3 ways to own strong Canadian banks

These ETFs will let you hold a group of solid financial stocks.

By InvestorPlace May 29, 2012 10:58AM

By Will Ashworth

In the InvestorPlace special report "Future of Financials" last week, one of my recommendations for bank stocks was to look north of the border to Canada. That's because four of Canada's big banks were in the top 10 of Bloomberg's latest list of the World's Strongest Banks.

While my favorite is Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS), you can own all of them by buying an ETF. But which one makes the most sense for the average investor?

I'm a big fan of Bank of Nova Scotia because its international expansion focuses on emerging markets rather than the U.S., which we all know is still going through tremendous turmoil five years after the financial crisis first began.

The ETF with the biggest BNS weighting is the iShares MSCI Canada Index Fund (EWC) at 4.83%. The fund tracks the MSCI Canada Index, has 104 holdings with four banks in the top 10 -- including BNS, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) and the Bank of Montreal (BMO) -- and has a quite reasonable 0.52% expense ratio. Farther down the list, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CM) is the 13th-largest position, and National Bank of Canada (NTIOF) is 25th-largest.

In addition to owning some of the world's strongest banks, EWC gives you access to the Canadian economy, which has managed to survive the five-year crisis better than most. Financials are the largest sector represented in the fund at 33.8% of the holdings, with energy and materials next with 26.8% and 18.8%, respectively. However, if you're someone like me who loves consumer discretionary and consumer staples stocks, you'll be sadly disappointed -- those two sectors account for just 7.2% of EWC's holdings.

Do you like the idea about investing in Canada but are worried about the fluctuation in currencies? Deutsche Bank offers the db-X MSCI Canada Currency-Hedged Equity Fund (DBCN). This ETF's holdings are slightly different and it tracks the results of the MSCI Canada U.S. Dollar Hedged Index. It's one basis point cheaper than the iShares fund, but it has very limited volume, which means you should consider it only if you would plan to hold it for the long term.

On the other hand, if it's banks you're after and not so much the other Canadian industries, you have at least one other choice. That's the SPDR S&P International Financial Sector ETF (IPF), which owns banks and other financial services firms from everywhere except the U.S. Canada represents the second-largest country weighting at 15.81%, only 24 basis points lower than the United Kingdom. Three Canadian banks are in the top five, and four Australian banks are in the top 10, including Westpac Banking (WBK), a firm I like. At 0.5%, IPF's expense ratio is lowest of these three ETFs.

At the end of the day, though, the best way to own the Canadian banks is through the iShares MSCI Canada Index Fund. If you're interested in more than Canada, the SPDR is the way to go.

As of this writing, Will Ashworth did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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