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Bond ETFs: your owner's manual

These alternatives to individual bonds or bond mutual funds offer several advantages. But many people don't understand how to get the most from them

rcarrick@globeandmail.com

The seemingly simple bond ETF could be the most misunderstood investment of the past few years.

Exchange-traded funds holding bonds account for a little over 25 per cent of the $42-billion invested in ETFs in Canada, and they make up four of the 10 largest ETFs. Investors have clearly taken to bond ETFs as an efficient, low-cost alternative to both bond mutual funds and buying bonds individually.

But if the queries I get from readers are any indication, some of the people buying bond ETFs don't fully understand how they work. To clear things up, this edition of the Portfolio Strategy has been designed as a bond ETF owner's manual.

Product description

A bond ETF is a vehicle for investing in any one of a wide variety of indexes tracking bonds of all types, including those issued by governments and both blue-chip and less financially stable corporations. Ideally, investors get the return of the index tracked by a bond ETF, minus the management expense ratio and any fees charged by an investment adviser (not applicable to do-it-yourself investors).

Bond ETFs trade like a stock, so brokerage trading commissions must also be considered. Note that some brokers now offer commission-free ETF trading (details at tgam.ca/DFxL).

How to use a bond ETF

Some bond ETFs are designed to provide diversified all-in-one coverage to the entire bond market, including government and corporate bonds. Other products are designed to allow investors to shape their own bond portfolio. For example, they could combine low-yielding but safe short-term government and corporate bonds with real-return bonds for inflation protection and high-yield bonds for extra returns (and risk).

How bond ETFs differ from actual bonds

Like bonds, bond ETFs will rise in price when interest rates fall and decline when rates rise. But whereas a bond will eventually mature and pay you your investment back, bond ETFs continue to track their respective bond indexes without ever maturing.

How interest is paid

Even though individual bonds typically pay interest twice a year, many bond ETFs pay interest on a monthly basis. Some ETFs pay more or less the same amount every month, while others vary the amount of cash somewhat.

How the income from bond ETFs is taxed

Mainly interest income, but you may see some capital gains and also a small return of capital as well if you own a growing ETF. That's due to accounting rules for ETFs that take in lots of new money.

What you'll pay to own bond ETFs

At the low end, investors can pay as little as 0.17 per cent to own a bond ETF holding short-term bonds. It's hard to see why, but MERs are higher for ETFs holding longer-term bonds, corporate bonds and high-yield bonds. MERs at the top end come in around 0.65 per cent, which compares with an average of 1.2 per cent for the 10 largest bond mutual funds.

The argument for owning bond ETFs instead of individual bonds

Small investors are at a disadvantage in the bond market from the get-go: Institutional investors - such as the ones managing bond ETFs - pay a fair bit less to buy bonds than individual investors. The lower the price paid for a bond, the higher the yield.

How to tell what return you're making from bond ETFs

Do not make the mistake of getting a stock quote for a bond ETF and judging your actual return by using the yield displayed. This yield number is based on the previous 12 months' worth of interest payments and the current share price for the bond ETF. Use this so-called distribution yield as a guide to how much income you can expect from the ETF, much like the coupon on a bond. The coupon represents the interest payments a bond makes.

The correct measure of the return on a bond ETF is yield to maturity, which can be found on the product profiles that all companies selling exchange-traded funds offer on their websites. Yield to maturity is an estimated number because of various assumptions that go into the calculation. Still, as one ETF industry person puts it, "it's the best you can do" to determine your yield. One further step: Reduce the displayed yield to maturity by the management fee to get a net return.

Some investors nevertheless continue to focus on the distribution yield over yield to maturity, and it's easy to see why. In virtually all cases today, the distribution yield is much higher. Take the largest bond fund in Canada, the iShares DEX Universe Bond Index Fund (XBB): The distribution yield is 3.6 per cent and the yield to maturity is 2.3 per cent.

Why the discrepancy? Because a lot of the bonds in XBB were issued at a time when interest rates were higher than they are now. These bonds have risen above their issue price as a result, but they'll gradually move back to that level as they approach their maturity date. This price decline is factored into yield to maturity, which represents a total return that includes both the interest you'll get and expected changes in the bond ETF share price.

Note that yield to maturity isn't permanently lower than distribution yield. If interest rates move sharply higher, we could see a reversal of this pattern.

Miscellaneous terms you should know

•Weighted average coupon: An averaging of the interest payments made by bonds in the portfolio according to their weighting. Doesn't factor in price movements for the bonds.

•Weighted average duration: A measure of sensitivity to interest-rate changes. However many years of duration a portfolio of bonds has on average, that's how many percentage points it will fall in price if rates climb by a single percentage point (the opposite applies, too). XBB has a duration of 6.7 years, which means an increase of one point would cause it to fall by 6.7 points. Short- and long-term bond ETFs in the iShares family have durations of 2.6 and 13.7 years.

•Weighted average term: The average time period over which bonds in the ETF will mature.

•Ratings: Tells you how bond-rating agencies have sized up the bonds held in the portfolio. Triple-B and higher are considered high quality. Less than that will give you higher returns, but more risk.

For more personal finance coverage, follow me on Twitter (rcarrick) and Facebook (Rob Carrick).

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BOND ETF INVENTORY

Here's a list of TSX-listed exchange-traded funds that track Canadian market bond indexes.

Company/ETFTickerPrice ($)Distrib. Yield(%)Yield toMaturity(%)Mgt. Fee(%)Duration(years)
BMO ETFs
BMO Aggregate Bond Index ETFZAG-T15.943.52.40.286.7
BMO Short Federal Bond Index ETFZFS-T15.192.61.10.202.5
BMO Mid Federal Bond Index ETFZFM-T16.6331.90.206.7
BMO Long Federal Bond Index ETF ZFL-T17.813.42.60.2014.3
BMO Real Return Bond Index ETFZRR-T18.1320.30.2516.7
BMO Short Provincial Bond Index ETFZPS-T15.0541.40.252.9
BMO Short Corporate Bond Index ETFZCS-T15.0442.40.302.9
BMO Mid Corporate Bond Index ETFZCM-T15.614.73.70.305.8
BMO Long Corporate Bond Index ETFZLC-T17.054.94.80.3012.7
BMO High Yield US Corporate Bond ZHY-T14.928.18.20.554.6
Claymore
Claymore 1-5 Yr Laddered Government Bond ETFCLF-T20.414.51.50.152.9
Claymore 1-10 Yr Laddered Government Bond ETFCLG-T20.244.41.90.154.2
Claymore 1-5 Yr Laddered Corporate Bond ETFCBO-T20.474.62.20.252.9
Claymore 1-10 Year Laddered Corporate Bond ETFCBH-T20.245.7n/a0.25n/a
Claymore Advantaged Canadian Bond ETFCAB-T20.93.22.40.305.9
Claymore Advantaged High-Yield Bond ETFCHB-T19.597.98.50.504.7
Claymore Advantaged Convertible Bond ETFCVD-T19.35.35.80.453.5
iShares
DEX Universe Bond Index FundXBB-T31.53.62.30.306.7
DEX All Corporate Bond Index FundXCB-T21.214.33.20.405.9
DEX All Government Bond Index FundXGB-T21.993.120.357
DEX HYBrid Bond Index FundXHB-T20.665.550.456.2
DEX Long Term Bond Index FundXLB-T23.193.93.40.3513.9
DEX Real Return Bond Index FundXRB-T25.751.80.30.3516.7
DEX Short Term Bond Index FundXSB-T29.323.21.40.252.6
DEX Short Term Corp. Universe + Maple Bond Index FundXSH-T20.043.82.20.252.8
PowerShares
1-5 Year Laddered Investment Grade Corp. Bond Index ETFPSB-T20.244.52.30.252.7
Ultra DLUX Long Term Government Bond Index ETFPGL-T22.443.830.2514.4
Fundamental High Yield Corp. Bond (CAD Hedged) IndexPFH-T19.476.46.40.654.1
Vanguard
Canadian Aggregate Bond Index ETFVAB-T25.4n/a2.30.206.6
Canadian Short-Term Bond Index ETFVSB-T25.18n/a1.40.152.6

Notes:

For the best indication of the future return you will get from a bond ETF, subtract the management fee from the yield to maturity.

Distribution yield is a backward-looking gauge of a bond ETF's return based on its current share price.

Duration is a measure of sensitivity to interest rate changes; the longer the duration, the more sensitive a bond ETF is.

Prices and yield data are to Dec. 15.

Source: Globeinvestor.com, ETF company websites

© 2007 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved.

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