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Kings of Pain loaded with investment lessons

Never buy an investment product without first checking how it performed in 2008.

The financial crisis was the ultimate stress test for mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. The crisis didn't last one precise calendar year, but 2008 was where the most damage was done. The S&P/TSX composite index fell 33 per cent, the S&P 500 fell 23.8 per cent and the MSCI World Index fell 29.4 per cent (both latter indexes measured in Canadian dollars).

The up and down stock markets we've seen lately are a far cry from 2008, but they do remind us that it's important to have an idea of how our investments might perform in a falling market. In this edition of the Portfolio Strategy column, we look at mutual funds and exchange-traded funds that fell hardest in 2008. Call them the Kings of Pain.

Here are six things we can learn from the Kings:

It's not all fun and games with commodities

High-flying commodity prices are the main story behind the success of the Canadian stock market in recent years. But reversals in commodity prices can be crushing.

The average natural resource equity mutual fund was on a multi-year roll of delivering fat double-digit returns heading into mid-2008. By the end of that year, these funds averaged 12-month losses of 45.5 per cent and, as you can see on the accompanying chart, several lost more than half their value.

It's the same story with Canadian equity and Canadian focused equity funds with big weightings in commodity stocks. Losses of between 40 and 50 per cent were not uncommon.

Rising commodity prices are a function of strong economic growth, which is by no means assured when you look at what's happening in the United States, Europe and even China, where the government is trying to rein in growth to control inflation. Don't give up on commodities, but do monitor your exposure to ensure it's not excessive.

Be careful how you get your gold

The price of gold has been hitting new highs lately, a reminder of how investors regard it as a haven in uncertain times. But the experience of 2008 shows that investors have to be discriminating in how they buy exposure to gold or they won't get the safe haven benefits.

Gold bullion prices did rise a little bit in 2008, and yet investors holding precious metal mutual funds lost 40 per cent on average that year. One explanation is that precious metal funds typically hold a large percentage of their assets in gold mining stocks, which fell hard in 2008.

Gold stocks are certainly a way to benefit from a rising gold price, but don't expect to get the same crisis protection as actual gold. For that, you want a gold bullion fund or ETF.

Small stocks, big risks

Canadian small- and mid-cap funds ranked right up there with natural resource funds in terms of shocking setbacks in 2008. The average loss for the category was about 40 per cent, but harsher losses were not uncommon.

The entire stock market was a disaster area in 2008 - even the big blue chips that make up the S&P/TSX 60 index fell about 33 per cent. But the less well established companies in small-cap funds were a fair bit worse.

Note that resource stocks are a popular holding with some small cap funds, which means you're getting a double dose of risk.

Beware of currency hedging

Currency hedging means whatever happens in currencies should not affect your portfolio - for better and for worse. This is great at times when our dollar is rising and therefore reducing the value of investments from other countries, but bad when the loonie is on a sharp downtrend.

That's what happened in 2008 - the U.S. dollar was the safe currency and investors bailed on others, including the Canadian buck. If you owned non-hedged mutual funds or ETFs, you had currency working in your favour in 2008 (okay, at least it helped lessen your losses a bit).

We've already seen that the S&P 500 fell 23.8 per cent in 2008 in Canadian dollars; in U.S. currency the decline was 38.5 per cent. What happened if you tracked the S&P 500 using an ETF with currency hedging? The answer can be found in the 40.3-per-cent loss posted by the iShares S&P 500 Index Fund, listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol XSP.

The math of losing and regaining money is cruel but not beyond hope

Mackenzie Universal Canadian Resource Fund lost a rather sharp 56.2 per cent in 2008, but didn't it more than bounce back the next year with a gain of 67.4 per cent? Not really. In fact, big losses can only be offset by much bigger gains.

If you own an investment that falls 50 per cent in value, you need it to double the next year to get back to where you started (this did happen to a few funds in 2009). If you have patience and a good fund manager, you can also make back your losses over time. According to, a $1,000 investment in Mackenzie Universal Canadian Resource in January, 2008, would now be worth about $11,042.

No bond or balanced funds on the list

One of the best performing categories in 2008 was global bond funds, which benefited from both a rush out of stocks and into bonds, and from the decline of the Canadian dollar. Canadian bond funds averaged a gain of 2.8 per cent.

Balanced funds, which contain varying mixes of stocks and bonds, could not avoid losing money. But the bonds they held had the effect of capping their losses. The average Canadian-balanced fund with a tilt toward stocks over bonds lost 21.3 per cent in 2008, which isn't even close to King of Pain levels.

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Widely available mutual funds and exchange-traded funds that lost 40 per cent or more of their value in 2008, the worst year of the global financial crisis.

FundCategory2008 loss (%)2009 gain (%)5-yr Rtn (%)*MER (%)Assets ($-mil)
TD Canadian EquityCdn Focused Eq-,512
Mackenzie Univ Canadian Resource Ntrl Resources-,803
Dynamic Power Canadian Growth Cdn Focused Eq-51.454.92.92.321,756
Sprott Canadian EquityNtrl Resources-43.736.07.02.811,690
Mackenzie Cundill Recovery 'C' Global Small Cap-53.860.34.92.521,627
iShares S&P 500 Index Fund (C$ Hedged)U.S. Equity-40.322.9-1.20.241,565
Investors Summa SRI FundCdn Focused Eq-49.655.6-0.22.691,049
Investors Canadian Natural Resource ANtrl Resources-49.6138.38.92.701,044
iShares MSCI EAFE Index (C$ Hedged)Intrnl Equity-40.618.1-3.30.501,044
RBC O'Shaughnessy U.S. ValueU.S. Equity-44.024.8-1.51.50905
Dynamic Global ValueGlobal Equity-43.847.30.62.39901
Dynamic Focus+ Resource Ntrl Resources-50.7113.015.84.19886
Investors Euro Mid-Cap-AEuropean Equity-41.227.4-0.32.71810
Manulife Growth OpportunitiesCdn Small Cap-40.557.64.62.65790
Sentry REITReal Estate Eq-42.736.62.72.65787
Investors Canadian Small Cap ACdn Small Cap-
Sprott Gold And Precious MetalsPrecious Metals-49.6113.88.92.84701
AGF Canadian Growth Equity ClassCdn Small Cap-
Dynamic Power Global Growth ClassGlobal Equity-
Mackenzie Univ Precious MetalsPrecious Metals-
Dynamic Power American GrowthU.S. Equity-
RBC Global EnergyNtrl Resources-50.040.9-0.42.09489
Manulife Advantage Cdn Focused Eq-51.145.0-0.22.46487
Sceptre Equity Growth-A Cdn Small Cap-
RBC Global ResourcesNtrl Resources-49.648.812.22.21392
BMOSpecial EquityCdn Small Cap-47.654.77.32.41355
AGF Canadian Resources Class Ntrl Resources-
DMP Resource Class Ntrl Resources-
Investors Global Natural Resource ANtrl Resources-44.467.97.02.84343
Mackenzie Univ Emerging Markets ClassEmerg Markets-40.444.86.82.53308
Dynamic Power Small CapCdn Small Cap-
Mackenzie Growth Cdn Focused Eq-59.963.4-2.72.43301
* Rtn to June 30. Source:

© 2007 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved.

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