Skip to main content

The Canadian stock market is a bit of a desert when it comes to certain categories of investments. The most prominent one, of course, is information technology. We have no Apples, Microsofts, Facebooks, Alphabets, IBMs etc. BlackBerry is about as close as we come and it’s a midget compared with the companies I have mentioned.

Another area in which we fall short is health care, in large part because of our universal health-care system. We can’t invest directly in hospitals, clinics or service providers. There are no giant health-care insurers such as UnitedHealth Group Inc. in the United States. For companies such as Manulife Financial Corp. or Sun Life Financial Inc., health insurance is only a small part of their business and involves providing protection beyond that which is provided by medicare.

But if you look at demographics and take a long-term view, health care is an area that should have a place in your portfolio. Canada’s population is aging, as it is in most of the Western world. We are spending more money on health care every year as a result.

But when we look at the S&P/TSX Capped Health Care Index, we find it contains only eight stocks. Three of them are cannabis companies and one, Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., has seen its shares lose 90 per cent of their value since they topped out at over $300 in 2015. None of this inspires much confidence.

This presents problems for a conservative income investor who wants some exposure to the health-care sector in his/her portfolio. The only way to achieve this goal is to buy dividend-paying U.S. or international stocks or, alternatively, invest in funds that specialize in them.

There are several Canadian-based funds that focus on the health-care sector. The oldest is the TD Health Sciences Fund, which was launched in November, 2000, and generated a very good average annual return of 12 per cent over the 15 years to May 31. It’s a good choice if you want dependable exposure to the sector, but it’s not well suited to income-oriented investors because it only makes annual distributions and in some years none at all.

I found a similar story in most of the other Canadian-based health-care mutual funds and exchange-traded funds I reviewed. The iShares Global Healthcare Index ETF (XHC-T) posted a respectable average annual five-year return of 10.5 per cent to May 31, but it only pays distributions twice a year. Based on the payout over the past 12 months, the yield is only 1.1 per cent, not enough to interest an income-oriented investor.

The only Canadian-based fund in this sector that offers decent cash flow is the Harvest Healthcare Leaders Income ETF (HHL-T). It pays monthly distributions of 5.83 cents (about 70 cents a year) to yield 8.6 per cent at the current price. (There is also a U.S. dollar version that trades as HHL-U and currently yields 8.6 per cent as well.)

This fund invests in a portfolio of 20 international health-care giants. They include such widely recognized names as Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co. Inc., Pfizer Inc. and Bristol-Myers Squibb as well as some companies you may not be familiar with such as Quest Diagnostics Inc. and Anthem Inc.

The portfolio is made up of 19-per-cent biotechnology stocks, with 16 per cent in health-care equipment and supplies, and 15 per cent in health-care providers and services. All are areas not found to any extent in the Canadian health-care market. About half the assets are in pharmaceutical stocks.

The managers write covered call options against up to one-third of each of the stocks in the portfolio to generate extra income for distributions. The management fee is a little on the high side, at 0.85 per cent.

The main negative is that performance has not been impressive in total return terms. Since the fund was launched in 2014, the average annual compound rate of return for the Canadian dollar units (HHL) is only 3.4 per cent. The U.S. dollar version (HHL-U), which was launched later, has done better at 8.6 per cent.

There are many more health-care ETF choices available if you look at the U.S. market. However, the best performers are those that take a narrow focus, as opposed to investing in the broad sector. One example is the Invesco S&P SmallCap Health Care ETF (PSCH), which is up 32.6 per cent year to date and has averaged 25 per cent over the past five years. That’s a very impressive showing, but the distributions are almost non-existent. That makes this fund a good choice for a growth portfolio, but not for one focused on income.

I found similar results in the other U.S.-based health-care ETFs I looked at. Many showed very good total returns, but the cash flow to investors was limited. For example, the iShares Global Healthcare ETF (IXJ-Amex) has a five-year average annual rate of return of just over 10 per cent, but its yield based on the semi-annual distributions of the past 12 months is only 1.5 per cent.

On balance, if income is the goal, I suggest buying the U.S. dollar units of the Harvest ETF. Here are the details.

Harvest Healthcare Leaders Income ETF

Type: Exchange-traded fund

Trading symbol: HHL-U

Exchange: TSX

Current price: US$8.11

Entry level: Current price

Annual payout: US$0.6996

Yield: 8.6 per cent

Risk Rating: Moderate risk


Gordon Pape is editor and publisher of the Internet Wealth Builder and Income Investor newsletters. For more information and details on how to subscribe, go to

Follow Gordon Pape on Twitter at and on Facebook at

Follow us on Twitter: @marketsglobeOpens in a new window

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe