Thursday, 26 November 2009

Five Common Investor Judgment Errors and How to Counter Them

Humans are hardly the rational decision makers of classical economic theory. Researchers have catalogued numerous systematic and repeated errors of judgment that people make when investing. Far from being considered outlandish such conclusions are now mainstream. The research has already garnered a Nobel prize in 2002 for Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith. It has also become confusingly vast - see the scores of entries in Wikipedia's List of Cognitive Biases and on the Behavioural Finance webpage.

That's all well and good, but the average investor wants to know what are some of the common mistakes and, more importantly, what can be done to minimize or avoid the bad effects.

1) Loss Aversion - often manifesting itself as refusing to admit to a mistake (which some Nortel investors who hung on too long may relate to), it arises from the curious fact that a loss apparently is felt twice as much as a corresponding gain. The pain of losing a dollar is perceived as much worse than the pleasure of gaining. As a result, investors typically hang on too long to losing stocks and sell too soon after a gain.
Countermeasure: establish buy and sell points in advance when first making the investment. This can be a price target, both on the upside and the downside, which can be made automatic with limit orders. Or the buy/sell trigger can be a financial ratio such as Price/Earnings. The mere act of trying to figure out the action point will probably improve the quality of the initial decision in addition to avoiding the psychological trap of loss aversion.

2) Extrapolation Error - this is the mistake of blindly projecting into the future the pattern of the past, especially the most recent past. This error can consist of extending a negative trend, like "the market is crashing, it won't stop or go back up", or a positive trend, as in the technology bubble that many thought could not end. The error can also apply to individual stocks - assuming that a company which has done well for many years will continue to do so may not be realistic. Witness the post on the comings and goings of the top companies in the TSX over the years.
Countermeasure: a) examine assumptions directly - ask yourself what has underlain the success or failure of the past and question whether that will continue to be the case; b) build best case and worst case scenarios and see whether you would still be comfortable with the outcome if it should happen, especially on the downside; it may be necessary to revise the worst case downwards as conditions evolve - again, the downward progression of Nortel over the last eight years may be instructive. In the early years its demise did not seem at all probable but as successive management teams failed to right the company the outcome became more likely.

3) Anchoring - we all set a point of reference against which to make judgments, often whether we realize it or not, as MIT professor Dan Ariely reveals in his popular book Predictably Irrational with some amusing examples of experiments he conducted. The reference point may be misleading. That having the thought of a higher social insurance number in one's mind could influence upwards the price that savvy MBA students would be willing to pay for unrelated items like wine and computer equipment sounds unlikely and incredible, yet that is what happened. As investors we can trick ourselves into judging whether a price is high or low by looking at the wrong indicator. For instance, the 52 week high-low range of a security's price is a dangerous measure of whether the current price is cheap, whether one anchors on the high or the low. Those past bounds give no guide to the future.
Countermeasure: research the true value of the security, such as by working bottom up with fundamental analysis methods to estimate the price of a security.

4) Nostalgia aka Rosy Retrospection - this error consists of shifting the blame for our portfolio losses to "the market" rather than our choice of investments. And on the positive side, we may take all the credit for good outcomes, whether or not that was true.
Countermeasure: at the outset, make written notes on expectations and the reasons behind them. Later it will then be possible to examine the result against the real initial thinking, as opposed to our faulty rosy memory. To learn from mistakes is a mark of any good investor and we should all seek to do so - e.g. the acknowledged top investor Warren Buffett almost revels in fessing up to his blunders.

5) Optimism Bias - this is the forward-looking counterpart to rosy retrospection. Good outcomes are judged to be more likely than they merit while the possibility of bad outcomes is downplayed. People who are successful in one field, like physicians, engineers, lawyers, athletes etc are especially at risk of thinking they can easily repeat their success in investing.
Countermeasure: look at both positive and negative aspects of an investment. List the pros and the cons, and especially the possible things that could make an investment go wrong. If there are no cons in the list, that should tell you that you have almost surely missed something as there are few free lunches in this world. A question to ask: "if I am willing to buy, why are other people willing to sell at this price?"

A few other sources to amuse and inform on how our brains can mislead us:
  • The Secret Language of Money by David Krueger, M.D. and John David Mann - a psychologist explores how our thinking goes awry and offers practical advice on how to improve judgement in handling money and investing.
  • Mean Markets and Lizard Brains by Terry Burnham - explains the irrational errors made by our "lizard brains" of our evolutionary past and then incorporates current macroeconomic factors to give specific tips on how an investor can thereby profit.
Disclaimer: this post is my opinion only and should not be construed as investment advice or recommendations.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Taxes on Foreign Investments

Investors who have taken the step of expanding their horizons by diversifying internationally, for example by buying foreign stocks or ETFs, need to be aware of the tax ins and outs, 1) to keep the tax folks at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) satisfied and 2) to put such assets in the right type of account.

The first point to recognize is that investing abroad is not a way to escape taxes. Canadian residents are taxable on their worldwide income, including all their foreign income and gains, which probably means taxes to pay unless protected by registered accounts.

Registered Accounts
  • retirement-related accounts like RRSPs, LIRAs, RRIFs, LIFs do not pay any Canadian income taxes while the foreign holdings and associated profits received from sales, dividends and interest remain in the account. That's very convenient as it means there is no tax reporting or tracking to do.
  • TFSAs and RESPs do not pay any Canadian tax while the funds/holdings are inside and so there is no reporting or tracking for them either ... but unlike the retirement accounts above they are subject to 15% non-resident withholding taxes levied by the USA on any dividends or fund distributions (see Canadian Tax Resource's TFSA & Non-Resident Withholding Taxes), which cannot be claimed or recovered.
Non-Registered / Taxable Accounts
A general rule is that for tax purposes, everything must be calculated in Canadian dollars when transactions occur, or in the case of trades, when they settle, normally three days after the trade date.
  • Capital Gains and Foreign Currency - when buying and selling foreign securities (stocks, ETFs and bonds) on foreign exchanges like the NYSE, AMEX and NASDAQ, it is necessary to track and report both the currency conversion in and out, and the actual trades. Canadian Tax Resource (who is an accountant) walks through an excellent example in Exchange Rates, Investments and Income Tax. To be able to report this you will have to keep records of the Adjusted Cost Base (the CRA term for the running total of an asset in Canadian dollars) for each foreign security. The brokerage Book Value cost cannot be relied upon as accurate (through no fault of their own) if there are dividend reinvestments, capital gains distributions and return of capital as explained in a previous post ETFs and Mutual Funds - Calculating Capital Gains. A spreadsheet is a convenient way to track this - CanadianFinancialDIY has a model - go to the bottom of the blog to the My Main Portfolio Google docs spreadsheet and click on the Cost Base tab.
  • Foreign Currency Rate - CRA accepts either a Bank of Canada rate, or the actual one applied by the broker.
  • Foreign Dividends and Tax Credit - all dividend income is treated as ordinary income and taxed at the highest marginal rate like interest by the CRA. It does not benefit from the lower tax rates on dividends from Canadian companies (which excludes those Canadian-traded funds mentioned below). The US and most countries have tax treaties with Canada that result in a 15% withholding tax being deducted from distributions. To avoid double taxation, the CRA allows a Canadian taxpayer to claim a tax credit for this amount - explains how this works in Foreign non-business income tax and foreign tax credit
  • Foreign Interest - the CRA taxes such income as ordinary income at the highest marginal rate, just like Canadian interest. The US does not levy any withholding tax on interest from investments. For both interest and dividends, the foreign currency rate to be applied is when the funds are received, though the CRA does allow an annual average rate from the Bank of Canada to be used.
  • Canadian-traded Investments in Foreign Countries - there are many ETFs and mutual funds which hold foreign securities and part of their attraction is that they trade in Canadian dollars, which means the fund companies do all the foreign currency conversion and thus they report to you the investor, with tax slips and the like, in Canadian dollars. There is still the job of tracking the ACB since the funds sometimes distribute Return of Capital (e.g. as did in 2008 the Claymore International Index ETF, TSX symbol: CIE). An alternative to doing one's own spreadsheet for Canadian-traded securities is to subscribe to ACB Tracking Inc., which covers some 700 Canadian income trusts, closed-end funds and ETFs. It is still necessary to enter one's buys and sells.
  • US Estate Taxes - high net worth investors (US$1 million plus) with US holdings may be subject to US estate taxes even if not resident or citizens of the USA. explains in US Estate Tax May Be Payable by Canadians.
Which account for which foreign securities?
  • Fixed income is best in a registered account
  • Equities are best in a taxable account to take advantage of the foreign tax credit and the capital gains treatment
Disclaimer: this post is my opinion only and should not be construed as investment advice or recommendations. Nor is it to be taken as professional advice, merely information to get started. To be sure, consult an accountant.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Book Giveaway Winner - It's Lyne!

The draw is done. Congratulations Lyne!! You are the winner of the book. Please contact me by email at jean.lesperance at with your postal details so I can send you the book.

Thanks to all for their investment threat suggestions. Good ideas for future posts on what an investor can do to protect against the threats.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

How to Spot and Avoid Investing Scams

Notorious cases like Bernie Madoff in the USA and Earl Jones in Canada highlight the necessity for vigilance to avoid losing one's hard-earned money to investing scam and fraud operators. The danger is not confined to the newbie investor. Indeed, as the Madoff and Jones cases illustrate, experienced and knowledgeable investors are just as susceptible. Read this cautionary tale Why we keep falling for scams in the Wall Street by Stephen Greenspan, a university professor psychologist specialising in gullibility who was one of the victims of the Madoff rip-off. In fact, a research study by the University of Exeter for the Office of Fair Trading in the UK found that "... scam victims often have better than average background knowledge in the area of the scam content"!

The recent investing environment, which has seen a huge slump in returns in 2008, may make some especially anxious to jump on opportunities that promise large returns in a short time. People who are approaching or who have just started retirement may be particularly at risk if they have a big shortfall in funds needed for their retirement years since they may not have other means to make up the deficit.

How then can one spot a scam and more important, avoid being taken in?

Scam Spotting - don't take it from this blogger whom you do not really know, take it from known trustworthy verifiable sources (get the hint?!), which have excellent guides to scams like Ponzi and Pyramid schemes, or those involving legitimate-sounding investments such as exempt securities, forex, offshore investments, prime bank notes, gold and silver mines, oil wells, coins and precious metals, RRSP or Locked-in RSP tax-free withdrawal.

The sources below also review typical inducements and techniques used by the fraudsters: no-risk and high return, insider tips and get-in-now-before-it's-too-late, high pressure sales, investment seminars (such events are not necessarily fraud vehicles), invitations to invest with the smart/expert money, pressure to do like your friends/social group/church (especially odious IMHO) and a need for secrecy.
How to Avoid and Resist Being Taken
Though the above documents and websites contain many useful tips to follow, antidotes also need to consider a few surprising findings in the Exeter study: scam victims report that they analyzed scam content more than non-victims; scam victims are more likely to be taken in again for another scam and victims in general are not poor decision makers and are often successful in their professional or business field. Victims often have an inkling and a gut feeling that things are not right or as promised - but they go ahead anyway!

The reason according to psychiatrist David Krueger in his recent book The Secret Language of Money is that scams only work with our willing participation. That's due to our emotional vulnerabilities. Our fantasies, our need to be special, to appear knowledgeable/ not look stupid, to belong, to cooperate and obey legitimate authority, to be taken care of, our susceptibility to impulse and our desire to put one over sabotage our judgement by allowing the emotional parts of our brain to overwhelm the rational part.

Suggested tactics:
  • trust your gut instinct, it's usually right
  • ask yourself what you could lose, not what you could gain; ask what could go wrong
  • ask yourself why you are the chosen lucky one to participate in this investment
  • if this is such a sure-fire scheme, why isn't everyone else doing it?
  • ask yourself if the scheme is too good to be true
  • always give yourself a time gap before acting; make it a rule to sleep on it
  • talk to someone else you trust who is neutral, not familiar or involved with the idea and run it by them
  • question the authority and genuineness of the person contacting you - how do I know you are who you say you are? - invoke your sceptical self
  • become a little paranoid because the assumption that you are too smart or informed to be conned can be an Achilles heel
  • when in a times of personal crisis, such as divorce, job loss, death in the family or economic downturn, vulnerability to the urge to have someone take care of you is greater - be aware of that, tell yourself that and confront the feeling as the illusion it is
Having a good head on your shoulders for investing means both being well informed and rational in judging facts, and it also means recognizing and properly harnessing your emotions.

Disclaimer: this post is my opinion only and should not be construed as investment advice or recommendations.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Simple Portfolios Compared

Suppose you admit you are lazy or that you simply have better things to do with your time than poring over financial information to manage your investments, yet you want an effective and sustainable investment strategy. What is out there to help attain that aim?

Factors That Make Things Easier / Better or Not: what are the trade-offs to consider in deciding which approach is best for yourself?
  • Securities to Buy - the fewer there are, the less work it is to manage but it is often at the sacrifice of diversification
  • Diversification & Asset allocation - most of the portfolios take a balanced view using something between 60/40% to a 40/60% split between the two major asset classes of equity and fixed income, though some are a bit more unbalanced. A few of the funds of funds are able to include a very broad variety of other types of assets such as real estate, commodities, gold, foreign bonds and emerging market equities.
  • Rebalancing - how automated and frequent is the rebalancing - in some cases you must do it once a year yourself (is 30 minutes work too much?) or it is done for you by the fund company. Most use an annual rebalancing schedule.
  • Deposits and withdrawals - can you set up automated regular purchases for additional investment, or automated withdrawals?
  • Reinvestment of dividends/distributions - can dividend income be automatically reinvested for you or does it sit around idle?
  • Active vs passive investment strategy - does the ETF/fund passively follow an index or does the investor attempt to do better through active security buying and selling?
  • Tax tracking - if investments are held in a registered account this factor doesn't matter, but in a taxable account one must report the different types of income like dividends, interest and capital gains - is the tracking done for you or do you have to it yourself?
  • Fees and commissions - how much does the portfolio cost in management and trading commissions? Higher costs can make a huge difference in net results over the long term. In the case of ETFs, broker trading commissions will be incurred whenever money is added to the portfolio and purchases must be made, or when rebalancing is to be done. If the commission is $10, then adding money to or rebalancing a $10,000 portfolio with three securities will cost $30 (3 x $10), which amounts to a 0.3% annual cost
The Sampler of Simpler Portfolios - there certainly is a variety of evocative names coined by the inventors!
Table 1 Compares Couch Potato, One-Minute RRSP, Simple Recipe, Easy Chair and Lazy Portfolios

Table 2 Compares the ING Balanced Mutual Fund, Claymore Balanced Growth CorePortfolio and iShares Growth Core Portfolio Builder

How well do these simple portfolios perform? As the above links to commentary on the ones that have been around for some time attest (like the Couch Potato and the Easy Chair), they perform quite well with no spectacular gains but no huge declines either. Whether that suits your personal investing goals and attitudes is a matter for you to decide.

Disclaimer: this post is my opinion only and should not be construed as investment advice or recommendations.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Book Giveaway and What is the Next Big Investment Threat?

As a reward to readers, this blog is offering a free copy of The Cost of Capitalism by Robert J. Barbera, an engaging and thought-provoking account of the causes and signs of the bubbles and financial crises that have repeatedly plagued our economy, including the 2008 crash. His argument is that such crises are part of the capitalist system and are bound to re-occur. The book got very positive reviews on Amazon and I really like it too.

The book helps the individual investor to detect the indicators like rising debt levels and over-confidence that show a crisis is building. Perhaps this can allow preventative action ... though timing when to get out and back in has been shown to be extremely difficult. (Such is not Barbera's goal anyway. His thrust is to explain and suggest policy to prevent future crisis rather than to tell the investor how to protect him/herself.) Building a diversified portfolio that can weather market storms, or perhaps we should say, hurricanes is probably a more realistic objective. At the least, we can learn to bear such crises with slightly better equanimity.

To be in the random draw for the book, leave a comment with some unique name (i.e. don't comment as "anonymous"). The draw closes a week today, on Thursday, November 19th at midnight EST. The winner will be announced on the blog with a request to email a mailing address and the book will then be shipped out to any Canadian address.

In the comment, if you are so inclined, share your opinion and say what is currently your single greatest investment worry - be it another crisis, inflation, government deficits and likely rising taxes, very low growth and future returns etc.

A thank you to McGraw-Hill Canada for the complimentary copy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Adjusting RRIFs and RRSPs to the New Reality

Let's say a few years ago you figured your savings could support your retirement and you decided to opt for early retirement. A new reality unexpectedly descended last autumn when markets crashed, decimating all portfolios, even prudently balanced ones. As a result, you and many others, according to BMO Retirement Institute's Boomers Revise Their Retire-By Date as Financial Landscape Changes, have opted either to delay retirement or reverse course, to begin working again to generate savings to rebuild the portfolio and allow the portfolio time to recover. BMO's Retirement Transition Illustrator can help you figure out how much longer you might need to work.

Let's say you had converted your RRSP into a RRIF. This presents two problems.
  1. With a RRIF you are obliged to withdraw a legislated minimum percentage each year based on your age (details are in Canada Revenue Agency's IC78-18R6 and's RRSP/RRIF calculator will work out the exact amount using the formula 1/(90-age) for the years prior to age 71 - e.g. if you are 60, the percentage is 3.33% so you must withdraw $3330 for every $100,000 balance in your RRIF as of Dec.31st of the year before).
  2. You are not allowed to make any additional contributions to a RRIF to build up your portfolio.

The simple solution for those under age 71, which is the age when it is mandatory to convert an RRSP to a RRIF: transfer all, or part, of the RRIF back into an RRSP. There is no cost and no tax consequence of doing so, as long as the transfer is done directly, from registered account to registered account. DO NOT withdraw the whole amount from the RRIF as it would all be taxable income that year and you could only recontribute back into an RRSP to the extent of having contribution room. If you have a sizeable RRIF such an action would be very costly in taxes.

To do the transfer properly, you should contact the customer service folks of the broker - in fact, a phone call may suffice to do the transfer. If your RRSP and RRIF accounts are with the same broker they do not need to fill in the transfer forms. It is a definite convenience to have multiple accounts with the same firm.

For those aged 65 to 71, it may be worthwhile to have both a RRSP and a RRIF open (it is entirely acceptable to have both RRSPs and RRIFs open at the same time) since a withdrawal from a RRIF from age 65 onwards qualifies for the pension income tax credit, which offsets the tax and allows one to receive tax-free up to $2000 of such RRIF income. A withdrawal from an RRSP is not eligible for the pension tax credit. TaxTips explains this on How to create pension income. If you don't need this income to spend it could be put into a TFSA account, where it will remain tax-free.

Though the income tax rate is identical on RRSP and RRIF withdrawals, RRIFs have another small advantage in that there is no tax withheld at the time of withdrawal for the minimum required RRIF payment. Tax may still be payable but the moment of reckoning is deferred to the annual April 30th deadline for income tax returns. In the meantime, you get to keep all the money.

The key to rebuilding a retirement portfolio for those just at the point of retirement is working longer, saving money and giving the market time to recover. But it is useful to know some ins and outs of RRSPs and RRIFs that can help. Every little bit helps.

If you are not sure how to carry out these tips, consult a competent financial planner or an accountant.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

A Sustainable Portfolio Withdrawal Rate: the 4% Solution

From 1900 to 2008, the compounded before-inflation return on Canadian equities came to an impressive 9.1%, with bonds at 5.2% according to the Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook 2009. Assuming that the past is a reasonable guide to the future over the long term, does that mean a mixed portfolio could sustain on-going yearly retirement withdrawals in the range of 7 or 8%?

The answer unfortunately is NO. Someone looking to take money out for 30 or 40 years, say 7% or $35,000 of an initial nest egg of $500,000 and adjusting upwards for inflation every year, will most likely have no portfolio left long before then. One big problem is inflation: the real after-inflation return on equities was 5.9% and on bonds only 2.1%. The other significant reason is that several bad years of returns in row, such as happened in the 1970s and in 2001-2003, especially when they occur at the beginning of the drawdown period, so diminish the portfolio that it never recovers, even if strong returns follow.

Sustainable (Safe) Withdrawal Rate
A sustainable rate is around 4%. Many researchers and planners have taken different approaches and assumptions to estimating this rate, often also called the safe withdrawal rate. The range of estimates varies from as low as 3% up to about 6%. Such a big range is obviously of interest since it can mean double the income. Thankfully some of the factors involved are under the control of the investor, unlike future market returns. What are the factors affecting the sustainable withdrawal rate?
  • Flexibility in the annual withdrawal amount - instead of rigidly taking out the same inflation-adjusted amount year after year, which means annual increases, freezing the withdrawal (no inflation increase) after a year of negative returns (e.g. 2008) can allow 0.8% more, or when combined with a rule that inflation increases would never exceed 6% up to 1.4% more - i.e. a total of 5.4% annually - per Jonathan Guyton's Withdrawal Rules: Squeezing More from Your Retirement Portfolio at the American Association of Individual Investors. Paul Merriman's popular book Live It Up Without Outliving Your Money proposes rules that boost withdrawals down or up depending on portfolio success which would have supported eventual on-going rates of 6% using historical data from 1970 to 2007. To carry out such a strategy it helps for retirees to have a budget which differentiates between essential living spending and nice-to-have extras to see how much wiggle room there is.
  • Diversification of a portfolio using different asset classes such as foreign equities and bonds, real return bonds, REITs, value and small cap stocks reduce portfolio volatility. Reducing the downward jolts is crucial. Diversification then allows a higher withdrawal rate. Guyton's article shows about a 0.4% increase in a successful withdrawal rate in the more effective portfolio.
  • Lessening the duration of withdrawals by delaying the start of drawdowns, one obvious way being to work longer and retire later. Funding a 20 year retirement obviously costs less than a 25 year retirement. Table 3 in the famous Trinity study by Phillip Cooley, Daniel Hubbard and Daniel Walz shows how the probability of success rises with shorter payout periods. For example, a 10 year reduction in payout period (25 to 15 years) allows an increase in withdrawal rates from 4% to 5% for a portfolio split 50-50 between stocks and bonds.
There is of course a tradeoff - a low withdrawal rate that is sure to last forever means restricted income. We only live once and regret over not doing the things we desire from being too cautious may be a sad way to live in retirement. On the other hand, there may a strong desire to pass along funds to the next generation. Knowledge and confidence of the likely results of a particular withdrawal rate forms the basis for informed decisions.

Bogleheads' Safe Withdrawal Rate summarizes and links to US research
ByloSelhi's annotated links on Sustainable Withdrawal including Canadian content, fund companies, media, government, calculators

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Ins and Outs of International Bonds

Bonds don't exist only in Canada. The world bond market is vast - at least as large as the equity market.

Why buy foreign bonds
  • Diversification - just as foreign equities move up and down in different patterns than Canadian markets, so do foreign bonds. This non-correlation will dampen volatility when incorporated in a portfolio. Roger Gibson describes the effect in his classic book Asset Allocation. The Google Finance chart below shows how differently an international bond fund (NYSE symbol: BWX) behaved during the 2008 market meltdown compared to both the TSX composite equity index and a Canadian index bond fund (TSX symbol: XBB). If one were to factor in the big drop in the Canadian dollar vs the US dollar that occurred (since BWX is sold on a US exchange and denominated in USD) during late 2008, then the beneficial effect for a Canadian holding BWX would be even more pronounced.
  • Inflation hedge - the study Can Canadian Investors Still Benefit from International Diversification: A Recent Empirical Test from Simon Fraser University modeled international bonds within a portfolio during 1996-2006 and found that they provided inflation protection to Canadian investors
  • Income - like any other bond, international bonds generate interest income at rates that are likely to be comparable to Canadian bonds of similar quality - XBB's average coupon is currently 5.29% and yields 3.25%, while BWX's coupon average is 4.32% and yields 3.85%
Risk factors and other considerations

  • Credit/default risk - the chance the issuer won't pay back the principal as promised; may not be a big factor as some funds hold only developed country government bonds - will the UK, Japan or France likely default? Check the fund holdings and its investment policy. Individual bond risks are always minimized by buying a fund rather than an individual government or company bond.
  • Interest rate risk - if rates suddenly move up in a country, bond values will go down. Movements tend to average out over many countries.
  • Liquidity risk - an individual bond may be hard to sell and if so, a seller will get a lower price
  • Currency risk - a key factor, as exchange rate shifts usually far outweigh any other factor. Some funds eliminate this factor by hedging, which adds cost of course. In the long term and over many countries, many but not all, researchers say the currency swings cancel out. In the short term, the swings can provide the basis for the portfolio-rebalancing strategy of buying low and selling high (see renowned Yale University Chief Investment Officer David Swensen's explanation here)
  • Costs and Expense Ratios - transaction commissions for discount brokerage customers appear in the form of the buy-sell spread, the difference between the price the broker will buy from you or sell to you; the greater the spread, the costlier this is, though if you hold a bond to maturity, the cost as averaged over many years can be small i.e. constant buying and selling of individual bonds will cost a lot and eat up much of your returns. Expense ratios (MERs) are published for funds and the basic principle is, the lower the better.
What is available to buy
  • Individual Bonds - there is excellent choice of bonds of US issuers, sold in USD through the same web online self-serve menus as individual Canadian bonds.
  • Global / International Bond Mutual Funds - sold by Canadian mutual fund companies, there is a choice of about 80 funds listed on GlobeFund with MERs ranging from 0.16% up to 3.04%. Most are actively managed and many of the lowest MER funds (1% or less) have a very high minimum initial investment like $100,000 or they are sold only through financial advisers, not directly to DIY investors.
  • ETFs - unfortunately, there are no international bond ETFs available from Canadian providers. Thankfully, there is a big choice of ETFs sold on US markets (Stock Encyclopedia lists most of them here)- 1) US-bond only funds e.g. the biggest whole-of-market funds are AGG and BND, 2) Emerging Market (higher yield and higher risk) like EMB and PCY; 3) Developed Country funds that exclude the USA like IGOV and ISHG and: 4) Whole of World funds that include Canada, the USA and emerging countries like BWX and BWZ (see IndexUniverse's International Bond ETFs Compared). As is typical of most ETFs, most of these funds have low MERs (0.50% or lower) due to passive tracking of an index. Most are also not hedged and most of the bonds within are government bonds. Note that despite being denominated in USD, the unhedged international funds' currency risk is NOT the USD vs CAD shift but that of the origin country currencies combined as CanadianFinancialDIY explains in Clarification of Foreign Exchange Risk on International ETFs.
In today's global village, a savvy investor should not shy away from foreign bonds merely because they come from elsewhere. There's a whole wide world out there.

Disclaimer: This is presented as an investing idea, not as advice. Whether you take up the opportunity is always up to you the DIY investor.