Monthly Archives

August 2023

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“Dog fund” report highlights benefits of independent advice

By | Investments

The latest Bestinvest “Spot the Dog” report has recently been published, and in addition to turning the spotlight on funds that have lagged behind fund performance within their sector, the most recent report also highlighted a trend of underperformance within funds offered by restricted wealth managers.


The list no-one wants to be on

The biannual “Spot the Dog” report lists funds investing in Equities, that have underperformed their relevant market index over three consecutive 12 month periods and also underperformed by a total of 5% or more over the last three years. By using these criteria, the report aims to exclude periods of short-term underperformance, which can happen from time to time to even the best long-term performing actively managed funds. Instead, the report attempts to highlight those funds that have consistently underperformed.

The latest study listed 56 funds that have met the criteria, with nine of the funds holding assets under management in excess of £1bn. The most interesting feature of the latest report is that it highlighted the inclusion of a high number of funds offered by restricted wealth managers. One particular restricted manager, St James’ Place, had a total of six entries in the Bestinvest Dog List, with three of St James Place’ Global Equities funds that appear on the list, holding combined assets under management of over £26bn. Another restricted provider, Scottish Widows (where funds are managed by Schroder), saw two of its funds make the list.


The limitations of restricted advice

We have regularly commented on the differences between independent and restricted financial advice, and why we believe the former to be superior. FAS is an independent practice, whereby we can recommend products, solutions, and investment funds from across the marketplace. This contrasts with a restricted advice proposition, which can only recommend products from certain providers and could mean that the advice provided is limited to a single range of products or funds.

We are passionate believers that independent, whole of market advice has distinct advantages over restricted advice propositions, and the Bestinvest report only serves to strengthen our belief that independent advice offers a significant advantage.

This is particularly the case if your investment portfolio is managed by a restricted adviser. By using a restricted wealth manager, it is likely that the adviser can only construct your portfolio by investing in their own brand funds. As a result, if one or more of the funds offered underperform consistently, your options will be few as the adviser will be limited in what they can offer as an alternative. In the case of St James’ Place, three of the six entries in the Bestinvest list are invested in Global Equities. For investors who take a medium to high level of investment risk, allocations to Global Equities are likely to feature heavily in any diversified investment portfolio, and holding consistently underperforming funds in this sector sets the foundation for poor overall portfolio performance, on a relative basis against other propositions.


Independent advisers have the advantage

Contrast the position of the restricted advice client with a client of an independent firm. As the whole of the market is available to an independent adviser, a skilled adviser can select the most appropriate fund from the very widest range of funds offered to retail investors, and if one of the funds underperforms, there are options to switch into an alternative fund which is managed by another fund house.

At FAS, we have a highly disciplined process when it comes to fund selection. Our in-house Investment Committee undertakes a comprehensive review of all funds available to investors each quarter, using quantitative research initially, and then engaging in rigorous analysis of those funds shortlisted, considering the style, approach and track record of the fund manager in question. As part of this process, we regularly meet with leading UK fund managers, so that we can fully understand their fund selection process and investment strategy.

The vast majority of the funds we recommend perform well when compared to sector peers. Where a fund underperforms on a consistent basis, we carefully analyse the reasons for the underperformance and if the Committee feels it appropriate, we remove that fund from our list of recommended funds. Given that most investment platforms can provide access to more than 3,000 investment funds, an alternative will always be available.


Conflict with FCA Consumer Duty

The recently introduced Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) Consumer Duty rules introduced a higher level of protection for clients of advice firms, as the rules now oblige firms to act to deliver good outcomes for retail customers. The FCA now requires all firms to apply the new principles to the areas of products and services, price and value, consumer understanding and consumer support.

Given the depth of the review we undertook in respect of our response to the introduction of Consumer Duty, we do wonder how restricted firms have been able to demonstrate value for money and good outcomes for clients. When reports such as “Spot the Dog” point the spotlight on underperforming fund performance, the restricted advice proposition is unlikely to be able to adapt, and therefore we feel it is difficult to see how such a service is compatible with the principles of the Consumer Duty rules.


Time to question restricted advice?

If your investments are managed by a firm that offers a restricted advice service, the “Spot the Dog” report makes for compelling reading. Any investor holding funds through a restricted adviser should consider the investment proposition carefully and consider the impact that a limited fund range could have in the event of underperformance.

Speak to one of our experienced independent advisers here, who would be pleased to analyse an existing restricted portfolio and review your current financial arrangements.

Graphic of symbols of four different currencies alongside eachother.

Do you need to consider currency risk?

By | Investments

Most investors understand the importance of diversification within an investment portfolio as a way of mitigating risk, and also appreciate the need to seek out funds that aim to produce strong returns. Some investors, however, fail to take currency risk into account, which has the potential to influence the investment returns achieved.

For UK investors, the exchange rate versus the Dollar carries high importance. The US Dollar has been the dominant reserve currency since the end of World War II, and according to the International Monetary Fund, 58% of global foreign exchange reserves are held in US Dollars.


Why currencies fluctuate against each other

The relative strength of a currency against another global currency can be influenced by a number of different factors, many of which we have seen play out over the last 18 months. Perhaps the most important factor is economic and political stability, as a nation with good economic prospects and a positive environment for business is likely to attract inflows of foreign investment. This can help drive demand for that currency.

Conversely a period of political instability, as we saw last Autumn during Liz Truss’ brief tenure as Prime Minister, can lead to sustained weakness in a currency. Almost a year ago, the Pound slid sharply against many other leading currencies, and indeed the Pound very nearly fell to parity against the US Dollar at one point. Political and economic instability can drive longer term trends, too. A good example of this is the weak performance of the Pound against most major global currencies in the period following the vote to leave the EU in 2016.

Other factors that can influence the direction of a currency are generally linked to the economic landscape, with factors such as the direction of domestic interest rate policy, and prevailing and expected rates of inflation, influencing the relative strength, or weakness, of a currency. During 2023, markets have continued to price in further hikes in UK base interest rates, whereas other developed nations, such as the US, now appear to be close to the peak of their rate hiking cycle. This has led to a rally in the Pound over the course of this year; however, with UK interest rate expectations moderating of late, the US Dollar has regained some of the ground lost earlier in the year.


Currency considerations for UK investors

Some investors who invest exclusively in UK listed assets, may incorrectly assume they are immune from currency risk. The reality is that over 80% of the earnings generated by companies listed on the FTSE100 are derived from overseas, in particular through US Dollars. Whether currency weakness has a positive impact depends on how a company derives its’ earnings and profits. A UK listed company that earns much of its’ income from overseas (such as HSBC or BP) will welcome a weak Pound, as those overseas earnings, when translated back to Sterling, will look more attractive. Weak Sterling, on the other hand, will hamper the prospects of companies that import components or products, as the weak exchange rate will mean the costs of importing goods increases.

One of the ways currency risk can be reduced is by hedging, and some funds actively choose to hedge their currency exposure back to Sterling. This can be seen as an insurance, as this removes the potential for currency movements to impact investment returns, and is achieved by holding complex financial instruments such as swaps or futures. Other globally diversified funds choose not to hedge, therefore aiming to generate additional returns through currency appreciation. Whilst such currency calls can amplify investment returns achieved from the portfolio, a wrong decision can lead to returns looking less attractive.


Diversification helps

Some argue that hedging is not important, and good levels of natural hedging can be achieved by building a portfolio of global Equities funds, as the investor will be exposed to a number of different currencies which will help offset some of the currency risk. Furthermore, as returns from Equities tend to be stronger over time, the impact of currency fluctuations will have less bearing on returns achieved. For a Bond investor, the impact of currency movements can be much more severe as returns are more predictable over time. For this reason, the majority of Sterling Bond funds that invest overseas in global Bonds, will hedge returns back to Sterling, thus reducing or eliminating the additional currency risk.


The prospects for Sterling

The FAS Investment Committee actively monitors currency movements and the impact these will have on our investment decisions. For example, returns achieved from our unhedged allocations to US Equities were boosted by the weak Pound during 2022. Whilst the Pound has regained some of the lost ground during the first half of this year, we have seen the US Dollar strengthen once again over the last month, and we feel this trend could continue. Should the US Dollar find further strength, this is likely to boost returns from global Equities and reinforces our view that holding a portfolio of global Equities could achieve strong returns as we move towards the end of this year and into 2024.

Currency risk is an area that many investors overlook, although good levels of global diversification can help reduce the need to actively hedge currency exposure in a portfolio.

Speak to one of our experienced planners here if you would like to review your current investment portfolio.

A graphic showing a piece of paper with 'Capital Gains' handwritten on the page and wooden squares with letters on scattered across it. The wooden squares spell out 'tax' beneath 'Capital Gains'.

Plan ahead to avoid Capital Gains Tax

By | Tax Planning

None of us want to pay more tax than is absolutely necessary, but when it comes to Capital Gains Tax (CGT), the impact of the tax liability is cushioned to an extent by the fact that CGT only applies when you have made a profit from selling an asset. Furthermore, generous annual CGT allowances that have applied in the past have meant that liabilities to CGT could be at worst minimised or potentially avoided altogether.


Reduction in annual exemption

The status quo changed in the November 2022 Budget, when Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced that the annual CGT exemption – which is the total amount of gain an individual can make on assets in a tax year – would fall from £12,300 per annum to £6,000 from April 2023, and then fall again to just £3,000 from April 2024. These significant reductions to the annual CGT exemption will make it more difficult to manage gains effectively to avoid a potential CGT liability and will undoubtedly increase the revenue generated from CGT receipts. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimate that £17.8bn will be raised from CGT in the 2023/24 tax year. This is the equivalent to £620 per household or 0.7% of national income.

The rate of CGT that an individual pays depends on the asset being sold, and their overall tax position. Higher Rate taxpayers automatically pay CGT at a rate of 28% on gains from residential property, and 20% on the sale of other assets, such as investments. It is possible to pay a lower rate of CGT, at 18% for residential property sales and 10% for the sale of other assets, but only if the gain – when added to an individual’s taxable income in the tax year – remains within the basic rate band.


How financial planning can help

We often meet new clients who have held investments for a long period of time, without reviewing or changing their portfolio of investments. Buying investments and retaining them for the long term has been a popular mantra for investors over the years; however, by not reviewing investments regularly and making decisions to use the available allowances, gains can build up over time. As a result, a hefty CGT bill is created on disposal.

With careful planning, individuals can minimise their potential CGT liability. At FAS, as part of our regular financial planning review process, we consider the performance, asset allocation and strategy adopted within an investment portfolio. We also consider the portfolio structure to look to ensure that individual assets do not grow out of shape compared to the rest of the portfolio. This avoids introducing additional investment risk and volatility, as well as helping to avoid a potential CGT problem in the future.

Regular use of the Individual Savings Account (ISA) allowance is an important component of many financial plans. ISAs provide exemption from CGT and Income Tax and by investing in an ISA, investments can grow over time without any CGT considerations. A popular way of using the ISA allowance is through a “Bed and ISA” transaction, when investments held outside of an ISA are sold and the proceeds used to repurchase the investment within the ISA wrapper. The sale could potentially be liable to CGT, though any future disposal from within the ISA would be exempt.

Married couples also enjoy greater flexibility in managing potential gains. Transfers of assets between spouses are not deemed to be a disposal, and therefore it may be possible to transfer investments between spouses to make the best use of the available allowances, and potentially reduce or eliminate a potential CGT liability.


Advice to landlords who are selling

Another area where we are called on to provide advice is to individuals who are looking to sell buy to let or holiday properties. Regulatory pressure on landlords has been steadily growing, and with house prices expected to fall modestly over the next 12 to 18 months, some landlords are considering selling up with the aim of diversifying into other assets.

Whilst property investors can deduct their expenses incurred in the sale of the property, and can also claim other allowances to cover capital spent on improvements, many investors will still find themselves with a large CGT liability when selling a property, in particular if it has been held for many years. We can look at options to mitigate this liability, which include tax efficient investments such as Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs), which provide Income Tax relief on the investment made, which can be used to “offset” CGT payable elsewhere. This is a high risk and complex area, and therefore seeking expert advice is critical.

By taking a holistic approach, we can review an individual’s overall financial position, and look to recommend solutions designed to replace lost rental income and achieve greater diversification. In addition, investors often find that liquidity improves when holding investments, as assets are available to access quickly and efficiently when compared to holding bricks and mortar. Finally, tax efficiency can often be improved significantly, given the ability to use ISAs and other tax efficient savings vehicles.


Take steps to review your position

The revenue generated by CGT receipts is likely to increase further as the annual CGT exemption halves again next year, and more individuals are subject to CGT on disposal of assets. CGT is only payable when making a gain, but nonetheless, the amount of tax due can be minimised by careful financial planning.

Speak to one of our experienced team here to review your existing portfolio or discuss tax-efficient planning opportunities.

Graphic of a globe resting on a grassy ledge representing socially responsible investments

ESG risks cannot be ignored

By | Investments

According to scientists, July may well have been the warmest month on record, when measuring global temperatures. Scorching heat in Southern Europe and North America has led to the United Nations issuing dire warnings on the impact of climate change. As awareness of the issue becomes more widespread, an increasing number of investors are keen to adopt an investment approach that includes non-financial considerations, such as the ability for their portfolio to make a positive contribution to society and the environment.


What is Socially Responsible Investment?

Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) strategies have become increasingly popular since they were first developed in the 1970s. According to the Sustainable Investment Forum, of the USD $66.6 trillion of investment assets managed in the US at the end of 2021, USD $8.4 trillion – or just under 13% – were invested through a sustainable investment strategy. Over time, the range of options open to investors who are keen to take a socially responsible approach has increased, with both active and passive strategies covering Equities and fixed income investments now available.

SRI investment can take many forms, depending on how strict an approach an investor wishes to take. It is, however, important to bear in mind that considering a very limited investment universe, will reduce the ability to diversify the portfolio appropriately. One investment approach is to look at including investments that aim to make a positive impact, and tries to include, rather than exclude, companies that meet this criterion. Alternatively, an investor who wants to take a more rigorous approach may look to set high standards for inclusion and disregard many opportunities on SRI grounds.


Our approach to SRI

At FAS, we are well-placed to cater for investors who wish to incorporate ethical considerations into their investment approach. Through our discretionary managed portfolio service, we offer two SRI portfolios that take a common-sense approach to SRI investment, by building portfolios designed to meet suitable screening criteria (which limits exposure to areas such as fossil fuels, gambling, animal testing and weaponry) whilst being as inclusive as possible. By way of example, a key position in our SRI strategies includes a fund that only holds companies that make a positive contribution to the Paris Agreement Climate Change goal.

We also appreciate some investors would prefer a sharper focus, and within their investment portfolio are keen to strictly limit any allocation to areas that could be harmful to the environment or society. We can build bespoke advisory investment portfolios for these clients, using rigorous quantitative screening processes and active engagement with leading fund managers, to meet a client’s ethical preferences.


What about mainstream investments?

Whilst SRI investment is a growing trend, most investors still wish to invest in a traditional strategy that does not take these further factors into account when making investment decisions. Adopting a mainstream investment approach does not, however, mean that the investment fund managers will ignore the impact of the actions that investee companies take, when it comes to environmental issues, or how they treat their employees. Indeed, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors are a critical risk for any business, and fund managers – whether adopting a socially responsible investment approach or not – will look to take these risks into consideration when building their portfolio.

ESG criteria will assess how a company safeguards the environment, including corporate policies addressing climate change.  Social factors look to examine the company’s relationships with their employees, customers and suppliers. Governance issues cover areas such as a company’s leadership, executive pay and shareholder rights.


Avoiding controversies

The reason ESG factors are now a mainstream investment consideration when looking at the prospects for growth is that investors, consumers, and the companies with whom they do business, are looking at the way a business conducts itself. The risk that a business overlooks these key considerations, can lead to the potential for reputational and financial damage. These so-called “ESG controversies” can have a significant impact on the value of a company and lead to underperformance.

A good example of such an ESG controversy was the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015, when the company admitted installing defective devices to beat emissions tests. This led to significant reputational damage, financial penalties, and the cost of recalling millions of vehicles. Looking further back in time, the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster caused BP’s shares to plunge in 2010. Other more recent examples of ESG controversies are Boohoo, who faced accusations of ill-treatment of employees, and both Alphabet (Google) and Meta (Facebook) have been fined by regulators for anti-competition and privacy concerns, respectively.


A change for good?

The increased potential for an ESG controversy to damage the financial prospects of a company is driving a change in culture within businesses across the World, and therefore any investor can take comfort in the fact that good business governance will take ESG considerations into account when formulating their strategy and approach. The same is true for investment managers. Sound investment planning is about assessing risk, and whilst active fund managers will routinely consider potential threats to a business from increased market competition, changes in trends and customer habits and new technology, it is clear that ESG factors cannot be ignored.

Adopting a socially responsible investment approach can aim to make a positive impact through investment choices made, but that does not necessarily mean that the risks associated with environmental, social and governance factors can be ignored by other investors, too.

Speak to one of our experienced financial planners here if you would like to discuss how your portfolio is positioned in respect of its’ social responsibility and how this aligns with your values.