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Phantom yields
Popular fund dips into capital

As an analyst, I receive a ton of marketing material from mutual fund companies. In my opinion, much of it is just plain fluff and not worth more than a skim. Just a couple of days ago, I received a memo from Clarington Funds regarding their Canadian Income Fund, which has been quite popular both with financial advisors and investors alike. The reason this caught my attention was the potentially misleading wording of its content.

Demand for high yield investments and fixed-payout mutual funds

Lower interest rates mean lower income for some investors. However, investors may neither desire, nor to be able to accept, a lower a standard of living. Hence, it's no secret that funds offering higher yields have been in increasing demand throughout the last several years. In today's ultra-low interest rate environment, thanks in part to the events of 9-11, juicy yields are scarce.

The mutual fund industry is well known for giving investors what they want, notwithstanding what they really need. In 1993 and it was resource funds and aggressive small cap funds. In 1996, it was much the same but with income trusts added in. And, of course, 1999 saw the "birth rate" of technology funds soar - just in time for a crash landing.

This year, we've seen the introductions of many new high-income funds, which typically invest in some combination of: high yield common stocks, preferred shares, corporate bonds, income trusts, real estate investment trusts (REITs), and/or energy royalty trusts. I have no beef with these types of funds.

On the other hand, there are plain old balanced funds that simply pay out a fixed "distribution" on a monthly basis. While this type of "fixed distribution" feeds the investor what s/he wants, yield-hungry investors may simply be chewing on "empty calories".

Phantom yields

Suppose someone approaches you and says, "Let me tell you about a great fund - it boasts a fixed monthly payout of almost 10 per cent per year". Would you think they were lying or would you think it was too good to be true? It wouldn't be a lie, per se, but it would definitely be misleading.

Clarington Canadian Income fund is a balanced fund, investing in a combination of Canadian stocks, foreign stocks, bonds, and cash. It pays a monthly "distribution" of 8 cents per unit. Many investors needing income will simply take that monthly 8 cents per unit in cash and use it for living expenses. On the surface, it sounds great and the fund's value-oriented stock pickers have natural appeal in this uncertain market. But dig a little deeper and it becomes apparent that most of that 8 cents is not income at all.

In aggregate, Clarington Canadian Income fund has paid out a total of $87 million in monthly distributions, from January 1 1997 inception to June 30 2001. During that same period, the fund generated just over $24 million in interest, dividends, and realized capital gains, net of all management and operating expenses. Again, that's $87 million of payouts from $24 million of realized income. No, this isn't "new math", it's giving investors what they want.

Borrowing from the future

In a recent memo to financial advisors, Clarington describes this as a "return of growth", but even that doesn't capture the true essence of this fund's distribution policy. In fairness, Clarington's goal is to pay out the fund's entire return in the form of monthly distributions. However, it would be more accurate to describe this practice as "borrowing potential future growth".

An investor who put $10,000 into Clarington Canadian Income when it was first launched, would now have an investment worth less than $9,800 if all distributions were taken in cash. If all distributions were reinvested, this same $10,000 investment would be worth more than $15,300. On this $10,000 investment, more than $5,500 (i.e. $15,300 - 9,800) would have been distributed to unitholders over nearly five years. Hence, the distributions have started nibbling at the original capital. How have they done it? Thus far, picking stocks that have gone up in value, but haven't been cashed in yet, has supported the distributions.

However, until gains from those stocks are actually realized (i.e. stocks are sold at a profit), the sustainability of the distribution hinges on greater future performance - a tall task. Over the next year, the fund has to return 12 per cent, just to get the unit price back up to $10 and maintain the distribution. To accomplish this over the next five years, this fund must generate an annualized return of 10.3 per cent annually. Over ten years, a return just over 10 per cent will do the trick. Is this feasible? I doubt it.

The extent to which investors in this fund will be disappointed rests completely on the diligence that financial advisors have shown in educating their clients before investing their money. If they've told them to invest in this fund and reinvest all distributions - they'll probably be fine. If advisors have recommended this fund as a way to boost after-tax cash flow for income-starved investors, disappointment may well set in within the next few years.

Next Week: We'll do the math to see exactly why I think this fund will have to reduce its distribution or face disappointing its investors by depleting its capital in the foreseeable future.

Dan Hallett, CFA, CFP is the President of Dan Hallett & Associates Inc. in Windsor Ontario. DH&A is registered as Investment Counsel in Ontario and provides independent investment research to financial advisors. He can be reached at dha@danhallett.com
 
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