What is ETF Investing?

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ETF CanadaExchange-traded funds are becoming extremely popular with Canadian investors. In fact, according to the Investment Funds Institute of Canada (IFIC), the monthly sales of ETFs in Canada has now caught up to the monthly sales of mutual funds, with $1.8 billion each in recorded net sales during March 2019.

Want to understand what’s driving the growth of ETFs in Canada? Here’s everything you need to know about ETF investing.

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

ETFs are a collection of stocks, bonds or other investments that you can buy and sell as a unit. They are similar to mutual funds, but with a key difference: they track the performance of a specific market or index.

That means there is no management professional selecting investments in the fund with the hopes of beating the market. Instead, an ETF holds all the investments in a particular region (such as Canadian equities), sector (such as real estate) or index (such as the S&P 500) with the intention of matching that market’s performance overall.

This difference makes ETF investing the go-to option for savvy Canadians. Here’s why:

  • Less risk. Your investment returns are based on overall market returns, rather than a fund manager’s luck in choosing “winning” investments.
  • Ultra-low fees. Because you don’t have to pay for the services of an active fund manager, the fees on ETFs are as low as 0.15%, compared with 2% to 3% for actively managed mutual funds. By paying less in fees for ETFs, you maximize your returns.
  • No minimum to invest. You can get into the market with the purchase of a single share of an ETF, if that’s all you can afford.
  • Since ETFs hold all the investments in a benchmark index, you always know what you’re invested in, and how those investments are performing.

How to Buy ETFs in Canada

You can buy ETFs through the services of a traditional financial advisor or brokerage. But that sort of defeats the purpose of choosing ETFs — avoiding high fees — because an advisor or traditional brokerage will charge you sizable fees on top of the fees charged by the individual ETFs.

There are two much better low-cost options for purchasing ETFs:

  • Open an account with an online brokerage. Also called discount brokerages, online brokerages like Questrade allow you the flexibility to build your own portfolio of ETFs. Online brokerages offer the lowest fees on ETFs, but you have to be comfortable with DIY investing. This means performing all the transactions yourself, making all the choices about what investments to buy, and deciding how much risk you feel you can tolerate in your portfolio. Aside from the 0.15% or so management fee charged by the ETFs, other costs of using an online brokerage often include a flat annual maintenance fee and a small charge for each ETF trade or sale.
  • Use the services of a robo advisor. If you are not comfortable doing all your ETF transactions manually and would prefer some guidance on which ETFs to buy, a robo advisor like Wealthsimple or BMO Smartfolio may be a better alternative. They can offer you a ready-made portfolio of ETFs that matches your risk tolerance, and you can automate your transactions so you can set it and forget it. Robo advisors are slightly costlier than online brokerages, with management fees usually less than 1%, but still cheaper than mutual funds.

Best Online Brokers for ETF Investors

Choosing the right online broker depends in part on your needs. For example, if you expect to make frequent trades, you’ll want to choose a broker with a low per-trade fee. Similarly, if you don’t have a large portfolio of investments, you’ll want to avoid brokers who charge extra fees on small accounts.

Here’s a summary of our picks for the best online brokers in Canada. If you want more detail than provided here, take a look at Young and Thrifty’s Ultimate Guide to Canada’s Discount Brokerages.

questrade online broker

Best Low-Fee Broker: Questrade

With no annual fees and a low minimum investment of just $1,000, Questrade is hard to beat on cost. Trading fees run from $4.95 to $9.95, and you can purchase ETFs for free! That means that you can transfer money into your Questrade account and build an ETF portfolio for $0. There is a quarterly “inactivity fee” of $24.95 if you don’t perform any trades, but it’s easily avoided it if you keep your account balance above $5,000.

A bonus: Young and Thrifty readers who open a Questrade account get $50 in free trades.

Get started with Questrade or read our full Questrade review.


bmo self directedBest User-Friendly Online Broker: BMO InvestorLine Self-Directed

If a platform’s ease of use is important to you, BMO InvestorLine is the broker for you. Both the online and mobile platforms are intuitive and easy to navigate, and a trove of research is provided to help you succeed as an investor.

Get started with BMO InvestorLine or read our full BMO InvestorLine Self-Directed review.


Virtual brokers online brokerBest Broker for Research: Virtual Brokers

In addition to an impressive research centre to help you make investment decisions, Virtual Brokers offers free ETF purchases, $9.95 trades, and waives the account fees for balances over $5,000. Read our full Virtual Brokers review or get started with Virtual Brokers.


qtrade broker

Best Broker for Customer Service: Qtrade

Slightly pricier than Questrade, with a $100 annual fee and trading fees of $8.75 each, Qtrade is known for its superior customer service. To better understand what you get with Qtrade, we suggest to read and compare Qtrade vs Questrade in our review.


Best Robo Advisors for ETF Investors

Robo advisors are really taking off in Canada, with new providers entering the market all the time. Here’s a brief rundown of our top robo advisor picks, summarized from Young and Thrifty’s Complete Guide to Canada’s Robo Advisors.

Best Robo Advisor Overall: Wealthsimple

wealthsimple robo advisorWith no minimum investment amount, low fees (0.60% to 0.70%) and a broad selection of ETFs including Halal and socially responsible funds, Wealthsimple is a good choice for any investor.

Plus, Young and Thrifty readers get their first $10,000 managed for FREE for a year.

Get started with Wealthsimple or read our full Wealthsimple review here.


Best Hybrid Robo Advisor: BMO Smartfolio

BMO smartfolio robo advisorBMO Smartfolio combines the passive investing approach of ETF investing with the human touch of having a team of advisors actively adjust your portfolio when necessary. Here’s an enticing promo:

Young and Thrifty readers get their first $15,000 managed for FREE for one year.

Get started with BMO Smartfolio or read our full BMO Smartfolio review.


Best Low-Fee Robo Advisor: Questwealth Portfolios

Questwealth porfolios robo advisor

Like it's sibling Questrade, very low fees (0.39% to 0.44), a reasonable minimum investment ($1,000) and a wide variety of funds including socially responsible investments make Questwealth Portfolios very competitive on cost.

Get started with Questwealth Portfolios or read our full Questwealth Portfolios review.


Best Robo Advisor for Mature Investors: Nest Wealth

nest wealth robo advisorNest Wealth’s conservative low-risk investments make sense for mature investors with large portfolios, since those with $75,000+ pay just $40 a month (in addition to the 0.13% ETF fees).

Young & Thrifty readers can try Nest Wealth FREE for the first 3 months or find out more in our full Nest Wealth review.


ETF vs Mutual Fund

As previously mentioned, Canadians pay 2% to 3% of their total investment portfolio in fees annually for actively managed mutual funds but pay as little as 0.15% for ETFs in Canada.

But does the extra money an investor pays for mutual funds translate into superior returns? The short answer is no. Most actively managed mutual funds in Canada don’t perform well over the long run.

For the 10 years ending in 2017, for example, less than one-quarter of the country’s actively managed Canadian equity funds outperformed their respective benchmarks; just 6% of Canada’s actively managed international equity funds delivered higher than market returns, and less than 2% outpaced the S&P 500.

What does that mean in practical terms?

Say a mutual fund manager is lucky enough to meet the annual benchmark for blue-chip stocks in a given year. If the benchmark was 10%, your take-home returns on that mutual fund will be somewhere around 7.5% (10% minus 2.5% fees).

If you had instead invested in an ETF of blue-chip stocks, you would automatically match the annual benchmark since the ETF tracks the entire market of blue-chip stocks. And your take-home earnings would be considerably larger at 9.85% (10% minus 0.15% fees).

In other words, even when actively managed mutual funds do match or better market performance (which the data shows is not very often) investors may never receive those additional earnings because the fund manager takes such a sizable cut off the top.

So, you have a choice — pay more for mutual funds and watch your investment returns be eroded by fees, or pay less for ETFs to maximize your investment returns.

Closing Summary

ETFs are easy to buy, have extremely low fees, minimize risk and maximize returns. They are appropriate for both beginners and seasoned investors since you can choose the convenience of a robo advisor to help you select a portfolio of ETFs that works for you, or take a do-it-yourself approach with an online brokerage. Either way, you will save a bundle over mutual funds.

Disclaimer: Young & Thrifty has entered into a referral and advertising arrangement with Wealthsimple US, LTD and receives compensation when you open an account or for certain qualifying activity which may include clicking links. You will not be charged a fee for this referral and Wealthsimple and Young and Thrifty are not related entities. It is a requirement to disclose that we earn these fees and also provide you with the latest Wealthsimple ADV brochure so you can learn more about them before opening an account.

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Tamar Satov

Tamar Satov

Tamar Satov is an award-winning journalist specializing in the areas of personal finance and parenting. Her work has appeared in Canadian Living, The Globe and Mail, Today’s Parent, Parents Canada, Walmart Live Better and many other consumer magazines and websites. She is the former Managing Editor of CPA Magazine, for Canada’s Chartered Professional Accountants, and contributes to other publications for finance professionals including FORUM, for Canada’s financial advisors.
Tamar Satov

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