Index investing: 'Just set it and forget it'
May 18, 2008
Ellen Roseman

Financial investing is "like a foreign language to me," writes Carol (not her real name), who recently retired and sold her house. "I most definitely want to take charge of my investments, but do not know where to begin."

In our latest Money 911 series, launched on April 6, we've been looking at how ordinary investors can manage some or all of their money on their own. But first, I want to address the concerns of readers such as Carol, who fear they will never learn about investing and never earn more than the low returns on guaranteed investments. "I find it most distressing to have $200,000 plus sitting in GICs, especially with the interest rates going down. And the stock market scares me," she says. "I hope to live another 20 years and want (and need) some growth and income."

Carol, if you hope to double your money in 20 years or less, you have to take a bit more risk. Canada's largest bank currently pays 2.8 per cent on a five-year GIC. That's a pretty dismal return. But if you buy RBC's common shares, you earn a dividend yield of 3.9 per cent. You're ahead already even without the tax breaks you get on dividends that you don't get on GICs.

Next Sunday, we'll start a discussion of dividend investing, looking at banks, utilities, pipelines and other high-yield stocks. We'll also discuss the pros and cons of earning dividend income buying company shares, dividend mutual funds and dividend ETFs.

But today, we'll wrap up our discussion of index funds and exchange-traded funds with a list of the best self-help resources around. Index funds are suitable for those who have little money to invest and want to buy small amounts on a regular basis. You can find links to low-cost index funds at www.bylo.org/idxfunds.html. This website is run by Bylo Selhi, a champion of "smart mutual fund investing for independent Canadian investors," who believes in keeping things simple (and in always using a pseudonym).

Exchange-traded funds are better for investors who work through full-service or discount brokers. You pay commissions on both purchase and sale, plus you don't get the dividends reinvested automatically, as with mutual funds.

John Bogle, the founder of the Vanguard Group of index funds in the United States, is now retired, but still writing about his favourite strategy. I'd recommend Bogle's The Little Book of Common Sense Investing, published by Wiley and a quick read at just over 200 pages. You can also try The Bogleheads' Guide to Investing (Wiley) by Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer and Michael LeBoeuf, who run the Bogleheads investment forum, diehards.org/forum.

Vanguard never came to Canada, so its mutual funds are not sold here. But Canadians can buy the Vanguard ETFs, which trade on U.S. stock exchanges and are available through any Canadian brokerage or investment dealer. For information, go to www.vanguard.com. To find out more about ETFs in general, you can find links at www.bylo.org/ipus.html. There's an ETF centre at Globeinvestor.com, with articles and filtering tools. A book specifically for Canadians is The New Investment Frontier III (Insomniac Press) by Howard Atkinson and Donna Green. Atkinson can be seen on business TV, pushing his new line of leveraged Horizon BetaPro ETFs.

Finally, you'll find a wealth of information about index investing and investing in general at a U.S. website, www.moneychimp.com. Index investing makes sense for people who don't find finance fascinating, says Moneychimp. It's the perfect "set it and forget it" strategy, giving satisfactory results and requiring very little attention, so you can get on with your life.

Ellen Roseman's column appears Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. You can reach her by writing Business c/o Toronto Star, 1 Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6; by phone at 416-945-8687; by fax at 416-865-3630; or at eroseman@thestar.ca by email.