01/19/2012 02:15 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadians making financial resolutions to offset expect market volatility

MONTREAL - Canadians aren't just vowing to lose weight this January as another year of expected market volatility has prompted many to make resolutions to get their financial portfolios in shape.

But unlike the quest to trim a few pounds, efforts to improve the health of one's financial position have a better chance of surviving the spring thaw, experts say.

"Usually (people) are better at maintaining discipline in their investment portfolios than they are at sticking to a new diet," says Michael Quigley, vice-chairman of Natcan Investment Management, a subsidiary of National Bank of Canada.

The money manager said people tend to do better with financial resolutions, even if they forget about them — as long as they have established a plan, often with the help of a financial adviser.

Experts say you need to set up a plan with a few broad themes, resist the urge to fiddle with it every month or so and reassess it again after about a year.

"If everybody had a dietician or a personal trainer working with them, maybe they'd do better in other areas as well," he said in an interview.

Keir Clark, associate director wealth management at ScotiaMcLeod, said the new year would be a good time for more people to prepare for the future. He suggests investors focus on the next five years as they make financial decisions, instead of dwelling on the twists and turns written in the daily news.

Clark also urges investors to be realistic about what they can achieve with the means at their disposal and be conservative when estimating rates of return.

"We do have an unpredictable future. No one has every been able to consistently forecast what's happening, so I think it behoves us to be conservative in estimating rates of return and what contributions that will make to achieving the goal," he said from Halifax.

A goal of earning four to five per cent annually would be realistic. That's well short of the double-digit gains people came to expect in the last 1990s and early 2000s.

A recent TD Bank survey exposed a serious disconnect between the retirement expectations of Canadians and their ability to prepare for that lifestyle.

The survey of Canadians spanning three generations shows on average workers want to retire at 61, and the younger they are, the earlier they want to retire. Those in the 25-30 age group actually expect to call it quits at 59.

Clark said achieving financial goals is helped by developing a systematic way to direct money to savings or investments.

"The extent to which we can remove our emotions and day to day sort of demands on everything from these financial commitments that have to happen on a recurring basis, the better off we are gong to be," he said.

Quigley said the key to success this year could be to add U.S. equities.

The American economy is healing better than some had expected and is set to outpace the Canadian economy. Unemployment has fallen to a three-year low and quality stocks are cheap.

Canada's star will shine less brightly in 2012 with real GDP in Canada expected to trail the U.S. slightly for the first time in seven years, predicted Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist of the Bank of Montreal. Consumer confidence in Canada has fallen to its lowest level since May 2009.

Armed with a strong Canadian dollar, Quigley said it's a good time to load up on U.S. companies with strong brand names that pay dividends.

"It's not a time, in other words, to go for speculative names, but for strong names in the United States."

Quigley also suggests using ETFs to gain exposure to asset classes in a cost effective manner.

But he warns that investors should be wary of exchange-traded funds with high fees or poor liquidity. The rapid growth of these investment vehicles has included many "second-class products."

"Investors have to be careful, they can't just buy them blindly."

Topping his list of things to avoid is being pulled towards fixed income investments, especially Government of Canada bonds that provide low yields.

"Lightening up on equities was an early 2011 story but the knee jerk reflexes to do it now because equities have sold off, that's what they have to resist."

Stay diversified and maintain the exposure to capital markets, especially equities.

"If there's only one resolution that would be it."

Another year of market volatility will present a test for investors to remain very disciplined to sticking with their plans.