Practice Management

High yield and reduced portfolio risk? It’s possible even now

An inside look at tactical covered call exposures in the current COVID-19 climate.
May 2020

Stewart Reid

Director, Intermediary Distribution, Western Canada


Given the speedy erosion of interest rates and bond yields in recent months, it’s safe to say that Advisors need a high-yielding solution without the typical risk associated with equities – particularly amid the current COVID-19 frenzy. Stewart Reid, Director, Intermediary Distribution, Western Canada, offers his view on an options-based strategy that seeks to minimize volatility and maximize returns in any climate.

The ideal yield strategy for current markets

With interest rates and bond yields even lower than they were previously, there’s a greater need for income investors to maintain some exposure to equities, while at the same time being prepared for our new normal of persistent volatility. Amid drastic market swings and diminished global growth, it’s now more important than ever that Advisors ready themselves for what lies ahead with practical – and effective – yield strategies.

In this post COVID-19 reality, many of you are rightfully focused on generating that healthy 6%-8% return that your clients have come to rely on to fund their lifestyles. This is particularly relevant as demographics shift, and aging Canadians – especially those in the pre-retirement or retirement stages who face longevity risk and a rising cost of living – require higher yields from their investments and sustainable monthly income over the long term. According to a recent study, 63% of retiring Boomers’ biggest worry is running out of money, and the latest market turmoil only adds to this pressure.1 Add to this, for North American Advisors, 79% of total client relationships are with older clients born in 1965 or earlier.2

From this perspective, a defensive covered call strategy is an ideal solution because not only does it lock in yield, it is the lowest risk option when compared to both high dividend and dividend growth investments in this environment. Aggressive yield tactics such as high-payout energy stocks simply won’t provide value now given the substantial decline in oil prices, and many clients in this climate are naturally more cautious. Covered calls, meanwhile, provide a double source of cash flow, with option premiums collected acting as a buffer against price declines – an important characteristic amid the inevitable economic fallout from the COVID-19 carnage.

Our approach: High income + peace of mind

BMO Global Asset Management – through our entire covered call suite – employs its systematic overlay method to write out-of-the-money (OTM) calls on roughly 50% of the shares to earn premiums, while maintaining long exposure to the remaining 50% to provide upside potential (as market conditions change, equity and option exposure varies). On top of dividend income, we seek to generate an additional 2% to 5% yield (depending on market environment) from the selling of the call options.

In the current tumultuous environment, our focus on OTM options commands better value because of investor uncertainty on where stocks are headed. Effectively, we’re monetizing volatility, so our premiums increase in an unstable climate since we’re able to sell options further OTM at a higher price, and still achieve our income targets.

While our approach doesn’t fully eliminate the downside, the covered calls strategy leads to lower risk since full market exposure is also capped, while at the same time targeting incremental yield. From a defensive standpoint, this combination is attractive for clients who want greater peace of mind during these uncertain times, as both governments and central banks look to overcome the shock from COVID-19.

These mandates offer a range of client benefits, such as higher yield with lower volatility, a bias toward quality stocks, and stable, tax-efficient income – all at a competitive cost. In the end, it’s a practical solution to safeguard investments from short-term risks, while boosting returns.

Benefits for your clients

  • Higher yield – additional premiums collected from covered calls and high-quality underlying stocks with strong balance sheets, history of dividend payout, etc.
  • Lower volatility – call options provide downside protection relative to owning the assets outright, while long exposure is also capped
  • Greater tax efficiency – income generated by call premiums is typically taxed as capital gains
  • Upside capture – ability to stay invested, and participate in global growth on the other side of the Bear market
  • Lower costs – competitive cost for an enhanced yield strategy

A tactical time to add exposure to...

BMO Covered Call Canadian Banks ETF (Ticker: ZWB)

  • The value: attractive play, with average dividend yield for a “Big 6 Bank” currently around 5.3%3, excluding option overlay that boosts cash flow further
  • Canadian banks are well-capitalized, quality assets, known to provide growth and income stability
  • Despite current downward pressure on Canadian banks from COVID-19 concerns and oil supply tensions, their strength positions them for robust long-term returns (the average P/E of a Big 6 Bank today is approximately 8.25, compared to the 10-year average of 11.51, with all boasting resilient dividends4)

BMO Covered Call Utilities ETF (Ticker: ZWU)

  • The value: utilities and pipelines typically don’t generate too much upside, but we believe these securities are oversold in the current environment
  • Current distribution yield of approximately 8.0%; strong possibility for further gains
  • Underlying securities have historically stable cash flows (essential services), which results in attractive dividend yields and long-term earnings
  • Provides generally low correlation to broad equities, improving portfolio construction and risk-adjusted returns

BMO US High Dividend Covered Call ETF (Ticker: ZWH)

  • The value: provides greater growth potential through exposure to high-dividend-paying U.S. equities; 7.3% dividend yield
  • Underlying holdings are screened using proprietary methodology focused on historical dividend growth and sustainability of payout, inherently tilting the portfolio toward higher-quality names
  • Diversified mix of stocks across sectors, which is beneficial from both a dividend and growth perspective; suitable for your clients’ core equity exposure

A toolkit essential: Higher returns without higher risk

At BMO Global Asset Management, we remain committed to creating solutions that run counter to the traditional expectation that higher yield necessitates higher risk. Our expansive covered call suite, which includes both ETFs and ETF-based mutual funds, allows your clients to better meet their income needs through a proven strategy – without having to budge on their risk comfort levels. While these solutions are not a fixed income replacement, in that they’re still equity market exposure, they provide necessary comfort for risk-averse clients seeking stable yield in this rocky climate.

And, no matter how your business is structured, as the largest options manager in Canada, we have a solution that fits. Within the construct of ETF-based mutual funds, we’ve set out to efficiently access covered call options with a one-stop, low-fee, professionally managed mutual fund. We do the portfolio construction, implementation, risk management and the monitoring, levering our relationships with more than a dozen counter parties to attain the best pricing, so Advisors can focus on servicing clients and growing their business.

ETFs Annualized Distribution Yield as of May 29, 2020

BMO Covered Call Canadian Banks ETF - ZWB


BMO U.S. High Dividend Covered Call ETF - ZWH


BMO U.S. High Dividend Covered Call ETF (U.S. Dollar Units) - ZWH.U


BMO U.S. High Dividend Covered Call Hedged to CAD ETF - ZWS


BMO Canadian High Dividend Covered Call ETF - ZWC


BMO Covered Call Utilities ETF - ZWU


BMO Europe High Dividend Covered Call ETF - ZWP


BMO Europe High Dividend Covered Call Hedged to CAD ETF - ZWE


BMO Covered Call DJIA Hedged to CAD ETF - ZWA


BMO Global High Dividend Covered Call ETF - ZWG


BMO Premium Yield ETF - ZPAY


BMO Premium Yield ETF (Hedged Units) - ZPAY.F


BMO Premium Yield ETF (USD Units) - ZPAY.U


ETF-Based Mutual Funds Annualized Distribution Yield* as of May 29, 2020

BMO Covered Call Canadian Banks ETF Fund


BMO Covered Call U.S. High Dividend ETF Fund


BMO Covered Call Europe High Dividend ETF Fund


BMO Covered Call Canadian High Dividend ETF Fund


*F Series funds. BMO Global Asset Management, as of May 29, 2020.

In this heightened period of uncertainty, we will continue to provide you with timely resources, and new ideas to enrich your practice. To learn more about BMO Global Asset Management’s covered call solutions, contact your Regional Sales Representative, and access the materials below:

BMO Covered Call Option Strategy

BMO Covered Call Funds – Whitepaper


1 CIBC Economics, June 2016.

2 The State of Retail Wealth Management 2018.

3 BMO Global Asset Management, June 15, 2020.

4 Bloomberg, June 10, 2020.

This article is for information purposes. The information contained herein is not, and should not be construed as, investment, tax or legal advice to any party. Investments should be evaluated relative to the individual’s investment objectives and professional advice should be obtained with respect to any circumstance.

Any statement that necessarily depends on future events may be a forward-looking statement. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of performance. They involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions. Although such statements are based on assumptions that are believed to be reasonable, there can be no assurance that actual results will not differ materially from expectations. Investors are cautioned not to rely unduly on any forward-looking statements. In connection with any forward-looking statements, investors should carefully consider the areas of risk described in the most recent simplified prospectus.

This article is for information purposes. The information contained herein is not, and should not be construed as, investment advice to any party. Investments should be evaluated relative to the individual’s investment objectives and professional advice should be obtained with respect to any circumstance.

Commissions, management fees and expenses all may be associated with investments in BMO ETFs and ETF Series of the BMO Mutual Funds. Please read the ETF facts or prospectus of the relevant BMO ETF or ETF Series before investing. The indicated rates of return are the historical compounded total returns including changes in share or unit value and the reinvestment of all dividends or distributions and do not take into account the sales, redemption, distribution, optional charges or income tax payable by the unitholder that would have reduced returns BMO ETFs and ETF Series are not guaranteed, their values change frequently and past performance may not be repeated.

For a summary of the risks of an investment in the BMO ETFs or ETF Series of the BMO Mutual Funds, please see the specific risks set out in the prospectus. BMO ETFs and ETF Series trade like stocks, fluctuate in market value and may trade at a discount to their net asset value, which may increase the risk of loss. 

BMO ETFs are managed by BMO Asset Management Inc., which is an investment fund manager and a portfolio manager, and a separate legal entity from Bank of Montreal. ETF Series of the BMO Mutual Funds are managed by BMO Investments Inc., which is an investment fund manager and a separate legal entity from Bank of Montreal.

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