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ETFs and Funds Investing

Should Canadian Investors Hedge US Dollar Exposure?

There’s more to the decision than simply the expected performance of the US dollar. Here’s what you need to consider.

After constructing a well-diversified portfolio of Canadian and US companies – using a combination of individual stocks and ETFs – you look at your portfolio’s currency exposure and wonder: “Should I hedge or not?”

I believe there are reasons for and against hedging US dollar exposure, many of which investors fail to consider.

Most investors incorrectly base their decision to hedge US dollar exposure on their view of the US dollar. While it makes intuitive sense that if one is bullish on the US dollar they’d want unhedged exposure, I believe this is the wrong way to execute on this view.

Some Canadian investors might have 30, 40%+ of their equity holdings allocated to a diverse basket of US companies. They’ve committed a lot of time to ensure individual exposures aren’t excessive and spread across a range of sectors to reduce the risk of one individual weak holding making a significant impact on portfolio performance.

Yet, after all that careful effort they leave their entire US equity position exposed to a single factor: the US dollar. While there may be some nuances (e.g. some US companies will benefit from a weak US dollar), a decline in the US dollar would negatively affect the entire 30, 40%+ US equity position. This is a massive overexposure to a single risk factor.

By leaving a large portion of a portfolio exposed to a single factor investors are taking on significant risk. Many people fail to recognize this.

Historical Canadian dollar performance

If you were to ask Canadian investors during the mid 2000s about US stocks, most would say they stay far away. Why? Because during that time the Canadian dollar appreciated significantly against the US dollar, wiping out investment returns. At that time, currency risk was at the forefront of their minds because they had just experienced its painful effects. Between 2002 and 2007 (a 5 year period!) the Canadian dollar appreciated roughly 60% against the US dollar.

Note: Many investment practitioners argue that CAD/USD is a wash over the long run. The chart below shows that today’s level is close to where it was almost 30 years ago. What this argument fails to appreciate is that not all investors have a 30 year time horizon. An investor with a 5 year time horizon (note that many investors behave like they have 1 year time horizons) would have either experienced a massive tailwind or a massive headwind due to USD exposure. Not a gamble people should take as they approach real-world liabilities, like retirement. Also, the argument that CAD/USD is a wash over the long run erroneously assumes that exchange rates are mean-reverting and deviations are temporary. This is false.

Nobody knows where the USD/CAD exchange rate will head over the long run. Smart people have great guesses, but nobody truly knows. And it’s quite possible that CAD appreciates considerably again, for one reason or another. My point is the risk still exists and it always will.

By leaving a large portion of a portfolio exposed to a single factor investors are taking on significant risk. Many people fail to recognize this.

As with everything in finance and investing, there are multiple considerations. Nothing is black and white, and currency exposure is one of those things.

USD performance during crises

While overexposure to a single risk factor should be avoided in all portfolios, some exposure to the US dollar – due to its safe-haven status – does provide a portfolio cushion in times of crisis.

The chart below shows the level of CAD/USD during the recent crash. From December 2019 to March 2020, the Canadian dollar depreciated roughly 10% against the US dollar. This means that Canadians holding unhedged US assets would have benefited from a buffer.

Below, I’ve shown the performance of two TSX-listed US equity ETFs during that time period. Both are Vanguard S&P 500 Index ETFs, but VSP is currency hedged while VFV is not. You can see how the unhedged version of the ETF declined about 10% less than the hedged version, due to US dollar exposure. A similar narrative played out during the 2008 financial crisis.

So should I hedge or not?

Personally, when given the simple option I hedge. But overall, I might only be about 50% hedged.

My US exposure is attained using a combination of ETFs and individual stocks. Because it is much more time consuming to create my own hedges (e.g. using FX derivatives) my individual US stock holdings are unhedged. However, most TSX-listed US ETFs offer hedged and unhedged versions. In those cases, I buy the hedged ETF.