Improve your retirement account investments

Take these steps to see if your holdings could use some sprucing up.

Christine Benz 8 February, 2018 | 6:00PM

The following is part of our Financial Planning To-Do List special report.

Since the end of the financial crisis, it's been hard to go wrong with most investment types. Stocks of all types and from nearly every geography have gone up, while bond prices got a boost from declining interest rates. Unless you've had money under the mattress (or in cash) or sunk your whole portfolio into gold and commodities, it's a good bet that you've made money in your retirement portfolio over the past eight years.

However, I think it's also likely that the next eight years won't be as forgiving. Central banks in many countries including Canada and the United States have begun to tighten interest rates, meaning that bond investors are unlikely to continue to benefit from rising bond prices as they have over the past several decades. Stocks have continued their streak, but current market valuations aren't all that encouraging.

A less-forgiving environment means you'll need to get even pickier about the investments in your portfolio. As you review your retirement portfolio holdings today -- that is, holdings in dedicated tax-sheltered retirement accounts like RRSPs and company pensions -- here are the key steps to take to ensure that your portfolio is in tiptop shape for what lies ahead.

Step 1: Enter your tax-sheltered retirement holdings in X-Ray.

To begin reviewing your portfolio, enter each of your tax-sheltered retirement holdings in Morningstar's X-Ray tool. (Note that you'll need a Premium membership to access this tool. For a free 14-day trial, click here.) Include RRSPs, company pensions and other tax-sheltered accounts that you hold, in either your own name and that of your spouse. (In contrast to taxable accounts, tax-sheltered retirement accounts can't be held jointly.) Don't include any taxable retirement holdings, or assets that you might have earmarked for shorter-term, non-retirement goals.

If you like to maintain each of your accounts as distinct subportfolios on -- and that can be useful from a monitoring standpoint -- you can do so. You can then use the "Combine" feature of Portfolio Manager to look at them as a unified whole. (Don't worry--"Combine" doesn't affect your subportfolios.)

Step 2: Assess allocations.

Looking at all of your retirement holdings in aggregate enables you to see a few key items. First, you can view your current combined balance -- a helpful data point when you're assessing your retirement readiness.

And the X-Ray functionality, in particular, can help you get a look at your portfolio's weightings, at a very high level. First and foremost, you'll want to pay attention to your portfolio's stock/bond/cash mix. The beauty of X-Ray is that it drills into each of your holdings' actual compositions. It doesn't just assume a Canadian equity fund is all large-cap Canadian stocks, for example, but instead can pick up on whether it has cash, foreign stocks, or stocks from other style boxes. You can then compare your total retirement portfolio's current allocation with that of your targets; we discussed assessing the appropriateness of your asset allocation in this article. If you've been taking a hands-off tack with your portfolio in recent years, your equity weighting is apt to be higher than you intended. Keep any eye on your Canadian versus foreign stock split as well; many Canadian investors maintain a heavy bias to domestic stocks. That can be helpful at times, but has the potential to reduce diversification and detract from returns at other times, too.

In addition to assessing the appropriateness of your baseline asset allocation, pay attention to whether your portfolio is adequately diversified. Are you courting any inadvertent sector or style bets, which can bring extra volatility? We're coming through a period in which large-company growth stocks -- and technology and healthcare names in particular -- have performed much better than other categories. Hands-off investors may find their holdings in those areas have enlarged at the expense of other worthwhile positions. X-Ray enables you to see your portfolio's sector weightings relative to a relevant benchmark.

Step 3: Review holdings' fundamentals.

Next, cast a discerning eye on your holdings. Don't be blinded by recent performance, but instead focus on your holdings' fundamental qualities. Morningstar Analyst Ratings -- star ratings for stocks and the Medallist ratings for mutual funds and exchange-traded funds -- are a valuable way to size up your holdings' quality at a glance. For funds and ETFs, the ratings take into account fees, management and parent company, the reasonableness and riskiness of the portfolio and strategy, and past performance. For individual stocks, the star ratings weigh a company's current share price against its likely future cash flows. If the preponderance of your holdings are stashed in Medallist funds and ETFs, and/or stocks rated 3 stars or more, that's a good indication that you're on the right track. Don't consider it a red flag if a stock or fund you hold doesn't have a rating; that simply means that it's not under coverage. However, if you see several 1- and 2-star stocks, or fund and ETF holdings that are rated Neutral or even Negative, that's a signal that pruning and upgrading is in order.

If you have mutual funds or ETFs in your retirement portfolio, another quick and dirty way to gauge holdings quality is to do a fee audit. Toward the bottom left of the X-Ray page, you can see an asset-weighted management-expense ratio for your portfolio; at a minimum, yours shouldn't be any higher than the average for a similarly weighted hypothetical portfolio, and ideally it would be well lower. With many ETFs and index funds providing broad stock- and bond-market exposure for well less than 0.15%, there's no reason to pay more than you have to. Morningstar's research in the U.S. has found a tight correlation between lower expenses and better performance. Moreover, if market returns are lower going forward than they have been in the recent past, paying less is a painless way to improve your take-home return. Morningstar director of fund research Russ Kinnel puts low costs at the top of his list of criteria when he screens for top mutual funds.

Step 4: Mind tax matters.

If you've reviewed your holdings and determined that some changes are in order, whether a few minor tweaks or a more substantive overhaul, the good news is that you won't face tax consequences for making the upgrade, provided the money stays within the confines of your RRSP, company pension plan or other tax-sheltered wrappers. In other words, there's no reason to put up with laggard holdings.

In fact, part of your retirement holdings review should be to check that you're actually taking good advantage of the tax-saving features that these accounts offer. When you're in the accumulation phase, the big tax benefit of these accounts is that you won't pay taxes on any income or gains that your holdings kick off. For that reason, if you have tax-inefficient holdings in your portfolio, such as high-yield bonds or REITs, they belong in your tax-deferred or TFSA accounts. At the same time, don't go out of your way to find tax-inefficient holdings if they wouldn't otherwise be part of your portfolio mix. For example, broad-market equity ETFs are indeed tax-efficient (and therefore don't benefit as much from the tax-sheltered wrapper than higher-turnover equity funds), but they're also superb holdings in retirement accounts.

About Author

Christine Benz

Christine Benz  Christine Benz is Morningstar's director of personal finance and author of 30-Minute Money Solutions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Your Finances and the Morningstar Guide to Mutual Funds: 5-Star Strategies for Success. Follow Christine on Twitter: @christine_benz.