“Have you considered making a pseudo index fund by buying perhaps 15 large-cap stocks from each of Canada and the USA that would mimic an index? Not ideal for a growing portfolio, but for a relatively-stable account, and low commissions, it could save money on fees. Drawbacks are that it would be harder to increase or decrease holdings, and the savings wouldn't be huge over already inexpensive ETFs.”Gene is right that a carefully-run stable portfolio of stocks can cost less in fees than index ETFs. However, an important issue is how well such a portfolio would track its index. For an answer here, I turn to Meir Statman’s paper How Many Stocks Make a Diversified Portfolio? Table 1 of this paper shows how the standard deviation of portfolios varies with the number of stocks you own.
At this point, I need to diverge to a topic that few investors understand well: volatility losses. Consider a very simple example. In case 1, if you have a $100,000 portfolio and earn 0% two years running, your portfolio value stays the same. But in case 2, if you gain 10% (to rise to $110,000) and then lose 10% (to drop to $99,000), you’ve lost 1% overall. In both cases your average return is the same (0%), but the volatility of case 2 induced a 1% loss. This is what I mean by volatility loss.
A simple rule of thumb is that the yearly volatility loss due to compounding is about half the square of the standard deviation. So, in Statman’s Table 1, the index has a volatility of 19.158% (or 0.19158). The volatility loss is then 0.0184, or about 1.84% per year.
The table has no entry for 15 stocks, but if we average the lines for 14 and 16 stocks, we get that the standard deviation of a 15-stock portfolio is about 22.465%. This corresponds to a volatility loss of 2.52% per year. This is 0.68% per year more than the index’s volatility loss. However, I pay only 0.21% per year in MERs on my ETFs. So, it’s clear from this analysis that I’m better off with my ETFs.
Of course, Statman based his table on a particular historical period of stock returns. If we repeat the analysis using different data, we’ll get different results. However, the gap between 0.68% and 0.21% is large enough that any analysis that results in the 15-stock portfolio being better is likely contrived.
This is the primary reason why I don’t try to construct my own index. Other reasons are ease of maintaining a portfolio of ETFs and a much reduced likelihood that I’ll get overconfident and tinker with individual stocks.