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investing

Fees count when building a nest egg.

Investments with high fees held in a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) can act as a drag on future returns over time. Buying low-fee exchange traded funds (ETFs), which are like mutual funds but trade like stocks, is a way to keep a lid on costs. Canadians have access to domestic and U.S.-listed ETFs through discount brokers and financial advisers licensed to sell these funds.

We asked experts to suggest ETFs that would be suitable in an RRSP for both conservative and aggressive investors.

Daniel Straus, ETF analyst with National Bank Financial, Toronto

Recommendation: BMO Low Volatility U.S. Equity ETF (conservative, ZLU-TSX), with a management expense ratio (MER) of 0.35 per cent

This ETF, which tracks 100 of the least market-sensitive U.S. stocks, is a way to tap into the world's largest economy, Mr. Straus says. "We like this one for its low MER … and its simplicity. It does not hedge its U.S. dollar currency exposure. As the U.S. dollar strengthens versus the Canadian dollar, currency movements should help its performance." By holding this ETF in an RRSP, Canadians can avoid the U.S. withholding tax on dividends. During periods of volatility, it can outperform market-capitalization-weighted indexes. Last year, the ETF posted a total return of 35 per cent in Canadian dollar terms, compared with 24 per cent for the S&P 500 Index.

Recommendation: iShares MSCI Europe IMI Index ETF (aggressive, XEH-TSX), MER not yet available but management-fee portion is 0.25 per cent

This ETF, which tracks 1,000 companies, is a play on a European economic rebound that could be triggered by recent economic stimuli, Mr. Straus says. The fund is the currency-hedged version of the TSX-listed ETF known as XEU. "We opted for the hedged version to mitigate unwanted currency-related volatility." Launched in early 2014, the ETF's largest country exposures are Britain, Switzerland, France and Germany. Because of the ETF's regional concentration, it is likely to be more volatile than a broader international equity offering, and is more suitable for investors with higher risk tolerances, he noted.

Tyler Mordy, co-chief investment officer for Hahn Investment Stewards, Toronto

Recommendation: Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (conservative, VIG-NYSE), MER of 0.10 per cent

This U.S.-listed ETF tracks American companies that have increased their dividends for 10 consecutive years or more. Mr. Mordy likes it "because it is dominated by a number of high-quality multinational corporations. Like all Vanguard ETFs, it is very reasonably priced." Inside an RRSP, its dividends avoid being hit by U.S. withholding taxes. Canadian investors benefit from a rising U.S. dollar when returns are converted back to domestic currency, and "we continue to forecast further strengthening [of the greenback]," he says. The ETF has returned an annualized 13.8 per cent for the five years ending Jan. 31.

Recommendation: iShares MSCI India (aggressive, INDA-BATS), MER of 0.68 per cent

This U.S. ETF, which trades on BATS Global Markets, tracks about 85 per cent of the Indian equity market. "Indian companies have a significant growth potential," Mr. Mordy says. "The country's resurgent economic optimism has been ramped up by a belief that newly elected 'pro-business' Prime Minister Narendra Modi can return India to its high growth path of the mid-2000s." India should benefit from a growing middle class, falling interest rates and disinflationary pressures driven primarily by lower oil prices. This ETF's fee is "competitively priced," given costs associated with trading on India's National Exchange, Mr. Mordy added.

John Gabriel, ETF strategist at Morningstar Inc., Chicago

Recommendation: Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF (conservative, VEA-NYSE), MER of 0.09 per cent

This U.S.-listed ETF, which holds companies in developed foreign markets, is a good way for Canadian investors to diversify if they have a lot of North American equity exposure, Mr. Gabriel says. With the U.S. market near all-time highs, it may be a good time to reduce exposure to fully valued American stocks and put some money into out-of-favour international stocks, he says. "The fund is one of the cheapest international ETFs." European stocks represent about 62 per cent of the ETF. Holding this fund within an RRSP avoids U.S. withholding taxes, while the strengthening of the U.S. dollar against the loonie benefits Canadian investors, he added.

Recommendation: WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (aggressive, DGS-NYSE), MER of 0.63 per cent

With this ETF, investors can tap into growth trends in the developing world, while its dividend criteria help screen for higher-quality firms, Mr. Gabriel says. Smaller emerging-markets companies, which typically serve domestic customers, can outperform larger-cap peers that tend to be skewed toward multinationals and/or state-owned enterprises, he says. Over the five years ending Jan. 31, this ETF has posted an annualized return of 4.58 per cent, compared with 2.29 per cent for the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. The fee for this ETF is in line with similar, smaller-cap emerging markets ETFs, he says.

John Hood, president and portfolio manager at J.C. Hood Investment Counsel Inc., Pickering, Ont.

Recommendation: iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (conservative, XSP-TSX), MER: 0.10 per cent

This ETF, which tracks 500 of the largest U.S. stocks, is a play on a growing U.S. economy that is "in full recovery mode," Mr. Hood says. While some people may suggest that U.S. stocks have gotten pricey, "my response is that the economy will grow into those valuations," he says. The ETF is also hedged against currency risk. Mr. Hood is not worried about a declining U.S. dollar against the loonie, but rather the likelihood of the Canadian dollar rising once battered oil prices start bouncing back. The fee for this ETF is a bargain after being slashed from 0.25 per cent last year, he noted.

Recommendation: BMO S&P/TSX Equal Weight Oil & Gas Index ETF (aggressive, ZEO-TSX), MER of 0.62 per cent

This ETF makes an equal bet on each of its energy stocks, as opposed to allowing firms with larger market values to dominate. The price of this ETF's units have "come off dramatically" as the price of crude oil has plunged in recent months, says Mr. Hood. "It's the old story. Buy when others are selling." A lot of stocks could bounce back by 50 per cent by year end, although some companies may have to cut their dividends, he suggested. The fee for the BMO ETF is just a tad higher than that of the iShares S&P/TSX Capped Energy Index ETF, but it also includes exposure to pipeline firms Enbridge Inc. and TransCanada Corp., he adds.