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strategy lab

Andrew Hallam is the index investor for Globe Investor's Strategy Lab. Follow his contributions here and view his model portfolio here.

Imagine professional golf players, at their discretion, dictating which of their shots would go on record for tournament scores and which would be swept under the rug. If regulations allowed such practices, a mediocre player with a large broom might triumph at the U.S. Open.

Such is the case when comparing mutual fund companies. They showcase winning funds. Losing funds get swept under the rug. According to SPIVA (Standard & Poor's index versus active) Canada, nearly 42 per cent of Canada's active U.S. equity funds disappeared during the five years ended June 30, 2013. Nearly one-third of Canadian and International equity funds did the same.

Manulife Financial has more than 400 mutual funds; roughly 93 per cent of them didn't exist in 2004. Many are new. Others may have changed names, making it tough to track performance over a meaningful time period. So how did their surviving funds perform over the past decade, compared to equal asset class indexes?

Manulife asked me to compare their Series F funds, if I decided to showcase their products. They carry lower expense ratios than their standard mutual funds. For example, Manulife's U.S. Growth Opportunities Fund costs 2.25 per cent. Its Series F equivalent costs 1.29 per cent. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily cheaper. Investors can only purchase Series F funds through intermediaries. For clients to do so, they're usually charged an additional 1 per cent per year, on top of the mutual fund expense ratios. As such, the U.S. Growth Opportunities Series F Fund costs investors 2.29 per cent each year.

Investors buying such funds, however, receive professional help with fund selection and overall financial planning. Are their fees worth it? You be the judge.

In this comparative series, I've put Manulife's actively managed funds against TD's e-Series indexes in four categories: Canadian equity, U.S. equity, Canadian government bond and International equity. The only rule? Funds must have been around for at least 10 years. Every available e-Series index fits the bill. But the same can't be said for Manulife's funds.

Where Manulife and TD's e-Series indexes have multiple contenders in a given category, I'll toss them all into the mix. It won't matter whether they're small cap, mid cap, large cap or baseball cap. I'll ignore the mutual fund management charges for now, focusing on fund performance first, investors' returns second.

Manulife's Canadian Series F Stock Fund is a bizarre misnomer. It averaged 7 per cent for the decade. But despite its name, only 55 per cent of its holdings are Canadian. As such, Manulife's Growth Opportunities Class Series F (with 83 per cent Canadian content) is a more suitable Team Canada test. It also earned better results, averaging 8.4 per cent for the decade. This beat TD's Canadian e-Series Index, which earned 7.4 per cent.

But Manulife relinquished its lead – and then some – with its three funds in the U.S. Equity Open. Its Growth Opportunities Fund did well with a solid line drive. The small and mid cap fund averaged 8.7 per cent. Manulife's Value Fund and its U.S. Opportunities Fund, however, each shanked into the sand trap. They lost 0.6 per cent per cent per year and gained 1 per cent respectively.

In contrast, TD's four e-Series U.S. indexes averaged 5.7 per cent.

Manulife's International Focus fund is the company's only global Series F contender that's older than a fifth grader. It earned 3 per cent, trailing TD's e-Series International Index, which averaged 4.31 per cent.

Carrying the torch for the Canadian Government Bond category, Manulife's single contender (their Series F Bond Fund) averaged 4.1 per cent. TD's e-Series Index earned 4.6 per cent.

Based on the four asset class categories, TD's e-Series indexes triumphed. Average decade returns were 4.1 per cent for the actively managed funds, compared to 5.57 per cent for the indexes. After the inescapable management fees paid to advisers, Manulife's Series F investors would have averaged just 3.14 per cent for the decade.

Total return differences were dramatic. After all costs, Manulife's surviving funds earned 36.2 per cent; TD's e-Series indexes earned 71.9 per cent.

Whether the indexes are truly better depends on your perspective. Actively managed Series F products come with financial planning. TD's e-Series products don't. The best possible solution may be for an adviser-seeking investor to hire a fee-based financial planner to build a portfolio of indexes.

Manulife's mutual funds vs TD e-Series index funds