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Playing big-bank fantasy portfolio highlights stock-picking difficulties

Norman Rothery is the value investor for Globe Investor's Strategy Lab. Follow his contributions here and view his model portfolio here.

Last year, I challenged readers to pick the best, and the worst, big Canadian bank to buy in 2014. With only six of them to choose from, it seemed like a simple task. But no one got it quite right.

Before looking at how the challenge played out, here's a little refresher on how it worked. Each contestant started with a fantasy portfolio that had $10,000 invested in each of the big six Canadian banks. Namely, Bank of Montreal, Bank of Nova Scotia, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, National Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank, and Royal Bank of Canada.

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Then they had to pick one bank to sell and one to buy. As a result, each fantasy portfolio began 2014 with $20,000 in the favoured stock, nothing in the unfavoured one, and $10,000 in each of the remaining four.

The six banks fared quite well as a group. An equally weighted portfolio of them provided total returns of 14.5 per cent in 2014. By way of comparison, the S&P/TSX composite index climbed 10.6 per cent over the same period.

I had high hopes my savvy readers were up to the stock-picking challenge. But they didn't fare well overall. On average, the fantasy portfolios gained 14.2 per cent in 2014 and lagged the equally weighted portfolio of bank stocks by 0.3 percentage points.

The total returns provided by the banks were largely clustered in a reasonably tight range between 14 per cent and 17 per cent in 2014. But there were two outliers. The winner was the Bank of Montreal, which gained 21 per cent. The laggard for the year was the Bank of Nova Scotia, which trailed behind with a 4-per-cent return.

About a third of the contestants picked TD Bank as the winner, but it was the third worst performer. The next most popular stock, with 15 per cent of the votes, was Scotiabank, which turned out to be the laggard of the group.

The least favoured bank was CIBC, which turned out to be the second worst performer of the year. TD Bank was the second most unpopular stock.

Only 12 per cent of the contestants correctly picked Bank of Montreal as the winner for 2014 and 5 per cent pointed to the Bank of Nova Scotia as the laggard. No one was right on both counts.

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The prize went to the person who liked National Bank and avoided Scotiabank. Their fantasy portfolio beat all others with an overall gain of 16.6 per cent.

Failing to outperform, in any one year, is hardly a good reason for stock pickers to give up. But it does show how difficult it is to pick the right stocks all of the time. It's one reason why indexing is as popular as it is.

But I'm a firm believer in second chances, and I've decided to run the contest again, with a few small modifications. Just like last year, the goal is to figure out which one of the six big bank stocks should be sold and which one should be purchased. To enter the contest, just put your answer in the comments section of this article.

The person with the fantasy bank portfolio that gains the most in the last 11 months of 2015 will be sent a modest reward in 2016. (If there is a tie, the winner will be determined by random draw.) But you have to get your selection in before the end of January to be eligible, and, please, only one entry per person.

Sharpen your stock-picking skills and give it a try.

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