National Pensioner Bonds

These new savings bonds from National Savings & Investments (NS&I) are to be launched in January. The date has yet to be announced. Their distinctive feature will be the market thumping fixed interest rates, 2.8% gross for the one year bond and 4.0% p.a. for the three year bond. There are however some important points to take into account before investing including a sting in the tail for higher rate taxpayers investing in the three year bond:

* The bonds are only available for those aged 65 or over.

* The allowance for each bond is £10,000 per person but a couple can pool their allowance and invest £20,000 in a joint bond and invest £40,000 in total. The minimum investment is £500.

* No interest is payable until the end of the term; there is no regular income facility and so these bonds are not suitable for income.

* If you cash in a bond early you will lose 90 days interest. It is therefore important to retain sufficient cash in an easy access account should you decide to invest.

One source stated the penalty can be waived if 90 days’ notice is provided but I have not seen anything to confirm this.

* The bonds are taxable. Tax at 20% will be deducted from interest in all cases. If you or your spouse are a non-taxpayer you cannot register by completing an R85 form, as you can for bank accounts to receive gross interest. Non taxpayers however can reclaim income tax deducted from HMRC after the bond has matured.

* The scorpion. Higher rate taxpayers buying a three year bond will be required to pay the additional higher rate tax of 20% at the end of year one and two even though the interest is not payable until the end of the term! This is an extraordinarily unfair arrangement, with a requirement to pay tax on income that investors have not received. It also raises an administration query. Will NS&I send investors a statement of notional gross interest earned and tax deducted at source at the end of the year? If not investors will have to calculate these figures for their tax returns. I assume that for people buying bonds in January the first year’s interest will arise in January 2016 and therefore will need to be disclosed on their 2015/16 tax return.

* NS&I have a limited amount of money allocated to this tranche of investment, £10 billion. The bonds are likely to be very popular and therefore if you think these bonds are suitable for you, you are advised to apply early.

* You can view information on the bonds at and pre-register to receive e-mail updates.

* You will be able to apply online at , by phone paying with a debit card or by postal application. Call 0500 500 000 to apply or to obtain an application form. I am not sure if the latter will be available from post offices.

This blog is for information purposes only. NS&I Pensioner Bonds may not be suitable for you and this is not a recommendation to invest in them. The rates of tax on the bonds may change.

Posted in Cash Savings, NS&I | Comments Off

Fragile Confidence

Global stockmarket falls in the last few days have underlined how fragile confidence in the global economy is. A key factor is the plunging oil price which signals a weakening global economy. However on the theme of confidence I came across an interesting article on the Daily Mail website. They reported comments from the relatively unknown Bank of International Settlements (BIS). This is the world’s oldest financial institution, based in Switzerland and it acts as a central bank to the central banks and watchdog on the global financial system. You can read the short and readable article at:

What interested me was the comment from the BIS that “small pieces of news can generate outsize effects,” a point I made in my investment blog on the equity market sell-off dated 17/10/14. I was not aware of this fact but apparently on the 15/10/14 the yields on 10 year US Treasuries fell more than they did on 15/9/08 when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. To remind you Treasuries are bonds issued by the US government and are considered highly secure or even “risk free” investments, similar to UK gilts. When markets get edgy there is a flight to quality. In other words investors sell equities and pile into safe haven Treasuries. Prices rise and consequently yields tumble – you will recall there is an inverse relationship between bond prices and market yields.

What this suggests is the market’s reaction in October effectively meant investors assessed the risks to be as significant as the financial crisis of 2008. According to the BIS aside from weaker US retail sales data there were no major shocks to have warranted such market moves on 15/10/14. The BIS suggested fragility is becoming normal.

My conclusion is that the recovery in the global economy is still at a very early stage. Where there are green shoots it is patchy and fragile. As far as major economies are concerned only in the US does the recovery appear to entrenched. Even in the UK perversely income tax receipts have been weak despite the creation of new jobs, entirely consistent with many of these being low paid, part time or zero hours contracts. I am not as enthusiastic about the strength of the UK economy as Cameron and Osborne are!

If the BIS are right and I think they are we should expect more volatility in global stockmarkets. This poses both threats and opportunities for long term investors.

This blog is intended as a general investment commentary.  You should seek individual advice before making investment decisions.


Posted in Behavioural Finance, Global Economy | Comments Off

The Sage of Henley

The famous and highly successful US investor Warren Buffet is commonly known as the Sage of Omaha. He is noted as a shrewd and long term investor with a strong focus on value. He is also the source of insightful and humorous sayings on investment. It is worth googling and reading his quotes but two of my favourites, I have paraphrased, are:

“Rule 1 of investing – never lose money. Rule 2 never forget rule 1.”

“It is only when the tide goes out do you see who is swimming naked.” This is a reference to the scenario where market conditions are good and all investments do well. QE for example has lifted asset values indiscriminately. However when conditions deteriorate then you discover which are the good and bad companies.

Less well known is the Chief Economist of Invesco Ltd, called John Greenwood. He writes on the global economy and undertakes web based Q&A sessions with advisers. Although his delivery is dry and he lacks humour, he understands the big picture and addresses key economic questions succinctly and clearly with insights that are sharp and ring true.  So this morning after listening to a Greenwood podcast I have decided to award him the title of the Sage of Henley. Arise Sir John.

Here is a random sample of his economic insights from the podcast in my own words:

*The global economy is still at an early stage of recovery with balance sheet repair still occurring. The corporate sector has more flexibility to deal with debt than the consumer, for example by refinancing loans, selling assets and cutting labour costs. Although global trade has been flat in recent years companies have been able to grow their earnings. In contrast the consumer, notably in the UK has been limited by low wage growth.

*The US is further along the process of balance sheet repair and economic growth for the year to the end of the third quarter has been revised to an excellent 3.9% p.a.

*Imports account for just 15% of the US economy, in the UK it is double this. This means the US is fairly well insulated from the global economy and high commodity or other import prices. Naturally the rise of shale gas production in the US and lower global crude oil prices are a tailwind to the US economy.

*Whilst the dollar has been rising and global demand falling, both of which are ordinarily bad for exporters, exports only account for about 12% of the US economy. Again this is a positive.

*China’s economic growth may fall from 7.5% p.a. to 6% p.a. in the next few years. Wages are too low to rebalance the economy from export and investment led to the consumer. China’s imports are still driven by commodities and plant rather than domestic demand for consumer goods.

*Abenomics, the economic policies of Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe has had one real benefit, driving down the value of the Yen. As previously explained in an earlier blog post this is good for Japanese exporters and for the Bank of Japan’s inflation target.

*Monetary policy including QE has been more effective in the US and UK than Europe and Japan. Resistance to full blown QE in Europe is mainly due to German fears of inflation. German memories of money printing and hyperinflation in the 1930s are deeply ingrained despite evidence to the contrary, for example in Japan where buying government debt has not fuelled inflation. However Greenwood does expect the European Central Bank to undertake QE.

*Interest rate rises in the UK are unlikely to precede those in the US as they would lead to a stronger pound and impact on UK exporters.

*Equities and bonds have risen in the early stages of the recovery. As it develops equities are expected to outperform bonds as the latter will be impacted by higher inflation and interest rates.

So what do I conclude? Global economic recovery is still patchy and anaemic but equities are still a good long term investment. The US remains a favoured stockmarket for me despite the high valuations. Europe could get a boost from QE. Wage growth in China is required to provide a boost to the global economy.

This blog is intended as a general investment commentary.  You should seek individual advice before making investment decisions.

Posted in China, Global Economy, Japan, Quantitative Easing, US | Comments Off

Investment Risk, Volatility and Loss

Due diligence on the risk of investment is fundamental to investors, advisers and fund managers. No one wants to lose money, whilst the holy grail is to obtain strong investment returns with minimal risk. The problem is defining what risk is, especially as the term is variously understood by different commentators. The key message in this blog is that volatility and risk are not the same. It is my contention that risk is more complex and nuanced than volatility, whilst the latter can be used as a beneficial investment strategy or even as an asset class in its own right.

Risk Defined

I define risk as the potential of losing some or all of your original investment. For single stocks, especially smaller companies there is a risk of complete loss whilst for pooled investments or funds the chances of complete loss are extremely low. We’ll look at volatility before explaining why I consider it does not necessarily equate to loss.

Volatility & Loss

Volatility measures the up and downs of stockmarket returns, the sizes of the peaks and troughs. For the technicians amongst you volatility is the standard deviation around a mean.  Naturally you would expect commodity stocks to be more volatile than utility companies or pharmaceuticals. The former invest in the highly cyclical and economically sensitive resources sector whilst the latter are defensive companies with stable cash flows. However if we define risk as the chances of losing all your money, a commodity company investing in a highly volatile sector is not inherently more at risk of becoming insolvent. It may have a very strong balance sheet and other strong fundamentals.

Similarly gilts backed by the UK Treasury are less volatile than high yield corporate bonds because UK PLC has a higher creditworthiness than corporate issuers of low grade debt. However here volatility is a good measure of the risk of loss. This is because a company issuing high yield debt is more likely to default with investors losing money compared to holding UK government debt or a company bond with a higher credit rating.

Volatility & SRRI Ratings

The most common measure of risk in respect of collective investments such as unit trusts is volatility and this appears in the Synthetic Risk & Reward Indicator (SRRI) in Key Investor Information Documents (KIIDs). As you may be aware these are statutory fund disclosure documents that must be issued to clients prior to investment under EU regulations.  Each fund is risk rated on a scale of one to seven based on volatility of returns over the previous five years. I have several issues with SRRIs. Firstly the ratings are based on historic volatility; they do not take into account current market conditions nor are they forward looking. As such using the well-worn adage, they are not necessarily a guide to future returns. A fund with high volatility in the last five years may not be so volatile in future if market conditions or the management style of the fund changes.

Secondly in my experience SRRI ratings of most equity funds almost always a six and this includes UK equity income funds as well as global emerging markets funds. Whilst there are complexities of comparing the risks of these two sectors, for example UK companies have considerable overseas earnings including from emerging markets, it cannot be right in my view to conclude the risks are identical. For example global emerging equities tend fall sharply with “risk-off” sentiment, with a flight to quality and there is typically greater currency risk, political and corporate governance risk. In conclusion SRRI ratings do not distinguish the true risks of investment in different equity markets and if used in isolation they provide an incomplete assessment of the potential for volatility or loss.

Fixed interest, including government and corporate bond funds have lower risk ratings on the SRRI scale than equity funds and are typically rated a four. So does the lower historic volatility mean fixed interest is lower risk than equities? Not necessarily. Government bonds are subject to interest rate risk, also referred to as duration risk, whilst corporate bonds are subject to interest rate risk, credit or default risk and liquidity risk. The latter has been a problem in recent years and will be covered in a future blog. The risks with bond investment are clear. If there is an unexpected spike in inflation or interest rates rise there could be a sharp sell-off in government bonds as in 1994 whilst the corporate bond market could seize up. Volatility would spike.

In summary an SRRI rating can be a poor measure of the potential for loss as it does not account for current systemic risk issues. A bond fund may have demonstrated lower volatility than an equity fund in the past but this does not necessarily make it a less risky investment given that interest rate risk, credit risk or default risk are not features of equity investment.

Finally an SRRI rating discounts current risk mitigation measures by fund managers who naturally take a forward view. Options to reduce interest rate risk include investing in short dated or high yield bonds, which are less interest rate sensitive or by shorting the market.

Risk & Loss

Many investors define risk quite simply, succinctly and correctly, “What are the chances of me losing money?”  This accords with my definition of risk above.

However consider the following scenario. You invest £50,000 and six months later you receive a valuation statement showing the portfolio is worth £45,000. You are advised that stockmarket returns have been poor due to a global sell-off of equities. The question here is, “Have you actually lost money?” The answer is no unless you cash out and thereby crystallise the loss. If you continue to hold the investments your loss is a technical or paper loss based on a valuation snapshot at a specific point in time. The following week, month or six months the position will be different. A year later the portfolio may be valued at £55,000. Now I don’t want to trivialise this downside scenario; no-one likes to see a paper loss but fortunately most of my clients have a long term investment timescale and understand that volatility does not mean a real loss unless it is crystallised.

In some cases it is prudent to sell a loss making investment to re-invest elsewhere because the sector, asset class or current fund management has poor prospects for recovery. In many cases however a long term buy and hold strategy is required. That said to avoid being a forced seller at low valuations because money is needed urgently it is advisable to hold sufficient emergency cash savings. This acts as a portfolio protector permitting flexibility to delay encashment until values recover.

Despite these comments some investors are so cautious that they cannot accept a valuation lower than the amount that has been invested and hence equities may be unsuitable investments for them.

Trading Volatility

Volatility should not always be seen as an enemy as it provides potential for greater investment returns. It is used by traders and fund managers alike. Frequently the latter say they have added to their best stock ideas on the dips and troughs. Volatility can also create valuation anomalies if the market over reacts on the sell side whilst volatility is the friend of the regular monthly investor who acquires more units in a fund when buying on the dips.

This blog is intended as a general investment commentary.  You should seek individual advice before making investment decisions.

Posted in Risk & Volatility | Comments Off

Japan Revisted

The last blog post covered Japan, today’s is a brief update. It was recently announced that Japan’s economy contracted by 1.6% on an annualised basis in the third quarter meaning the country is now technically in recession. To remind you this occurs when there are two consecutive quarters of negative growth. It is widely accepted a principal cause was the controversial sales tax hike in April which has curbed consumer spending. This in turn acts as a headwind to reflating the economy and hitting the 2% inflation target.

Politics and economics are closely entwined and in response to Japan going into recession Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved parliament and called a snap general election. This will permit a delay to the second sales tax hike that was due in October 2015. Abe has proposed it is put back until April 2017. The postponement makes economic sense as well as being a face saving exercise. Abe’s ruling party is expected to comfortably win the election. This will enable him to extend his term in power and assist pushing through economic reform.

In other news the Yen has fallen to its lowest level against the dollar for seven years and the Euro for six years (Source: Reuters). As pointed out previously a weak Yen is good for Japanese exporters. It also encourages repatriation of overseas assets that may be invested in Japan. Finally it is a tailwind for reflation as import costs rise.

In conclusion these events are likely to be positive for Japanese equities.

This blog is intended as a general investment commentary.  It is not an invitation to buy Japanese equities as these may not be suitable for you. You should seek individual advice before making investment decisions.

Posted in Japan | Comments Off

Land of the Rising Sun?

After a disappointing 12 months or more for Japanese equities it was interesting to read in the last couple of weeks a number of fund managers and other commentators with a strong pro Japanese market message. As is my wont I felt a blog brewing on the subject but it took Friday’s extraordinary stock market rise to jolt me into action. The Nikkei 225 index rose a whopping 4.83%. The reason Reuters reported for the rally was the Japanese government was preparing to raise allocation targets to equities in the Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), the largest in the world, from 12% to 25%. According to Reuters the GPIF stands at $1.2 trillion, so this announcement naturally sent investors into a buying frenzy. You may be aware that Japanese investors historically have held Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) rather than equities, in contrast to the UK and the USA. JGBs have permafrost levels of interest rates and an increase in equities is not without time and is bound to increase asset returns.

At the same time the Bank of Japan (BoJ) voted to increase its QE or money printing programme from £340 billion to £394 billion a year, a move that sent the Yen lower. A weaker currency clearly favours exporters but as important it increases import prices and hence the likelihood of the BoJ meeting its inflation target. Inflation encourages consumers to spend, reduces debt and tackles the scourge of deflation. A recent tailwind for deflation has been the falling oil price whilst the economy itself has been weighed down by April’s consumption tax which curbed domestic spending. Another key factor depressing sentiment to Japan has been the slow pace of structural reform in the Japanese economy, the so called third arrow of Abenomics. Please google for more information, but note that according to the BBC other search engines are available.

Apart from these shots in the arm for the Japanese economy why are investors more upbeat about Japanese equities? I now turn to the experts referred to above. The positive view is certainly not due to the macroeconomic data such as GDP forecasts, trade and consumer sentiment which have been weak. Instead investors appear to be attracted to the potential for profits growth from companies. Profits have been growing steadily and have been upwardly revised. Nathan Gibbs, Japan equity manager at Schroders reckons the corporate sector is now seeing the benefits of restructuring, cost-cutting and location of production assets overseas. This provides immunity against weakening export growth and a stronger Yen. Although David Coombes, head of multi-asset investing at Rathbones is not super-bullish on the region he argues Japan is trading 40% cheaper than the US market on a price to book ratio – a standard measure of valuation. In fact there is a consensus that Japan looks cheap.

Other arguments in support of corporate Japan are that technical factors depress reported earnings relative to their global peers; in other words they are understated, whilst dividends and share buy-backs are on the rise. The background here is that dividend pay-out ratios are below global averages, cash which is an idle asset held on balance sheets tends to be high and the culture of shareholder value is poor in Japan. If attitudes continue to change, they are albeit slowly, returns for shareholders will improve and this will be good for Japanese equities.

This blog is intended as a general investment commentary.  It is not an invitation to buy Japanese equities. You should seek individual advice before making investment decisions.

Posted in Japan | Comments Off

Postscript to Market Sell-Off

Further to my commentary on the market sell-off in my last blog post I am writing to clarify a few points after feedback from a reader. I may have not explained my thoughts clearly enough whilst certain use of language could have been misinterpreted.

Firstly I was not intending to suggest that China’s debt or Europe’s deflation or any of the other economic factors I listed are minor. They are highly significant problems but we knew about these systemic risks a month ago, two months ago and six months ago. My question is what was fundamentally new to have triggered the equity sell-off last week? It was not a sudden realisation for example that Europe has major economic woes.

My use of the phrase “a little bit of bad news,” caused concern with my reader. To clarify my tongue in cheek comment, I was referring to economic data such as unemployment rates, housing starts, factory gate prices, inflation figures or US non-farm payrolls which are regularly updated and published. If data disappoints markets can be sent into a tailspin especially where investors are already very edgy and sentiment is poor. I think this sell-off is a classic case. My view is a disappointing economic statistic in itself does not change the underlying economic fundamentals, but it colours the investors’ perceptions of such. A negative statistic can be a trigger for a major sell-off but it is not the fundamental cause. Straws and camels’ backs come to mind here.

I maintain that economic fundamentals normally change slowly but stockmarket reactions are more volatile. Whilst over time equity prices should fairly reflect  the economic fundamentals of a market and individual stocks, on a day to day basis investors may over-react and act irrationally. There is even a branch of economic research, called “Behavioural Finance,”  dedicated to this phenomenon whilst Buffet’s maxim is an example of a shrewd investor exploiting it.

For those who think investors are always rationale I would ask the question, what fundamentally changed in the global economy on Friday to send global stockmarkets up sharply, in Europe by nearly 3%, Greece by 7%?

Finally I retain my view the global economy, despite its significant problems which I do not wish to minimise, is not in as a parlous state as it was in 2008 or 2011 during the banking and EuroZone crises. I may be wrong, time will tell.

This blog reflects my own views and is intended as a general investment commentary.  It is not an invitation to buy equities or invest in the areas mentioned. You should seek individual advice before making investment decisions.

Posted in Market Commentary | Comments Off

Market Sell Off

In my last investment blog a couple of weeks ago I reported a downturn in equity markets. Since then sentiment has deteriorated further to trigger a major sell off.  So what are causes? The main culprits cited are weak economic data in the US, slowdown and debt in China, fears that Germany is heading for recession, deflation and lack of ECB action in Europe and Ebola. You name it, it is to blame, so perhaps even Germany’s 2-0 defeat to Poland in a recent European qualifier should be listed as a contributor to a downturn in her economy.

Two comments I heard however sum it up. The first was that given the US has been the sole engine of global economic recovery, weakness in the US economy derails this.  It is bit like being on an aeroplane when you hear the following announcement. “This is your Captain speaking, our last engine has stalled, please prepare for a crash.” The second was from Neil Woodford manager of the Woodford Equity Income fund who argues the sell-off is actually a rationale adjustment to weakness in the global economy. He stressed it is not another 2008 banking crisis. Banks are now much better capitalised and there is no problem with liquidity. He also thought we are now through the worst of the sell-off.

My sense however is the correction is somewhat surprising. None of the economic causes listed above are new. They were all known a month ago when markets were riding high after the vote on Scottish independence and the FTSE 100 was close to its all-time high. So what has changed? Sentiment. Investors are a nervous and fickle bunch with a tendency to herd or lemming instincts. A little bit of bad news can send them over the edge.

Moreover it is interesting that a prime cause cannot be attributed to the sell-off unlike in 2008 which was triggered by the collapse in Lehman Brothers and the banking crisis. Similarly the crisis of  2011 was caused by debt issues in the EuroZone and fears of a break-up of the Euro or an exit by Greece. This suggests to me there is less systemic risk to the global economy this time around. Investors seem to be hunting around and trying to pin the blame for the sell-off on something, but they are not quite sure what! I may be wrong and the collapse of asset prices may trigger a longer term depression but I suspect a rebound will follow. If I am right investors should sit tight taking a long term view. Now is not the time to sell but for the contrarians following Warren Buffet’s maxim, “Be greedy when others are fearful,”  it could mean now is a good time to buy equities.

This blog principally reflects my own views and is intended as a general investment commentary.  It is not an invitation to buy equities or invest in the areas mentioned. You should seek individual advice before making investment decisions.

Posted in Market Commentary | Comments Off

October Blues, US & UK Update

Global equity markets have pulled back since mid-September, not long after the FTSE 100 index was close to breaking through the elusive psychological barrier of 6,930, its December 1999 peak. So what is happening? A number of factors have weighed on equity markets. The political protests in Hong Kong have been a worry as have stock specific issues, notably Tesco and Sainsbury’s in the UK. In addition this week European Central Bank measures to deal with the EuroZone economy disappointed the markets as did US manufacturing data.

One important issue with the US is that although her economy is recovering well, it does not exist in isolation – weak global growth and demand impacts on US exporters. That said there is a silver lining, highlighted by Cormac Weldon a US fund manager with Artemis Fund Managers. He points out weak global demand and excess capacity makes imports cheaper, keeps inflation down and means the Fed may be able to keep interest rates lower for longer.

Weldon then tackled the thorny issue of the valuation of US equities. You will recall fund managers and other commentators are divided on this matter with many arguing the US is expensive. Weldon posed an interesting question, “expensive in relation to what?” He stated that there is a historic link between P/E ratios and inflation. (To remind you a company or market can be valued by a Price (P) to Earnings per share (E) comparison. The higher a P/E ratio the greater the valuation and vice versa).  Given inflation is modest in the US, Weldon observed that US should be trading at 18 times next year’s earnings rather than 15 times as at present. In other words maybe the US is not as expensive as some claim. In support of the US economy is the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) view that in 2015 GDP growth in the US will rise to 3% p.a. from 1.7% p.a. in 2014.

In other news UK fund managers are increasingly supportive of large and mega-cap companies on the back of attractive valuations. Although there have been historic periods of outperformance over mid-cap and smaller companies, in the last 10-15 years returns from large companies have significantly lagged. Alastair Mundy, a highly respected contrarian value fund manager with Investec I listened to at an investment forum on Wednesday argued that large and mega-caps are too big to organically grow faster than the market so they have grown by acquisitions. Many of these have been difficult to manage and have not added value. Mundy believes there is now a lot of potential for improvement and highlighted a concept of “shrinking to greatness.” By this I understand he means focusing on their core business. Time will tell if the lumbering giants of the UK equity market will finally rouse themselves and deliver strong return for investors.

In conclusion the outlook for the US and UK seems positive to me. After a period of very low volatility, occasional sell-offs of equities are to be expected. However I suspect this recent reversal is unlikely to lead to a more significant correction. Perhaps the one dark cloud however is that labour markets do not seem to be functioning well, in the UK at least. For all the government hype about job creation many of the new jobs have been in low skilled, part time and zero hours contracts. In other words the employment market is still loose. Until we see earnings inflation topping price inflation spending will be muted, leading to anaemic economic growth.

This blog is intended as a general investment  commentary.  It is not an invitation to invest in the areas mentioned. You should seek individual advice before making investment decisions.


Posted in Market Commentary, UK Equities, US | Comments Off

Aiming High

This blog is not about investment per se but more about the use of a particular type of investment in financial planning. I am referring to investment in AIM companies. AIM is the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market. Launched in 1995 more than 3,000 companies have listed on AIM. These are mainly smaller companies and may be early stage, venture capital backed or more established businesses. An AIM listing helps companies raise finance to fund expansion whilst the UK government provide considerable tax reliefs to encourage investment into smaller companies. However as noted not all AIM companies are start-ups and well-known examples are Majestic Wines, ASOS and Prezzo whilst Premier League football team Tottenham Hotspur were previously listed.

So what are the benefits and financial planning opportunities of investing in AIM companies?

1. Risk Reduction

Listed companies are less risky and more tradable than investment in unquoted companies. The latter are small companies whose shares are traded privately rather than on a stock exchange. Shares in unquoted companies are therefore highly illiquid as there is no market for their sale or purchase.

2. Stamp Duty Abolished

Stamp duty is no longer levied on purchases of AIM stocks unlike shares listed on a main stock exchange such as the FTSE 100 index.

3. Can be Held in an ISA

In August 2013 AIM stocks became eligible for inclusion within ISAs.

4. AIM VCTs and 30% Tax Relief

Qualifying AIM stocks can be included in a Venture Capital Trust (VCT). These are collective investments similar to investment trusts and the assets are actively managed. A range of different stocks will be held in a VCT to provide investment diversity and risk reduction. Moreover the tax benefits are quite remarkable. Investors receive 30% income tax relief, on investments up to £200,000 p.a. even if they are basic rate taxpayers, provided the VCT meets HMRC qualifying rules, the investor holds the shares in the VCT for five years and the investor has paid enough income tax in the relevant tax year. For example an investor pays £5,000 income tax each year and buys new shares in a VCT for £10,000 in 2014/15. He or she will receive a tax rebate of £3,000 at the end of the tax year through their tax assessment.

In addition VCTs pay tax free dividends and there is no capital gains tax to pay on shares when they are sold. These are similar to the tax benefits of ISAs although it must be stressed that shares in VCTs may be difficult to sell after five years. This is because there is no market for second hand VCT shares as investors do not receive tax relief on buying these. To mitigate against this many VCT providers offer a buy back facility, typically at a discount of 5-10% of the net asset value of the shares.

5. Relief from Inheritance Tax (IHT)

Certain AIM shares held direct or in a managed portfolio of stocks (but not in a VCT) qualify for Business Property Relief (BPR) for inheritance tax purposes, if the shares have been held for two years or more at the date of death. The use of BPR has considerable benefits compared to other IHT planning options. There is no seven year waiting period for IHT exemption after making a gift; there are no complex trust arrangements and investors retain the right to access capital in their lifetime. Consider an investor, Mr A has an estate of £625,000. On death his IHT bill will be £120,000 calculated as (£625,000 – £325,000) x 40%. Mr A is unmarried and does not want to give away capital to his nephews and godchildren in case he needs money for long term care. If he invests £100,000 into a managed portfolio of AIM shares and survives two years his IHT bill is reduced by £40,000 on his death. At the same time Mr A knows he can access his investment should he need capital in the future although naturally the IHT benefits will be forfeited.

Finally on this point here is a first.  AIM stocks that qualify for BPR can be included in an ISA with the corresponding IHT relief after two years.

6. Potentially Good Long Term Investment Returns

Tax benefits are all very well and good but it is axiomatic that there should be a good investment case for buying AIM companies. Smaller and fledgling companies offer significant capital growth potential in the long term and have historically outperformed larger UK companies although they carry a high risk of failure, volatility of price and illiquidity compared to larger companies. They are especially vulnerable during recessions, credit crunches and risk off sentiment when investors take flight to safe havens.

Analyst coverage of the AIM market is paltry and is normally conducted in house by fund managers running AIM VCTs and AIM portfolios. In this market it is essential in my view to invest via a portfolio of stocks run by a high quality manager rather than pick your own AIM stocks. They can avoid the many poor quality companies listed on AIM, can unearth mis-priced gems and undertake due diligence to ensure a company qualifies for Business Property Relief. In my view there is a strong case for investing in smaller companies including AIM stocks as a small part of a balanced portfolio for clients who are not risk averse.

This blog is intended as a general and brief  commentary for UK residents on AIM stocks and their use in financial planning.  It is not an invitation to invest in the areas mentioned. AIM stocks and VCTs are higher risk investments and may not be suitable for you. They are typically used by experienced investors as  a small part of a balanced portfolio. You should seek individual advice before making investment decisions.


Posted in AIM, Business Property Relief, Inheritance Tax, ISA, NISA | Comments Off