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Finding ETFs with the right mix

Published on 06-05-2023

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How to cut down on ‘diversification clutter’


Investors are always being told to diversify. But what exactly does that mean? A knowledgeable financial advisor can put together a well-diversified portfolio, tailored to the client’s needs. But if you want to do it yourself, it can be a challenge.

I recently received a question from a reader who asked: “How many ETFs would you suggest in a buy-and-hold portfolio with a term of 7-10 years?” Another reader wrote to say his RRIF portfolio holds 160 stocks and 25 mutual funds. “I feel that this could be classified as diworsification as opposed to diversification,” he said.

There’s no simple answer to these questions. It depends how much diversification you want (although 160 stocks plus the funds is overdoing it) and the amount of risk you’re prepared to accept.

If you want an all-stock portfolio, you could theoretically limit yourself to a single ETF that invests in markets around the globe. One example is the BMO MSCI All Country World High Quality Index ETF (TSX: ZGQ) (how’s that for a mouthful?).

The managers screen global markets for stocks that have a high return on equity, stable year-over-year earnings growth, and low financial leverage.

The portfolio holds 458 stocks. You’d think that would provide plenty of room for diversification, but in fact 75% of the assets are in U.S. securities. The top five are all technology companies: Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Meta Platforms, and Alphabet. Together, those five make up a quarter of the portfolio.

The second largest geographic holding is Taiwan at 3.69%. Canada isn’t even on the chart.

This doesn’t mean it’s a bad fund. In fact, the returns have been good. As of the end of April, this ETF had posted an average annual compound rate of return of 12.38% since its inception in November 2014. It’s been profitable in every year but one (2022) since its launch. Clearly, it’s a decent place to invest some money. But it is not my idea of a well-diversified global portfolio. 

Other companies offer global funds, sometimes excluding Canada. An example is the iShares Core MSCI All Country World Ex Canada ETF (TSX: XAW). It’s a fund of funds that has better geographic balance than the BMO entry, but its track record is unimpressive.

The bottom line is that I couldn’t find a single fund that would do the job. I suggest a portfolio needs a minimum of three. One should track the TSX Composite (our home market). The other two should cover the S&P 500 and EAFE (Europe, Australasia, and the Far East). The allocation depends on how much exposure you want to each market. I suggest investing 50% in the S&P 500 and 25% in the other two.

If you want more stock diversification, consider adding an Emerging Markets fund and a small-cap ETF like the iShares U.S. Small Cap Index ETF (TSX: XSU).

Including one or two bond ETFs would reduce overall risk by adding a fixed-income dimension to the portfolio. Most major ETF companies have one that covers the broad Canadian market, and there are many that track U.S. bonds.

In sum, there is there is no magic number as to the number of securities that would offer a proper asset mix. But if you’re building an all-ETF or mutual funds portfolio, I suggest 10 holdings at most. For a stock portfolio, you shouldn’t need more than 25-30 positions.

If you have a money question, send it to and write Fund Library Question in the subject line. Sorry, I can’t guarantee a personal response, but I’ll answer as many questions as possible here.

Gordon Pape is one of Canada’s best-known personal finance commentators and investment experts. He is the publisher of The Internet Wealth Builder and The Income Investor newsletters, which are available through the Building Wealth website. To take advantage of a 50% saving on a trial subscription and receive the special report “The Tumultuous Twenties,” go to

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Notes and Disclaimer

Content © 2023 by Gordon Pape Enterprises. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. The foregoing is for general information purposes only and is the opinion of the writer. Securities mentioned carry risk of loss, and no guarantee of performance is made or implied. This information is not intended to provide specific personalized advice including, without limitation, investment, financial, legal, accounting, or tax advice. Always seek advice from your own financial advisor before making investment decisions.

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