk and keep people invested – which, to my mind, is what truly counts for long term success.

Why Buy an ETF?

Exchange Traded FundIt’s become an excepted fact amongst business reporters that the best investments to buy are ETFs, otherwise known as Exchange Traded Funds. What is an ETF and why are so many journalists convinced that you should buy them? Well an ETF is a fancy way to describe an investment that looks very similar too, (but isn’t quite) a stock market index. Unlike mutual funds, the ETF is bought and sold like a stock, but mirrors the performance of an index of your choosing, and by extension all the companies that make up that index. In that respect it shares the (supposedly) best aspects of both stocks and mutual funds. It is traded quickly and is quite inexpensive compared to a traditional fund, but unlike a stock is widely diversified and so should have reduced risk compared to a single company.

In the aftermath of 2008, many journalists that cover the investment portion of the news have touted ETFs as a better investment than traditional mutual funds, citing underperformance against respective benchmarks and the significant discount on trading costs for holding ETFs. ETFs represent a “passive investment”, meaning they don’t try to out perform their mirrored indexes, instead you get all of the ups, and all of the downs of the market. This message of lower fees and comparable performance has had some resonance on investors, and questions about ETFs are some of the most frequent I receive, however while I am not opposed to ETFs I am very hesitant about giving them a blanket endorsement.

That’s because I don’t know anybody who is happy with 100% risk. In the great wisdom of investing the investor should stay focused on “long term” returns and ignore short term fluctuations in the market. But investors are people, and people (this may shock you) are not cold calculating machines. They live each day as it comes and fret over negative news, get too excited about positive news and are generally greedy when they shouldn’t be. In short, people aren’t naturally good investors and being encouraged to buy an investment like an ETF exclusively on cost alone opens up all kinds of other problems for people who find that the market makes them nervous, or may be closing in on retirement. The passive nature of an ETF may be right for some people, but that decision will rarely depend solely on the cost of the product.

The hype for ETFs is therefore more comparable to buying a car exclusively on price based on the argument that all cars function the same way. But depending on your needs there may be multiple aspects you want to consider: size, safety, speed, etc. Investments are similar, with different products offering different benefits its important not to let greed set all of your investment designs. Investing is typically about retirement, not about maximizing every last dollar the market can offer. Reaching retirement is about balancing those investor needs with their wants, and frequently providing less downside at the expense of some of the performance is preferable to the full volatility of the financial markets.