Sunday, 2 October 2016

Global ETF Portfolios for Canadian Investors: 3Q16

The stay-at-home strategy continued to perform well in 3Q16 after three years of underperforming the globally diversified ETF portfolios that we track in this blog. Crude oil prices finished September little changed from where they were at the end of June. The US Fed remained on hold but laid the groundwork for another tightening move before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Bank of Canada stood pat and talked of rates staying low for long.

The price of WTI crude oil, which began the year at US$37 per barrel finished 3Q16 at US$48/bbl, virtually unchanged from the 2Q closing level. The BoC decision to stand pat, combined with the Fed continuing to signal one tightening before yearend, sparked a 1.6% depreciation in the Canadian dollar in 3Q, ending September at US 76.2 cents, down from 77.4 cents at the end of June.

Flat crude oil prices combined with the 1.6% depreciation in the Canadian dollar in 3Q16 provided modest headwinds for stay-at-home portfolios. Unhedged global ETF portfolios were able to outperform in a quarter when both stocks and bonds continued to rally. A stay-at-home 60/40 investor who invested 60% of their funds in the Canadian equity ETF (XIU), 30% in the Canadian bond ETF (XBB), and 10% in the Canadian real return bond ETF (XRB) had a total return (including reinvested dividend and interest payments) of 4.0% in Canadian dollars. Most of the unhedged Global ETF portfolios that I track in this blog posted slightly stronger gains for 3Q16. Since we began monitoring at the beginning of 2012, the unhedged Global ETF portfolios have vastly outperformed the stay-at-home portfolio.

Global Market ETFs: Performance for 3Q16

In 3Q16, with central banks remaining dovish and the USD appreciating 1.6% against the CAD, global ETF returns favoured foreign equities. In CAD terms, 18 of the 19 ETFs we track posted positive returns, while just one ETF posted a loss for the quarter. The chart below shows 3Q16 returns (blue bars) and year-to-date returns (green bars), in CAD terms, including reinvested dividends, for the ETFs tracked in this blog.

The best gainers in 3Q16 were global equity ETFs, including Japan equities (EWJ) which returned 10.8% in CAD terms, followed closely by US small cap equities (IWM) at 10.7% and emerging market equities (EEM) at 10.2%. The best performing bond ETFs were US High Yield Bonds (HYG) which returned 6.1% in 3Q16, followed by non-US inflation-linked bonds (WIP)  at 5.4%. The Gold ETF (GLD) returned 1.0%. The worst performer was the commodity ETF (GSG) which returned -3.0% in CAD terms.

For 2016 year-to-date, the best performing ETFs in CAD terms were the gold ETF (GLD), the Canadian equity ETF (XIU), and the Canadian long bond ETF (XLB). The worst year-to-date performers were Eurozone equities (FEZ), commodities (GSG) and Japanese equities (EWJ).

Global ETF Portfolio Performance for 3Q16

In 3Q16, the Global ETF portfolios tracked in this blog all posted solid returns in CAD terms. This was true whether USD currency exposure was hedged or left unhedged, but the unhedged portfolios performed better, reversing the pattern of the previous two quarters.

A stay-at-home, Canada-only 60% equity/40% Bond Portfolio returned 4.0% in 3Q16. Among the global ETF portfolios that we track, risk balanced portfolios outperformed in 3Q16. A Global Levered Risk Balanced (RB) Portfolio, which uses leverage to balance the expected risk contribution from the Global Market ETFs, benefitting from strong levered bond returns, gained 4.7% in CAD terms if unhedged, but had a lower return of 3.4% if USD-hedged. An Unlevered Global Risk Balanced (RB) Portfolio, which has less exposure to government bonds, inflation-linked bonds and commodities but more exposure to corporate credit, gained 4.4% if unhedged and 3.2% if USD-hedged.

The Global 60% Equity/40% Bond ETF Portfolio (which includes both Canadian and global equity and bond ETFs) returned 4.4% in CAD terms when USD exposure was left unhedged, and 3.2% if the USD exposure was hedged. A less volatile portfolio for cautious investors, the Global 45/25/30, comprised of 45% global equities, 25% government and corporate bonds and 30% cash, gained 3.9% if unhedged and 2.9% if USD hedged.

On a year-to-date basis, the all Canadian stay-at-home ETF portfolio remained the best performer, returning 10.7% ytd, outperforming all of the unhedged global ETF portfolios that we monitor in CAD terms. If USD exposures were hedged, however, the best performing portfolio was the Global Levered Risk Balanced Portfolio, which returned 15.0% in CAD terms.

Looking Ahead

The key market events of 2016 that have influenced global ETF portfolio returns in CAD terms were: the market's rising conviction that slow global growth and below-target inflation in the major DM economies will delay and moderate any tightening by the Fed and encourage further easing by other major central banks; the BoC's signalling that its policy rate will likely remain low for long; and a gradually improving balance between global demand and supply of crude oil. These events occurred against a backdrop of further downward revisions to global growth  and inflation expectations and rising political uncertainty as the UK voted for Brexit and the polls tightened in the US presidential election race. So far, markets have shrugged off the political uncertainty and been encouraged by continued extremely accommodative monetary policies.

After rising at a 2.5% annualized pace in 1Q, Canada's economy contracted at a 1.6% pace in 2Q, in part due to the disruption caused by the Fort McMurray wildfires. The expected 3Q16 rebound in growth is encouraging but in reality only returns the Canadian economy to subpar year-over-year growth of just over 1%. US growth averaged just 1.1% in the first half of 2016, and the Atlanta Fed's GDP Now forecast currently points to 2.4% growth for US real GDP in 3Q. On balance, 2016 growth expectations have been revised down quite sharply, for Canada to 1.2% currently from 1.9% in December and for the US to 1.5% currently from 2.4% in December.

Global growth and inflation prospects have also cooled. According to JPMorgan, global growth for 2016 is now projected at 3.1%, down from the December consensus forecast of 3.4%. Global consumer price inflation is now projected at 2.3%, down from the December consensus forecast of 2.7%. 

Meanwhile, Fed Chair Janet Yellen's message has shifted from firmly on hold ahead of the Brexit referendum to clear support for a rate hike before the end of 2016 now. At the same time, the Bank of  Canada Governor Poloz has made it clear that the BoC is content to pass the stimulus baton to Finance Minister Morneau, who will soon present a Fiscal Update that will confirm that the government is content to pursue large and growing deficits in the name of "growing the economy".

The key event in the final quarter of 2016 is, without a doubt, the US presidential election. While it can be argued that Trump's economic policy platform, if effectively implemented, would be more advantageous to Canada than Clinton's, there is no doubt that the Canadian voters who gave the Trudeau Liberals a strong parliamentary majority would prefer to see Clinton win. From a market perspective, it appears that risk markets that have so heavily depended on central bank unconventional monetary policies, would prefer a Clinton victory as more likely to see a shift toward a more expansionary fiscal policy and perhaps eventually "helicopter money". 

This leaves global markets in a potentially vulnerable position. Equity market valuations are increasingly stretched. Government bond market valuations also remained stretched as global 10-year bond yields continue to test new lows.

The declines in global bond yields are a reflection of growth disappointments and falling inflation expectations around the world and the market's assessment that this will result in continued experimentation with unconventional monetary policies. We are living in an upside down world in which weak growth and disinflation seem to lift financial asset prices because investors expect that such outcomes will spur even more accommodative monetary policy.

In a continuing uncertain environment, characterized by sluggish global growth, record high debt levels, unprecedented central bank stimulus, and a high level of political risk, remaining well diversified across asset classes, with substantial exposure to USD-denominated assets and with an ample cash position continues to be a prudent strategy.

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