Tuesday, 5 June 2007

The Best US Large-Cap Index ETFs Compared

Back in May in my post on the complete overhaul of my portfolio, I showed a chart of my selected ETFs along with some credible contenders in several asset class categories. In one of these, US large-cap companies, my choice was Vanguard's offering, the Vanguard Large-Cap Index Fund (ticker VV), over some very good other choices, the iShares S&P 500 Index Fund (ticker IVV) and the grand-daddy of ETFs, the SPDR aka Spiders (SPY). Along with those, I've included the iShares Canada S&P 500 currency hedged version (XSP) and the TD e-Series S&P 500 currency hedged fund (fund symbol TDB904) for the benefit of Canadian investors like me who don't want to face the negative consequences of a Canadian dollar continuing to rise vs the US$.

The chart illustrates the factors that I believe justifies the conclusion that Vanguard is the best, though not by a great deal. I've coloured the cells light blue where the particular factor favours that ETF. The visual impression is a bit misleading since a number of cells at the bottom all have to do with tax efficiency.

Vanguard's VV is better on:
  • MER, or Management Expense Ratio, which is the overhead paid to Vanguard to manage the fund - the lower the number, the better it is for the investor
  • on the premium/discount, in this case the discount, which is the average amount the market price of the ETF deviates from the Net Asset Value (NAV), the value of the under-lying stock holdings; the smaller this number the better, the investor neither gains nor loses as the fund is fairly priced; in this case VV is tied with SPY for the best
  • 3-year performance, which is higher in VV's case; now some will note that VV uses a different index than all the others, which use the S&P 500 and thus the result should not therefore be comparable. I'm going to stick my neck out a bit by saying that the others suffer from using the S&P 500, a flawed index (as noted by Peter Bernstein in his book, which I reviewed a few days ago). Check out the text below on the S&P 500's flaws and see if you agree with me. The fact that everyone uses it, as they do the far worse Dow, doesn't make it good!
  • all the various tax efficiency measures; especially note that the ratios at the bottom of the table, higher in VV's case, mean that the investor loses less to the government through taxes on VV than the other funds. Canadians should note that the source of this is US websites like Vanguard and the absolute numbers reflect US taxpayers but I believe the relative advantage of VV is still there. The size of the 2006 distribution by VV, which would be a highest-rate income item for a Canadian, compared the that of IVV, confirms this conclusion.
There are a bunch of blank cells in the table, where I could not find the numbers despite hours of searching. Canadians will note more blanks for XSP and TDB904, where the available data on comparative websites like Morningstar, GlobeFund and those of the providers iShares Canada and TD Asset Management don't seem to be very forthcoming with data. I had to email iShares Canada to learn why their 3-year performance figure on their website differed so markedly from the S&P's results - turns out they only started hedging XSP in November 2005. Therefore, all note, the numbers may not be 100% accurate!

One disappointment for me in all this is how much one loses in buying XSP or TDB904 for currency protection. There's a big performance loss. It's curious that XSP managed in 2006 to distribute some of its distribution as capital gains instead of income, better because of the lower tax paid on capital gains over income. The tracking error of TDB904 at 6+% is abysmal. I had to calculate that one myself so it may be wrong but the high cash holding of 4% of assets, which came from Morningstar Canada, is consistent with such poor tracking.

The suggested weaknesses of the S&P 500 as a market index include:
  • it is really only a large cap index with about 75% of the total market value of US shares
  • it weights the companies within the index based on the value of the public float in the judgement of the Standard and Poors selection committee, so this biases the index away from a true market cap weighting that follows from financial theory
  • some non-US companies are still in the index, having been grand-fathered upon moving away from the US
  • some US companies that are illiquid are excluded like Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, a gigantic omission as it is a huge company
  • delays in adding new companies in new sectors distort the true market weighting – it took a while before Google entered the S&P 500
see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%26P_500 and a letter by Darren Bramen on this page http://www.aicpa.org/pubs/jofa/apr2000/letters.htm

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