The love affair with exchange-traded funds continues. Canadians poured another $3.4-billion into ETFs in the second quarter, bringing total assets in the industry's 11 providers to $84.7 billion. That's still only a fraction of the assets invested in mutual funds but it's a healthy growth rate for an investment option that only caught investors' attention in the past decade.
The main problem people face is deciding which funds to choose for their portfolios. ETFs started out as simple, low-cost products. They were originally designed as passive funds that tracked a major stock index such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P/TSX 60 Index. Today they offer a wide range of choices including fixed-income funds, dividend funds, sector funds, leveraged funds, hedged funds, and more. Actively-managed ETFs are also becoming more popular.
But with all the options out there, are people choosing the best funds? I did some research on the top-performing funds so far in 2015 and here are some of the best. Don't be surprised if many are unfamiliar to you. The results are as of the close of trading on July 14. I have not included any portfolio or leveraged funds.
First Asset Morningstar U.S. Momentum Index ETF (Unhedged) (YXM.B-T). This little-known ETF from First Asset has been designed to replicate the performance of the Morningstar U.S. Target Momentum Index. To qualify, stocks must display above average return on equity, with an emphasis on upward earnings estimate revisions and technical price momentum indicators. You've probably never heard of the top holdings in the portfolio, which include Allegiant Travel, Dycom Industries, and AMN Healthcare Services. But you'll like the return – a year-to-date gain of just over 23 per cent. The one-year gain to June 30 was 28.2 per cent. The fund was started in October 2013 and has a management fee of 0.6 per cent. Momentum funds tend to be quite volatile, but we have not yet seen evidence of that here.
iShares MSCI EAFE Minimum Volatility ETF (XMI-T). It still comes as a surprise to many people that overseas investments have paid off much better than North American ones this year. But this fund proves the point with a year-to-date gain of almost 21 per cent. It tracks MSCI EAFE Minimum Volatility Index, which includes securities from Europe, Australasia, and the Far East. Japan and the U.K. dominate the portfolio, with about 50 per cent of the total assets between them. The minimum volatility structure means this fund should perform better than the average in down markets. This ETF has only been around since July 2012 so there's not much in the way of a performance record by which to judge its sustainability. The management fee is 0.47 per cent.
iShares Japan Fundamental Index ETF (CDN-Hedged) (CJP-T). It's been a good year for Japanese stocks, as evidenced by the year-to-date gain of 19.6 per cent for this fund. It invests in large-cap stocks with a strong history of dividends, free cash flow, and sales growth. The fund got off to a bad start with losses in 2010 and 2011 but it has been on a winning streak since, which shows no sign of ending. It's not cheap, with an MER of 0.72 per cent, but as long as the results are positive the expense is worth it.
Vanguard FTSE Developed Europe Index ETF (VE-T). Europe may be in turmoil over Greece and plagued by slow growth but nothing has slowed down this ETF, which is ahead 18.9 per cent so far this year. It invests directly or indirectly in large- and mid-capitalization stocks of companies located in developed European markets. British stocks account for about one-third of the assets, followed by Switzerland, France, and Germany. The top three holdings are Swiss companies, Nestle, Novartis, and Roche. The fund is just one year old, having been launched on June 30, 2014 so we have no way of knowing how it will stand up over time. But the debut has been impressive. The MER is low at 0.23 per cent.
Vanguard FTSE Developed Asia Pacific Index ETF (VA-T). This is another year-old Vanguard entry, with a focus on companies in the developed Asia Pacific region, mainly Japan, Australia, and South Korea. It has done almost as well as the Europe fund so far this year with a gain of just over 18 per cent. The fund invests primarily in units of the U.S.-domiciled Vanguard FTSE Pacific ETF and, like the Europe fund, has an MER of 0.23 per cent.
BMO China Equity Index ETF (ZCH-T). Despite all the angst about China and the recent plunge in the Shanghai stock market, this ETF has been doing just fine with a year-to-date gain of 17 per cent. The fund tracks the performance of the BNY Mellon China Select ADR Index, which invests in Chinese companies that trade in New York as American Depository Receipts (ADRs). Although it is doing well this year, the fund has a history of high volatility and lost 31.3 per cent in the year ending May 31, 2012. The maximum annual management fee is 0.65 per cent.
iShares Global Healthcare Index ETF (CAD-Hedged) (XHC-T). U.S. healthcare stocks have been hot this year thanks to Obamacare and this ETF has enabled investors to cash in, with a year-to-date gain of 16.5 per cent. As with several other iShares funds, in invests mainly in assets of its U.S. counterpart, which trades under the symbol IXJ. The difference is that with this one you get Canadian dollar hedging. That's not an advantage right now, with the loonie falling. This ETF gained 22.9 per cent in the year to June 30. The MER is 0.64 per cent.
BMO MSCI USA High Quality Index ETF (ZUQ-T). Wall Street has been sluggish this year but this new BMO entry hasn't even noticed. It's ahead 14.9 per cent for 2015, way better than the Dow or the S&P 500. The fund tracks the index of the same name, which focuses on securities that have a high return on equity (ROE), stable year-over-year earnings growth, and low financial leverage. Top holdings include Apple Inc., Johnson & Johnson, ExxonMobil, Microsoft, and Gilead Sciences. The fund was launched in November 2014 so it's not yet a year old. The maximum annual management fee is 0.3 per cent.
BMO India Equity Index ETF (ZID-T). After going through a rough patch, the Indian stock market has looked better lately. This ETF has captured that with a year-to-date gain of 14.3 per cent and shows a three-year average annual compound rate of return of 21.5 per cent. The fund tracks the BNY Mellon India Select DR Index, which includes large Indian companies that trade in New York as American Depository Receipts or Global Depository Receipts (GDRs). There's risk here; the fund lost 35.4 per cent in 2011. So don't go in unless you can live with volatility. The maximum annual management fee is 0.65 per cent.
iShares Canadian Growth Index ETF (XCG-T). BlackRock Canada, which owns the iShares brand, offers two style funds, Value and Growth. This one, which tracks the Dow Jones Canada Select Growth Index, has outperformed the TSX by a wide margin so far in 2015 with a year-to-date gain of 9.2 per cent. It invests in 47 companies with strong growth metrics but the portfolio is highly concentrated. Five companies – Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Canadian National, Enbridge, Canadian Pacific, and Magna International – account for almost 43 per cent of total assets. The sector weightings are completely different from those of the TSX, led by industrials at 18.3 per cent. Energy and financials, which together account for about 55 per cent of the TSX, only comprise 23.4 per cent of this fund. It's been around since 2006 so we have some decent history to work with. The ETF has beaten the category average in all time periods from one to five years, with a five-year average annual compound rate of return of 9.6 per cent to June 30. The MER is 0.56 per cent.