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It’s the heart of RRSP season once again, and Canadians are finalizing their registered retirement savings plan decisions for the 2015 tax year.

Some turn to financial advisers to help them invest. But what can we learn from what advisers are holding in their own portfolios?

We asked three financial experts to reveal their strategies. Like the people they advise, they base their decisions on their personal financial goals, the market outlook and other short- and long-term considerations specific to their lives.

Readers should be aware that the financial decisions they have made are personal and should be read in that context.

Wade Kozak, investment adviser and portfolio manager, CIBC Wood Gundy, Calgary

Age: 47

RRSP portfolio breakdown: Weighted 60 per cent in equities and 40 per cent in fixed income.

Mr. Kozak stresses the need for balance. His RRSP portfolio is weighted 60 per cent in equities and 40 per cent in more conservative fixed-income investments, which primarily consist of a ladder of government and corporate rated bonds (generally rated BBB and better) that run for 10-year terms, with staggered maturity dates.

Target rate of return: While his RRSP mix has historically generated roughly a 7-per-cent overall annual return, Mr. Kozak does not like to set a target for any single year, noting that even the prognostications of professional money managers and analysts often fall short of the mark.

“I focus on the one thing that I do know I’m going to receive in the next 12 months, and that is the dividend income and the interest income.

“When you actually reach the retirement stage, the purpose of the account is to generate a cash flow you can withdraw. When a person retires, they never ask what the account is worth. They ask, ‘How much can I take out each year without touching the principal?’”

Mr. Kozak says his long-term goal is “to collect that income, and continue to reinvest that income so that next year, the income that I’m generating is more than it is today.”

Forecast: Mr. Kozak says the current markets, where some economic sectors have done very well and others have done very poorly, reminds him of what was happening in 1999. That was also a bubble market, with technology stocks about to suffer a major fall, just as formerly high-flying energy stocks have done recently, he notes.

“For instance, sitting here in Calgary, I can think of people whom I’ve met who were way too concentrated in the energy sector,” he says.

Wary of trying to predict what will happen over the next 12 months, Mr. Kozak does not want to be invested too heavily in one sector, or, conversely, to avoid another altogether.

For instance, while financial stocks have held up better than energy stocks, it is difficult to say whether they will outperform other sectors in 2016. And on the other side of the ledger, energy stocks may be under siege, but he doesn’t want to avoid all exposure.

“I think zero-per-cent weighting is the wrong thing to have. There are some excellent companies out there that, even in this current environment, are making money and will muddle through this one way or the other. But I certainly wouldn’t be overweighting it, because the Canadian market is just so subject to outside factors that no one here controls,” he says.

Basic investment strategy: Mr. Kozak generally likes to contribute to his RRSP early in the calendar year to take advantage of tax sheltering as early as possible.

“I’m not too hung up on that, though. Just making the contribution, you’ve done 95 per cent of the job,” he says.

Mr. Kozak classifies himself as a conservative investor who is cognizant of the need to treat his RRSP like a pension plan, not a speculative account.

On the growth side, Mr. Kozak prefers to invest in individual stocks rather than mutual funds in his portfolio because picking securities for himself and his clients is his business. Among his selection criteria are dividend yields, payout ratios to cash flow, debt-to-equity ratio, debt-to-cash flow, and a screening by market-cap size, which he prefers be at least $300-million to go into his RRSP.

Mr. Kozak’s equities are 80 per cent Canadian, 15 per cent from the United States and 5 per cent from outside North America. He monitors the market to determine whether action should be taken when a stock drops in value by a certain amount. “We’ll have a number there that will trigger us to have a hard look at it.”

On the fixed-income side, which is largely Canadian in origin, the philosophy behind buying corporate and government bonds with a term of 10 years, and an overall laddering strategy, is to let them mature, roll over and provide a stream of steady income.

For tax purposes, he tries to hold interest-bearing investments in the registered plan to provide maximum tax-sheltering benefit, whereas more tax-efficient vehicles, such as investments from which he is anticipating capital growth, generally go into his non-registered plans.

Mr. Kozak generally likes to review his RRSP account twice annually to see whether an adjustment or rebalancing is necessary.

Ashley Misquitta, vice-president and portfolio manager, Mackenzie Investments, Toronto

Age: 41

RRSP portfolio breakdown: Weighted almost exclusively in growth instruments from the U.S.

With retirement still about 20 years away, Mr. Misquitta emphasizes the need for growth in his RRSP portfolio, and he is invested in a combination of stocks and mutual funds.

Target rate of return: Rather than set a formal annual target, Mr. Misquitta focuses on selecting good quality businesses to invest in over the long term. He looks for innovative companies with competitive advantages and solid management.

“I want to own really good businesses at attractive valuations and own them for a long time. My view is that if I do that successfully, my retirement assets will take care of themselves,” he says.

Forecast: Mr. Misquitta expects the U.S. economy to perform well over the next three to five years.

“There are some important tailwinds that are going to drive the U.S.,” he says, pointing to an early-stage renaissance in manufacturing, improved innovation and a large demographic advantage, with that country’s working-age population expected to grow over the next few decades, in contrast to those of other Western countries.

“Why is this important over long periods of time? It’s important because these are the people who, generally speaking, are more in their earning years, their consumption years. These are people buying homes, having kids,” he says.

He predicts technology and health care also present “very attractive” opportunities.

“If you look at biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, particularly large ones, you’re seeing businesses that are trading at a good price relative to corporate earnings, relative to what they used to trade at for most periods of time, with pretty good clarity on what the growth rates will be,” he adds.

Mr. Misquitta predicts the recent market dip will be of relatively short duration, and he doesn’t anticipate making any changes to his RRSP portfolio in 2016 as a result.

Basic investment strategy: Mr. Misquitta contributes monthly to his RRSP portfolio using a dollar-cost-averaging strategy. This involves making smaller, regular contributions, recognizing that market conditions fluctuate through the year. This keeps him from making any large contribution when market conditions are unfavourable.

“I’m a big believer in buying some today – because no one is able to continually, correctly predict what happens over short periods of time – and then continuing to add over time,” he explains.

His philosophy is to seek out the shares of businesses that have a competitive advantage over their peers, and that are capable of generating strong, solid returns and cash flow. He looks for companies that aggressively invest the money they retain, and which also provide a healthy return to shareholders.

He likes to invest in individual stocks and mutual funds. When selecting a stock, he wants to see three major qualities in a company.

One is that it must be high quality. “I’m looking for businesses that are fully able to capture the benefits of the opportunities that are in front of them, make smart decisions about reinvesting capital, and invest in R&D to extend their competitive advantage,” he says.

The second attribute is a strong demand for its services. “For example, within health care, we own very high quality cash-producing businesses like Celgene [Corp.],” he said, noting that the U.S.-based firm produces well-known cancer and immunology treatments.

The third factor is company valuation, being able to purchase the right business at an attractive price, he says.

When selecting a mutual fund he looks for managers whose holdings differ meaningfully from the benchmark and who can outperform competitors.

Mr. Misquitta says he doesn’t generally use hedging or timing strategies that would, for example, cause him to sell if the price of a stock drops by a certain percentage. “I don’t really use hard and fast rules like that. I select what I believe are the most attractive opportunities relative to the discount to their fair value.”

Although he constantly examines the value of his RRSP, he also diligently conducts a detailed annual review of the portfolio contents.

Adrian Mastracci, fee-only portfolio manager and financial adviser, KCM Wealth Management Inc., Vancouver

Age: 68

RRSP portfolio breakdown: Approximately 25 per cent in growth instruments and 75 per cent in fixed income.

Mr. Mastracci wants to work until he is in his mid-seventies, so he is still emphasizing growth, selecting a mix of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that are weighted roughly 25 per cent in equities and 75 per cent in bonds in his RRSP. However, his total investment portfolio, including the RRSP and non-registered investments, consists of roughly 60 per cent equities and 40 per cent fixed income.

“I’m a strategy manager, not a stock picker,” he says. “My portfolio looks across all the various sectors of the market. I don’t emphasize any one of them. I [also] use ETFs for bonds. There are no individual bonds in my RRSP portfolio.”

Target rate of return: Although Mr. Mastracci would, under more favourable market conditions, like an annual return on his RRSP portfolio of 4 to 5 per cent, he recognizes this is a difficult market.

“It could be anywhere from zero to 5 per cent. I’m even prepared for a negative return if it turns out that way,” he says.

But he is prepared to ride out the storm without worrying too much about what happens in his RRSP during any single year. “I’m not overly concerned with coming up with targets and stuff like that, because I know sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. My approach is ‘slow and steady gets you there,’” he explains.

Forecast: Mr. Mastracci is reluctant to make forecasts. “I don’t worry about that, because I’m a patient, long-term investor,” he says. “I think you have to be prepared for the good times and the bad times.”

While the current market is volatile, Mr. Mastracci says he has seen worse in his more than 40 years in the financial industry. He cites the market crash of 1987, the tech crash in 2000 and the financial crisis in 2008. This is all part of a normal cycle – to be expected, he says.

Furthermore, while other markets around the globe are enduring financial struggles, including the United States, China, Japan and the European Union, Mr. Mastracci said he will not alter his RRSP as a result.

“I’m happy with the targets that I’ve set. I’m happy with the goals and objectives that I have. I’ve got a total game plan and a total portfolio, and the RRSP is just part of the big picture,” he explains.

Basic investment strategy: Mr. Mastracci likes to make his RRSP contribution early in the calendar year, generally in the first two months, in order to start earning tax-sheltered compound returns as early as possible.

His 25-75 split in ETF-based equities and bonds, respectively, offers both quality and diversification, he says. He classifies himself as an investor willing to take calculated risks to achieve growth in his RRSP.

When selecting an ETF, “I want those that trade fairly briskly, so I am able to buy and sell as needed,” says Mr. Mastracci.

He is a strong advocate for adhering to his original game plan and not reacting to short-term events such as market dips. In fact, if things go badly he might use the opportunity to buy more of what he is holding.

“I don’t sell just because something dropped or something went up. Every now and then I’ll take a little profit. I stay within my targets. When I put money in, the question then becomes, ‘Which one of my areas needs investment?’ I look at my targets and say, ‘Which one needs attention?’ Or ‘Which one needs rebalancing?’” he says.

Mr. Mastracci takes a strategic view of what kind of investments should be held inside and outside of his RRSP. For example, he likes to hold dividend-based securities outside of the plan because they receive preferential tax treatment there. Fixed-income investments generally should go inside the RRSP because of its tax-sheltering abilities.

Mr. Mastracci conducts a comprehensive review of his RRSP annually, but he does not adjust it unless there is a good reason. “I don’t just tweak it for the sake of tweaking,” he stresses.

Having held an RRSP for about 40 years, Mr. Mastracci says he has learned some lessons about the importance of holding quality, diversified instruments, not sweating out every setback and taking a holistic, albeit sometimes detached, view of his portfolio.

“I don’t panic. I don’t get attached to investments. I know that some are going to disappoint, some are going to deliver. I’m not going to have 100 per cent all the time.”