Ready to Join The ETF Movement? Here Are 4 Tips To Get Started

Ready to join the ETF movement?

2017 was a good year for the Canadian ETF market, with total assets reaching nearly $146 billion at year-end. While a far cry from the $1.48 trillion that Canadian investors held in mutual funds, it still represents 28 percent growth for ETFs in Canada.

BlackRock’s iShares dominates the Canadian ETF market, boasting a 40 percent market share led by its flagship Canadian equity fund – iShares S&P/TSX 60 Index ETF (XIU).

Growth of ETFs in Canada

With some 650 ETFs on the market, and seemingly more added every day, the landscape has become cluttered with so many niche products that border on speculation.

This record growth in ETFs is catching the attention of industry experts. For example, the Toronto Star’s Gordon Pape writes, “What was once a cheap, simple way to invest in the broad stock market has become increasingly complex.”

My switch to indexing was all about keeping things simple. Whether you call it the two-ETF solution, or the four-minute portfolio, the fact is I prefer my ETFs to be as low cost and broadly diversified as possible.

Join The ETF Movement

With that in mind, if you’re thinking of joining the ETF movement this year I’d like to share four tips to help get you started:

1) Stick to core funds

ETFs allow you to invest in broad indexes at accessible prices. There’s no reason to get cute here; stick to core funds like Canadian equities, Canadian bonds, U.S. and International equities.

Just a few of these funds can give access to broad exposures of stocks and bonds that can meet your investment goals.

For example, a balanced portfolio of iShares Core Funds could look something like this:

  • 20 percent in XIC – iShares Core S&P/TSX Capped Composite Index ETF
  • 40 percent in XAW – iShares Core MSCI All Country World ex Canada Index ETF
  • 40 percent in XBB – iShares Core Canadian Universe Bond Index ETF

The total MER on this portfolio would be an insanely cheap 0.14 percent.

For more ideas on how to build a portfolio to suit your level of risk, check out BlackRock’s iShares Core sample portfolio tool.

Note – sample portfolio for illustrative purposes only.

2) Less is more

This tip applies to all aspects of investing.

Less is more when it comes to the number of ETFs you own. I’ve seen portfolios built with as many as 10 or 12 ETFs. Rebalancing must be a nightmare. Stick with two to four funds, max, and simplify your portfolio.

Less is more when it comes to trading. Most brokerages still charge $10 per trade, so if you’re adding money to your account on a regular basis try to limit your trades to once per month, or even once per quarter, to save on trading fees.

Less is more when it comes to tinkering with your asset allocation. Two of the top questions I get from investors who want to get into ETFs are, ‘how often do I adjust my asset allocation based on market conditions?’ and, ‘is now a good time to start investing in ETFs?’

While investments should be set up with the long-term in mind, asset allocations may vary depending on your life stage. BlackRock offers recommended asset allocations for investors in their 20’s all the way into their 80’s to give you an idea of how often you should be adjusting your portfolio.

Is now a good time to invest? Again, if your investing time horizon is measured in decades, then yes, now is a good time to invest in ETFs.

3) Rebalance at least once per year

Different stock markets and asset classes are going to have wildly different returns from year-to-year. That’s why it’s important to rebalance your portfolio on a regular basis.

Depending on how often you add new money to your portfolio, I’d suggest rebalancing no more than once per quarter, and no less than once per year.

If you’re making regular contributions like I do, then rebalancing can be as simple as adding new money to the ETF that’s lagging behind its target allocation.

But if your portfolio is in the “set it and forget it” phase, you’ll still need to monitor it once or twice a year to make sure your asset allocation is in alignment. If things have drifted out of line, simply sell some of the higher performing fund(s) and put more into the laggards. It’s the easiest way to buy low and sell high.

4) Don’t Be Greedy

As with investing in individual stocks or mutual funds it can be tempting to chase past performance and change your strategy. Indeed, when I posted my 3-year indexing returns many readers were excited to make the switch themselves.

I cautioned them as I’ll caution you now: Make the switch to ETFs and indexing for the right reasons. Making the switch shouldn’t be to chase past performance but to simplify your portfolio, save on investment fees, and to accept what the stock market delivers without fear of missing out on something better.

Mr. Pape is right to be concerned about niche products such as leveraged ETFs that bet on the price movements of commodities, for instance. The crypto-currency craze also has investors clamouring for access to a Bitcoin ETF. These are speculative investments that have no place inside a sensible core portfolio.

Final thoughts

No doubt the growth of ETFs has been fuelled in part by investors wanting to reduce how much they spend on management fees.

And when you consider how many mutual funds in Canada are simply closet index funds in disguise, it’s no wonder investors would rather pay index-like fees for index-like returns. On the other hand, there are mutual funds out there being actively managed by smart people – it might make sense to pay the management fees on those products. Make sure you know what you’re paying for and that you’re seeing real value.

If you’re ready to make the switch to ETFs then please consider these four tips to get the most out of your ETF portfolio and to keep you on track. Your much richer, future self will thank you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Gerry on January 29, 2018 at 8:41 am

    Thanks for this informative article. Just wondering if there’s any data or research yet on……if many people who are long-term investors in mutual funds (i.e retirement accounts), are switching to ETFs (and in other words moving their accounts to other companies). Also wondering – are companies that have had long-term clients in mutual funds, now beginning to offer their clients ETF’s instead, (to keep them from switching to another company)?

  2. Dividend Earner on January 29, 2018 at 9:09 am

    The ETF movement is starting the have the same issues as the Mutual Funds with so many options to choose from and new types of indexes popping up every day.

    iShare and BMO own a lot of the offering but it’s only a matter of time I say. TD has 5 with probably more to come.

    What do you think, will the overwhelming number of choices come to ETFs?

    • Echo on January 29, 2018 at 9:53 am

      @Dividend Earner – It’s definitely going down that path with too many options for investors. That’s why I say stick to the core broad index ETFs and forget the niche products and actively managed funds.

      The problem is that everyone is always looking for an edge, whether it’s smart-beta or small caps, or rotating sector funds. The plain vanilla ETFs will beat 90% of those strategies, but for some people that will never be enough.

  3. Alan Whitton (Big Cajun Man) on January 29, 2018 at 9:22 am

    I wonder why the Vanguard ETFs are not that big in Canada. I tend to use Vanguard products as I slowly ween myself form the TD E-series funds. No matter which product you use, rebalancing is the important aspect, everyone needs to remember (put it in your darn calendar if you have to). Rebalancing with new funds is the easiest way to do it.

    • Echo on January 29, 2018 at 9:59 am

      @Alan – Good question. iShares seems to have weathered the Vanguard storm and answered with products like XAW and XIC at the same or better price point.

      I agree, rebalancing is key and it’s best (or easiest) to do so whenever you add new money.

  4. Jagdish on January 29, 2018 at 11:16 am

    Hi Robb,

    How do get the total MER on this portfolio at 0.14 percent as XAW mer is 0.22?

    • Echo on January 29, 2018 at 1:06 pm

      Hi Jagdish, I’ll show you.

      Let’s say you have $100,000 invested in those three funds. The breakdown would look like this:

      XIC – $20,000
      XBB – $40,000
      XAW – $40,000

      You’d pay 0.06% for XIC, or $12/year. XBB costs 0.09%, or $36/year. And XAW costs 0.22%, or $88/year.

      Altogether the total management fees for your portfolio would be $136/year, or 0.136% (I rounded up to 0.14%).

      • Jagdish on January 31, 2018 at 12:16 pm

        Thanks Robb

  5. JackieK on January 29, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    My actual portfolio doesn’t have too many ETFs, but I want to change that and switch everything (almost) to ETFs. I have many accounts (RRSP, TFSA, LIF) totalling more than $1M. My concern is that if I switch to 4 or 5 ETFs in all, then what would happen to my portfolio’s value in case of a 2008-9 market scenario? Will I lose 40% in value?

    Furhtermore, I am retired and need some income that I take from dividend stocks. How can I have a “steady” 4-5% per year of income while the market is melting down?

  6. Cheryl on January 29, 2018 at 11:04 pm

    I have 3 ETFs in my non-registered account and 2 different ETFs in my registered. I’m not looking to add any more ETFs but will contribute more to these over the years. I understand why there are people who hold a lot more ETFs in their portfolio. Everyone has different goals.

  7. Dave on June 22, 2018 at 9:11 am

    The one ETF that I am yet to find available in Canada is a small cap value fund. It seems that research has shown that small cap value is the one sector that has repeatedly beaten the markets over time. I’d like to have some exposure to this (not just Canadian companies but preferably US or International) Paul Merriman has for years spoken of the benefits of Small Cap Value but in Canada I don’t see an EFT method of investing in this catergory

Leave a Comment

Join More Than 10,000 Subscribers!

Sign up now and get our free e-Book- Financial Management by the Decade - plus new financial tips and money stories delivered to your inbox every week.