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bonds interest rates (Comstock Images)
bonds interest rates (Comstock Images)

Portfolio Strategy

Bond ETFs confuse you? Here's a simple guide Add to ...

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.

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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.

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