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What are we looking for?

Biggest three-year money makers among Canadian-listed exchange-traded funds.

With their lower fees and ease of purchase through full-service or discount brokers, ETFs have grown in popularity as an alternative to mutual funds.

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The screen

We looked for the 15 top gainers for the three years that ended on July 31. Keep in mind that the period includes rebounding stock markets from the lows of March, 2009. Leveraged ETFs, which can amplify long and short bets on the market, were excluded.

What did we find?

A bubble-like gain in a real estate investment trust ETF.

Given investor obsession with yield, it is not surprising the iShares S&P/TSX Capped REIT ETF topped the chart with an impressive 27.6-per-cent annualized return. It sharply outpaced the Canadian stock market's 5.5-per-cent yearly gain for the period.

"A combination of low interest rates, increasing real estate prices and low vacancy rates have worked out very well for investors" in the REIT space, said Oliver McMahon, director of product management for iShares ETFs at BlackRock Canada.

The ETF's biggest winners included Dundee REIT, surging 194 per cent, and Boardwalk REIT, rising 121 per cent. It also benefited from merger activity, including Cominar REIT's takeover of Canmarc REIT and Dundee REIT's purchase of Whiterock REIT at hefty premiums.

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The iShares Diversified Monthly Income ETF, which invests in other iShares ETFs and yields about 6 per cent annually, posted an average yearly gain of 15.8 per cent. This ETF was converted into a Canadian equity balanced fund in 2010. It was formerly known as the iShares S&P/TSX Income Trust ETF, and part of the three-year return stems from that previous life.

The Horizons Comex Silver and Comex Gold ETFs, respectively, returned an annualized 21.9 per cent and 16.6 per cent. These ETFs have lost much of their shine recently as the price of their metals have tumbled. Silver is off from a recent peak of nearly $50 (U.S.) an ounce in April, 2011, while gold is down from a record high of more than $1,900 an ounce in September, 2011.

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