There's a mathematical formula that much of the investment industry wants to keep secret: Market gains minus fees equals returns to investors.
The formula is simple, and yet subversive because it could cause you to question some of your investments and the dealers through which you buy them. Cost is not the only consideration in choosing what to invest in and where to buy it, but savvy investors know it's a big factor.
Let's get you started thinking about costs by looking at some of the top investing bargains. You'll find these suggestions useful if you're making investment decisions for your registered retirement savings plan, and all year long.
Bargain No. 1: Low-cost mutual funds
A very small number of fund firms now offer a D-series of their lineup that is specifically targeted at do-it-yourself investors who neither receive nor want advice. The benefit of D-series funds is that their fees are not weighed down by trailing commissions, which are used by fund companies to pay advisers who sell their products.
Companies offering D funds include blue-chippers such as Phillips, Hager & North, Beutel Goodman and McLean Budden, all of which have some very competitive funds in their lineups. Royal Bank of Canada's huge mutual fund arm has a D series that strips out most but not all trailing commissions. D-series funds are also suitable for use in fee-based advisory accounts. Note: Mawer and Leith Wheeler are two other firms that sell funds ideal for DIY investors.
Bargain No. 2: Three bond funds
The first bond fund bargain offers a defensive way to get some exposure to the bond market at a time when interest rates are expected to rise and put downward pressure on bond prices. It's the Claymore 1-5 Year Laddered Government Bond ETF, which has a management expense ratio of just 0.16 per cent. This is a very strong alternative for the average small investor to building a ladder of one- through five-year government bonds.
If you prefer mutual funds to exchange-traded funds or don't have a brokerage account needed to access ETFs, then consider two funds that combine very low costs with top returns over virtually all time frames. One is Phillips, Hager & North Bond and the other is Beutel Goodman Income (note: we're talking about the D-series for each). The people running these funds flat out know what they're doing, and the returns they generate are eroded by far lower fees than almost all competitors charge.
Bargain No. 3: A balanced fund
All you need for a fully diversified RRSP portfolio is in Mawer Canadian Balanced RSP, which is made up of seven domestic and global stock and bond funds in the high-quality Mawer family.
At 0.98 per cent, the management expense ratio is less than half the average 2.11 per cent for the five largest funds in the global neutral balanced category. You could own an ETF portfolio for half of what this fund charges, but you'd have the cost of buying and rebalancing your ETFs. Mawer does it all for you, generating average annual returns of 8.3 per cent over the past 20 years.
Bargain No. 4: Another balanced fund
CI Signature High Income's management expense ratio of 1.58 per cent sounds high by the standard of the funds mentioned above. But it's actually quite a bargain because it includes compensation for investment advisers, whereas the previously mentioned funds do not.
Beyond the fee, what distinguishes this fund is a long record of returns that are consistently above average in the global neutral balanced category along with volatility that is well below average.
Bargain No. 5: Low-cost ETFs
Exchange-traded funds rule for low-cost investing, and Vanguard ETFs are consistently among the cheapest available. That's why Vanguard's funds are starting to take market share away from more established companies in the ETF world.
Vanguard ETFs are listed on the New York Stock Exchange, which means your broker will charge you foreign exchange fees to buy them. You'll have the offsetting benefit of paying ongoing ownership fees that are outrageously low. The Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) has a fee of 0.07 per cent and gives you exposure to both large and small companies in a single package. That's $7 (U.S.) in fees per $10,000 in invested.
Bargain No. 6: More low-cost ETFs
Listen up if you're avoiding ETFs because you invest regularly and don't want to continually pay brokerage commissions. Using the pre-authorized cash contribution plan offered by Claymore Investments through a variety of brokerage firms, you can make repeated purchases of Claymore ETFs at no cost once you've bought your initial position.
Claymore also offers no-charge dividend reinvestment for its ETFs, and a no-charge systematic withdrawal plan. Caution: Check with your broker before investing to see whether it offers these Claymore programs. Not all firms are on board.
Bargain No. 7: Low-cost online brokers
Questrade and Virtual Brokers are the low-cost leaders with a wide mix of registered and non-registered account types. They offer commissions for online stock trades that range from $5 (Canadian) to $10 for all customers, not just those with big accounts.
Most brokers now charge just below $10 for trades if you have $50,000 in assets; if not, then you'll pay $19 to $29. A unique exception is CIBC Investor's Edge, which charges $6.95 per online trade to customers who maintain $100,000 in total business with Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (brokerage plus banking).
Want to know how brokers compare on fees and other features? Check my latest ranking of online brokers: tgam.ca/onlinebrokers-2010.
Bargain No 8: Cheap index funds
Every cost-conscious investing writer has good things to say about the TD e-Series of index funds, but they remain obscure for two reasons. One, TD Asset Management spends zero to market them. Two, you have to buy them online from TDAM or TD Waterhouse online brokerage. The appeal of the e-Series is that it nails the prime attribute of an index-tracking investment - low fees. Management expense ratios for the e-Series range from 0.31 per cent to 0.5 per cent, which is strikingly close to ETF territory. In fact, the e-Series reminds me of what ETFs used to be: A compact, no-frills collection of portfolio-building components for smart investors.
TOP BARGAINS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Low-cost mutual funds for DIY investors: D Series funds
PH&N's D series funds have a $5,000 minimum investment, while RBC, Beutel Goodmana and McLean Budden have a $10,000 minimum.
Three bond funds: Beutel Goodman Income, PH&N Bond and Claymore 1-5 Yr Laddered Gov't Bond ETF
No investment minimum for the Claymore bond ETF, but you must pay a brokerage commission to buy and sell it.
A cheap balanced fund:
Mawer Canadian Balanced RSP
Available through online brokers with a $5,000 minimum and directly through Mawer if you live in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario and have a minimum $50,000 to invest.
Another balanced fund: CI Signature High Income
The minimum upfront investment is $500; available wherever funds are sold.
Low-cost ETFs: Vanguard
These ETFs are U.S.-listed, which means you're exposed to the ups and downs of our dollar against the U.S. buck and currency conversion costs.
More low-cost ETFs:
Claymore's PAC plan
Not all firms offer this program, which allows you to make regular purchases of Claymore ETFs without paying commission fees.
Low-cost online brokers: Questrade and Virtual
Low commissions mean you don't get a full selection of planning tools and research.
Cheap index funds:
TD's e series
The upfront minimum investment is just $100, and you pay nothing to buy or sell.
For selected top bargain picks from the blogosphere, go to http://tgam.ca/Bh6G
Find out more about investing bargains by checking a discussion I had with readers on my Facebook page at Rob Carrick - Personal Finance. Or, use this link: http://tinyurl.com/6em5xoh
© 2007 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved.
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