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The risks of 'risk-free' investments

Wednesday January 25, 2012

A new RRSP season is upon us, and before long we will get inundated with advertisements telling us to invest in GICs or park our money in money market funds as an antidote to recent market volatility and a decade or so of muted returns from equity markets. We will read (and hear) more about negative news from the U.S. and Europe as they attempt to re-start the economic growth machine. It would be very tempting to “go safe” and put new money into these so called risk-free investments. But are they really all that risk free?

Equity investments

Much has been said and written about the many risks of equity investing, and most are true. Most equity investments, regardless of geographica area, have not performed well in the last decade, but is that a good enough reason to ditch them or not consider them this year? I personally don’t think so.

I am a firm believer in the line of thinking (which history proves over and over) that equities perform better than fixed income over time. We need fixed income in our portfolios for a smoother ride and to avoid the 35% to 40% corrections that hurt from both the monetary and psychological aspect. No matter how well you understand long-term investing and volatility, a 40% haircut hurts and takes time to recover from.

My feeling is that we know the last decade has been rough for equity investors (with exceptions in certain sectors like precious metals and resources). We know the prices are low because of this. We know that sectors that perform poorly in one time period are often the best performers over the next time period.

Putting what we know together tells me that it is still vitally important to buy equities. They are priced well, and we are living longer than ever, which means we need more than the returns offered by GICs from our money. Living longer can be great, but it means you need more money or need to get better returns from your nest egg.

GIC/money market risks

When equities perform poorly, some investors move to “safe” investments like GICs and don’t think there are any risks by making that decision. But there are in fact some risks associated with GICs and money market funds.

Opportunity risk. What else could your money be doing? The GIC is safe, but also has no potential to do well. We never know when stock markets will take off.

Inflation risk. About half of the time from 1982 to 2008, after 40% marginal tax rate and inflation, GICs lost money. To me that is pretty risky. We can’t ignore taxes and inflation, because they are part of investment reality. Sometimes a very big part, if you have a high income and are in a high tax bracket.

Incidentally, over that same 26-year period, the return on the S&P/TSX Composite Index was between three and four times higher than the return on risk-free investments.

I do believe GICs and money market funds have a place in one’s portfolio. They can be used for short-term purchases, emergency funds, and holidays. They can be used for tactical investment decisions. They can be used to save for something like a house, where you don’t want to risk losing 25% a year or more of your capital before you make the purchase.

For potentially better investment performance, there are many other fixed-income vehicles that let you slide up the risk scale a bit to target returns that are likely to be better than the “risk-free” variety. Ask your financial advisor to lay out a few options before settling for the riskiness of risk-free returns.



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Commissions, trailing commissions, management fees and expenses all may be associated with mutual fund investments. Please read the simplified prospectus before investing. Mutual funds are not guaranteed and are not covered by the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation or by any other government deposit insurer. There can be no assurances that the fund will be able to maintain its net asset value per security at a constant amount or that the full amount of your investment in the fund will be returned to you. Fund values change frequently and past performance may not be repeated.

Personal Opinions & Recommendations Disclaimer

The foregoing is for general information purposes only and is the opinion of the writer. This information is not intended to provide specific personalized advice including, without limitation, investment, financial, legal, accounting or tax advice. However, please call the author to discuss your particular circumstances.