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Don’t discount ZDB just yet

In February 2014, BMO released a more tax-efficient version of their flagship BMO Aggregate Bond Index ETF (ZAG). They called their new fund the BMO Discount Bond Index ETF (ZDB).  The fund’s strategy was to buy Canadian government and corporate bonds that were trading at par or at a discount to their par value (for a more detailed discussion of ZAG vs. ZDB, please refer to Dan Bortolotti’s blog post, New Tax-Efficient ETFs from BMO). By purchasing lower coupon bonds, the ongoing interest received would be lower than traditional bond ETFs, resulting in a relatively lower tax liability for taxable investors).  Clever strategy in theory, but let’s see whether this more tax-efficient structure actually worked out for investors.

The Results

Using my after-tax rate of return calculator, I’ve compared the returns of five plain-vanilla broad market bond ETFs that were available during the entire 2015 tax year.  Before-tax, ZDB returned 3.60%, placing it in first place.  After-tax, ZDB maintained its first place ranking, returning 2.52%.  Its 2015 tax cost ratio (which is similar to a management expense ratio, but for taxes paid instead of management fees paid) was also the lowest of the group, at 1.04%.

2015 Before-Tax and After-Tax Returns

Broad Market Bond ETF

AUM (millions)

1-Year Before-Tax Return 1-Year After-Tax Return (Pre-Liquidation)

Tax Cost Ratio

BMO Discount Bond Index ETF (ZDB)


3.60% 2.52%


iShares Core High Quality Canadian Bond Index ETF (XQB)


3.38% 1.87%


Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond Index ETF (VAB)


3.48% 1.91%


BMO Aggregate Bond Index ETF (ZAG)


3.24% 1.61%


iShares Canadian Universe Bond Index ETF (XBB)


3.14% 1.39%


Sources: CDS Innovations, BlackRock Canada, BMO Asset Management, Vanguard Investments Canada

In the chart above, it is also interesting to note that only $184 million is currently invested within ZDB (which is less than 5% of the total assets under management of all five bond ETFs). Hopefully this analysis will help to alert investors and their advisors to more tax-efficient alternatives to their current fixed income picks.

10 Responses to Don’t discount ZDB just yet

  1. Sandra 22/02/2016 at 8:42 am #

    Would have been nice to also include Horizon HBB :)

    • Justin 22/02/2016 at 9:24 am #

      @Sandra – HBB’s different tax structure and counterparty risk makes any comparison difficult. The closest you could get is to calculate a post-liquidation return for all ETFs (i.e. assume that each one is sold at the end of the 1-year holding period). I would estimate that HBB would come out slightly ahead of ZDB post-liquidation (by about 0.22%).

  2. Marko Koskenoja 22/02/2016 at 1:30 pm #

    I bought $157K of the BMO Discount Bond Index ETF (ZDB) in May 2015 – it pays me $255 per month in interest and has appreciated 1.48%. I am happy with that. If only ZPR was even close to that. ZPR has lost 25.84% over that same time frame – fortunately I only put $59K into ZPR.

  3. Que 22/02/2016 at 4:51 pm #

    @Justin – What would explain ZDB having a higher before tax return than VAB, while the MER of VAB is lower than ZDB? – Thanks!

    • Justin 22/02/2016 at 5:18 pm #

      @Que – the difference is likely due to sampling error from ZDB not holding all of the bonds in its index (and also due to the fact that ZDB and VAB follow different bond indices).

  4. Pete 25/02/2016 at 5:47 am #

    So would you choose zdb over vab in the model portfolio?

    • Justin 25/02/2016 at 9:05 am #

      @Pete – I think you may have missed the point of the article. It’s not that VAB (or any plain-vanilla bond ETF) needs to be replaced in my model portfolios, it’s that ZDB may be a more tax-efficient solution if you are holding bond ETFs in a taxable account. For RRSP and TFSA accounts, VAB would still be fine to hold.

  5. Dean 06/07/2016 at 5:19 pm #

    @Justin – In the table above, do the “1-Year Before-Tax Return” numbers have the Return of Capital distributions removed? When I look at the 2015 CDS Innovations spreadsheet for ZDB, it seems ZDB has much larger RoCs than VAB for example. If that 3.60% for ZDB includes RoC, then the real return would be about 3.28% I think.

    The more I look at that ZDB spreadsheet, the more that 9% RoC looks fishy to me. Doesn’t that just artificially inflate the yield? (or is it the return – I can never keep them straight).

    • Dean 06/07/2016 at 9:32 pm #

      Oops! I’m pretty sure my calculation of 3.28% is wrong, but I’m still curious if the ROC was factored out or not.

      Also I just read an article that said newer Bond ETFs will sometimes have higher ROCs if they’re growing fast from new investors so maybe the 9% ROC is not so fishy after all. Although I have to wonder how many investors don’t realize their ZDB distributions aren’t all interest and that 9% is their own money coming back and they better reduce their ACB before they sell any off!!

    • Justin 07/07/2016 at 7:48 am #

      @Dean: For purposes of before-tax calculations, the full dividend is assumed to be reinvested back into the fund, so no matter what amount of return of capital is paid out, it is included back into the fund (so it does not artificially deflate or inflate the return). As you mentioned, the ROC can inflate the quoted distribution yield on the fund’s website.

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