For years I’ve railed against Canada’s mutual fund industry for high fees, conflicts of interest, lack of performance, disclosure, and accountability. But today I’m going to zero-in on the real problem with mutual funds – closet indexing.

Canadian equity mutual funds sold by Canada’s big banks, in particular, are some of the biggest offenders. CIBC Canadian Equity Fund closely resembles the S&P/TSX 60 Index – a fund made up of Canada’s largest companies. The fund doesn’t attempt to differentiate itself from the index, yet it charges a management expense ratio (MER) of 2.38 percent.

The 10-year performance of the S&P/TSX 60 Index isn’t terrific, with annual returns of just 4.9 percent. But CIBC’s Canadian Equity Fund returns have been abysmal at just 1.7 percent per year for the decade.

Is that surprising? It shouldn’t be. A fund that makes no real attempt to differentiate from the index stands no chance of beating its benchmark. Add a grossly expensive 2.38 percent MER and you have a closet indexing laggard.

CIBC’s fund is a bit player in the market, with assets under management of around $244 million. By comparison, TD’s Canadian Equity Fund manages $4.9 billion. It’s a cash cow for TD and its advisors, charging a similarly outrageous 2.17 percent MER. The fund holds 60 large-cap Canadian companies and once again makes no real attempt to stand out from the broader Canadian index.

Closet Indexing is the dirty little secret of Canada's mutual fund industry

Canada’s closet indexing problem

“If you deliver index-like returns, you should charge index-fund-like fees.”

That’s what American researchers concluded in 2015 when they revealed that the Canadian mutual fund industry is the world leader in closet indexing. Estimates showed that about 37 percent of the assets in equity mutual funds sold in Canada are in closet index funds.

The key takeaway here is that if your portfolio is made up of mutual funds sold to you by your bank advisor, it’s highly likely that they’re closet index funds. Closet indexing means you’re paying higher fees than necessary while getting less than your fair share of market returns.

Not all mutual funds are bad, however. Index mutual funds, for example, track a broad stock index such as the TSX or S&P. Returns mimic the stock market index, or benchmark, that the fund tracks, minus a small management fee. On the flip side, some mutual funds attempt to beat returns from a broader stock market index by taking a more active role in selecting stocks and timing the market.

Firms such as Mawer have had a successful long-term track record in large part because their holdings differentiate from the index that it’s trying to beat. Mawer’s Canadian Equity Fund has delivered returns of 8.3 percent annually over the last decade, compared to the S&P/TSX Composite Index, which returned 4.7 percent over the same period.

The jury is out as to whether Mawer can continue this outperformance into the future, but the company has two things going in its favour.

For one, Mawer charges relatively small fees for its mutual funds. The Canadian equity fund, which manages $760 million in assets, charges just 1.22 percent MER, which is roughly half of what the closet indexing big bank mutual funds charge.

The second advantage Mawer has over the big banks is that its funds tend to have a high active share, an indicator which measures how much a fund’s portfolio deviates from its benchmark.

A fund with an active share of 0 is identical to the underlying index (i.e. a closet indexer), whereas a fund with an active share of 100 has nothing in common with the index.

In Mawer’s Canadian Equity Fund you’ll find the usual suspects such as RBC and BMO, Telus and Rogers, CP and CN Rail. But the fund is limited to 42 holdings instead of 60-62, and within it you’ll also find smaller firms like Onex Corporation, Automation Tooling Systems, and Richelieu Hardware, to name a few.

These smaller, more concentrated bets help differentiate Mawer’s fund from the big banks’ closet indexing funds.

Final thoughts

Canadian investors pay too much and get too little in return. Closet indexing is one of the main reasons why. All of the banks have index mutual funds in their line-up, but your advisor has little incentive to even mention them to you. That’s because it’s “suitable” to sell you a higher fee closet index fund, even though it’s in your best interest to pay less and get better returns.

DIY investors have more options. Index ETFs track the broader stock market and most charge even less than the cheapest index mutual funds. Stock pickers can follow a dividend growth or value strategy to mimic their own Mawer fund, minus the management fee.

The bottom line is that if you discover your portfolio is filled with nothing but closet indexing mutual funds, ask your advisor about a lower cost index fund solution, or switch to a robo-advisor that can manage a low-cost portfolio of index ETFs on the cheap. Finally, if you’re comfortable enough to go it alone, open up a discount brokerage account and find an investing strategy that works for you.

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  1. Lawrie Dignan on February 20, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    is there a list of these type of funds somewhere that the consumer can easily see them ?
    If I was 100% sure ( without actually asking my shifty adviser ) which funds are classed as “closet funds” I could make thew changes on my own.

    • APF Blogger on February 20, 2017 at 8:45 pm

      @Lawrie, are you looking for passive investments? If so, it might be easier to come at it from the opposite angle, i.e. what are the lower fee index funds (or ETFs, or robo-advisor) options available. For index funds TD has the e-series. For ETFs Vanguard and iShares. For robo-advisors Rob Carrick recently wrote a little review for the Globe which is helpful.

    • Echo on February 21, 2017 at 7:59 am

      Hi Lawrie, the funds won’t be “classed” as closet index funds. That’s what makes them so insidious. In the Globe and Mail piece that I linked to in this blog it referenced a resource that they put together to measure active share amongst Canadian equity funds. Unfortunately, it’s only available for Globe and Mail subscribers, and I haven’t come across anything else like it. If you’re a subscriber, or know somebody who is, try this link:

  2. APF Blogger on February 20, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    Thanks for the great post. I first experienced the sticker shock of closet-indexer mutual funds about 8 years ago now, and never looked back once I learned of some alternatives (initially ETFs, and now robo-advisor as well). Regarding your comment that “Firms such as Mawer have had a successful long-term track record in large part because their holdings differentiate from the index that it’s trying to beat”: while you must have holdings that differentiate from the index in order to beat it, differentiation itself doesn’t bring results. That is, you can achieve lower returns through differentiation as well, which is the reality for a lot of investors who avoid indexing.

    • Echo on February 21, 2017 at 8:07 am

      Hi APF Blogger, thanks for stopping by. The point I was trying to make is that if an investor is going to pay for an actively managed mutual fund then at least choose a fund (or family of funds) that gives you a chance at outperformance (however small that chance may be). In Canada, the choices come down to a handful of funds such as Mawer, Leith Wheeler, Beutel Goodman & Company, and Steadyhand. Each have similar traits (which I mention in the post); low(er) cost, high(er) active share.

      I’m fully with you that indexing gives the vast majority of investors a better outcome simply by achieving market returns minus a very tiny fee.

      • Shaun on March 3, 2017 at 10:06 pm

        @ Echo
        First of I am a firm believer in vanilla indexing.

        Higher active share certainly does not guarantee outperformance of the index, but at least it does provide the possibility of outperformance. In or to beat the market you have to do something different than the market. That should be obvious.

        A less obvious but important point is how much you are paying for the active share of your mutual fund. For example if a mutual fund only a 50% active share and 2% MER, then you are really paying about 4% for the active portion because the passive portion can be invested in for free. If there is only a 10% active share and you are paying 2% MER, then you are paying 20% on the active share. It is next to impossible to pick winning stocks. It is impossible to pick stocks that will outperform by 20%.

  3. Denis on February 22, 2017 at 7:24 am

    When I started investing in my early 20’s, I quickly saw that with these outrageous fees and rules, it was insane to invest with them. I then went with bank dividend reinvestment and Bell. Afterwards I started doing the same with US equities and have not looked back.

    I made some bad investment on my own ( but bust showed me to stay away from risky assets like those and thus, retired at 54 (6 years ago).

    Due to this long bull market, I have not touched my capital and so have done better than plan. I went more US equities over the years with great success and using Norbet’s Gambit , moved a lot of Can$ to the US for basically fee free. The US being better for 1. more companies 2. more volume 3. better fills/bid-ask spreads smaller 4. diverse.

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