Stocks or ETFs? What’s the Best Long-Term Choice?


When it comes to investments, financial advisors typically advise to take a long-term view. Photo: shapecharge/Getty Images

Which is likely to produce a better return over time: owning ETFs or individual stocks?

This question was posed last week by a 50-year-old reader who described himself as a “medium risk” investor.

He’s operating with a 10-year time horizon and wants to focus on both price appreciation and dividends. 

“Is it better to hold individual stocks like Scotiabank, Rogers, Quebecor, etc., or to hold a dividend fund like HAL,” he asked. 

He also wants to know if there are sectors that offer better deals right now – he mentions banks, healthcare, energy, and tech.

There’s no simple answer to these questions and predicting precisely what will happen over the next 10 years is impossible. But financial advisors always advise people to take a long-term view. Our reader is trying to do just that.

So, let’s see what guidance we can provide. We’ll start with the ETF he mentions, the Horizons Active Canadian Dividend ETF (HAL-T). It uses active management to select dividend-paying stocks. Top holdings include Royal Bank, TD Bank, Ovintiv Inc., Telus, and Freehold Royalties. The fund has a ten-year average annual compound rate of return of 8.61 per cent, as of Sept. 30. That’s a good benchmark with which to work. 

Competitor BlackRock, which manages the iShares ETFs, has several passively managed funds that focus on dividend-paying stocks. The best of them, the iShares S&P/TSX Composite High Dividend Index ETF (XEI-T) shows a 10-year average annual compound rate of return of 6.89 per cent. 

That’s in line with other passively managed dividend ETFs, like the BMO Canadian Dividend ETF (ZDV-T), which has averaged 6.4 per cent over the past decade. 

None of those returns are overly impressive at first glance. That may be because we became complacent about rising stock prices during the great Bull Market of 2009 – 2020 and again during the COVID Bull of late March 2020 to early April 2022, where tech stocks and stay-at-home companies were dominant.

But in fact, HAL beat the S&P/TSX Total Returns Index over 10 years and the passively managed funds came close. 

Of course, returns on an equity portfolio will depend entirely on which stocks are chosen. I expect that many readers’ portfolios outperformed the numbers I’ve cited over the past decade. My Internet Wealth Builder Growth Portfolio generated an average annual return of 22.6 per cent over the 10 years to Aug. 25, but it carries a higher degree of risk than a dividend fund.

To return to our reader’s question about whether to choose ETFs or individual stocks, the numbers suggest that, unless he is a great stock picker, he’ll likely fare better over the next decade with an ETF. HAL is a good choice. 

As for which sectors offer the best deals, historically they’re those that are most beaten down right now. That would include technology, financials, and real estate (REITs). Energy stocks, by contrast, appear to be fully priced or in some cases overvalued. The S&P/TSX Capped Energy Index is ahead 57.5 per cent year-to-date. There’s not much upside there.


Gordon Pape is Editor and Publisher of the Internet Wealth Builder and Income Investor newsletters. For more information and details on how to subscribe, go to

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