Our Guide to Investment Trusts by Investment Expert Jonathan Davis

What are investment trusts?

Investment trusts are the oldest type of investment fund and the favoured choice of many professionals and investment connoisseurs. They are also known as investment companies, which is, strictly speaking, a more accurate description, since that is what they are – public companies whose sole purpose is to invest money provided by their shareholders. For practical purposes you can use the two terms – investment trust and investment company –  interchangeably.

Why consider an investment in an investment trust?

Investment trusts are somewhat more complicated to understand than their fund cousins (unit trusts and OEICs), to which they are frequently compared. But that is offset by other advantages. While investment trusts are not as popular – there is four times as much money invested in open-ended funds – they tend to invest in a wider range of asset classes, have more accountability and on average deliver superior performance over time. That is why many City professionals prefer them.

What are the main differences between investment trusts and open-ended funds?

  • Structure
  • Pricing and valuation
  • Types of investment

Structure of investment trusts

Investment trusts are companies, listed on a stock exchange, with a board of directors who are legally accountable to its shareholders. Although it has become easier in recent years for trusts to grow by issuing new shares, the amount of capital managed by trusts is generally fixed, whereas with open-ended funds the amount of capital varies directly from day to day in response to supply and demand. Open-ended funds have an Authorised Corporate Director, an independent firm which has a duty to make sure that the fund is doing what it said it would do, but there is less direct accountability than with a trust, where shareholders can – at least as a last resort – vote out the board of directors. Investment companies, unlike open-ended funds, also have the ability to borrow money in an effort to enhance returns.

Pricing and valuation of investment trusts

While all types of fund value their investments on a regular basis, the price you will get for buying or selling a holding in a unit trust or OEIC is closely and directly linked to the reported asset value of the fund, less a small adjustment for the cost you pay to make the transaction. With investment trusts, by contrast, the price you will see each day is based on supply and demand for the shares in the trust. The price of the shares can differ quite significantly from the reported asset value, leading to greater price volatility. Boards of trusts can choose to introduce discount controls to avoid this.

Types of investment made in investment trusts

Because their capital structure is mostly fixed, investment trusts can invest more easily in certain types of investment that open-ended funds are either barred from or refuse to consider. This is particularly true of relatively illiquid assets, such as factories, private equity and rarely traded debt instruments. Although there are a number of open-ended property funds, it is not optimal to own these types of investment in an open-ended fund. As investors in open-ended funds are entitled to ask for their money back in full at any time (”redeem their units”, in the jargon), it can cause problems if the assets are not easy to sell quickly. Because they are not forced to return money on demand, investment trusts have greater freedom to invest in these areas.

Where does the superior performance of investment trusts derive from?

Several reasons have been advanced, but nobody quite knows for sure.  According to academics at the Cass Business School in London, in pioneering research published in 2018, the most likely reason is that the fund managers of an investment trust, unlike managers of open-ended funds, benefit from not being obliged to buy and sell shares purely to satisfy changes in investor demand. The ability to borrow money to enhance returns is another factor, but a relatively minor one. On average – and NB it is only on average – investment trust managers demonstrate greater skill, the academics concluded.

How many investment trusts are there?

There are some 400 trusts open to UK investors, according to the Association of Investment Companies (the AIC), the industry trade body. Of these around the great majority are listed on the London stock exchange. The AIC classifies investment trusts into broad sectors, 11 for conventional equity trusts and another 12 for alternative asset trusts. You can find a guide to these sectors here. You can download a table of the largest trusts and biggest management companies from this page of the AIC website.

What are the most popular types of investment trusts?

Investment trusts broadly fall into two categories: (a) conventional trusts and (b) alternative assets. The first group would be recognizable to their Victorian pioneers, as they invest solely or primarily in publicly listed stocks and shares. The second group has been the faster growing in the last five years and includes a wide range of different kinds of investment, such as commercial property, private equity, renewable energy, infrastructure and debt. Alternative asset trusts have proved particularly popular in recent years because of their ability to pay attractive dividends, well above the miserly income (or yield) available from government bonds and savings accounts. The two groups are now about equal in size.

How can I tell what an investment trust is trying to do?

All trusts have to publish a prospectus, a detailed legal document, before their shares can be traded on the stock market. One of the job of the broad of directors is to agree the basic investment objective of their trust and make sure that it is adhered to, until or unless shareholders agree to make a change. The strategy of most trusts can be understood from their names, but others are not so obvious. A full list of trusts can be seen on the AIC website, which has an interactive tool to allow you to sort all trusts by sector, name, size and so on.

What information do I need to know about investment trusts?

Before buying shares in an investment trust, be sure to read the most recent Annual Report and the factsheets that every trust is required to issue each month, summarizing its strategy, top ten holdings and recent performance.  Study the accounts, look at the trust’s rating and longer term track record, as well as whether it is using gearing (borrowing) in order to enhance its returns. Ask if the board have a discount control mechanism in place. Read the fund manager’s commentary, what the media have been saying, and any research you can lay your hands on. Try to understand the type of conditions in which the trust does well and those in which it does less well.

Where can I find the best research on investment trusts?

Finding high-quality research about investment trusts is difficult. A number of stockbroking firms regularly produce research on trusts, but they are prohibited by regulations from issuing buy and sell recommendations to private investors, except to their most knowledgeable clients. In order to fill this gap, a number of research firms now produce sponsored research notes for individual investment trusts. These can provide useful background information, but inevitably suffer from a perceived lack of independence. These are the three most prominent suppliers of sponsored research: Quoted Data, Kepler Intelligence and Edison Research.

What are discounts and premiums in investment trusts?

When the shares of investment trusts trade at a price below their reported net asset value, they are said to be trading at a discount. When the share price is higher than the reported net asset value, the trust is said to be trading at a premium. Nobody should invest in an investment trust unless they understand the concept of discounts and premiums and the circumstances in which these can change.

Which type of investment trusts do best?

Over a period of years the trusts which invest in riskier investments are the ones that should in theory deliver the best performance – and in practice that is often the case. Trusts that invest in smaller company shares, for example, have generally done better than those which invest in blue chip stocks. Emerging markets have done better than developed markets, and so on.  But these superior performers tend also to be the ones in which you can lose the most money over shorter periods of time. It is the old rule: risk and return usually go hand in hand.

Which investment trusts have been the best performers?

In absolute terms, the best performing investment trusts over the past 1, 3,5 and 10 years can be found from most research websites and platforms. As with all types of fund, the types of trusts that are top of the list will change from year to year. Over the last ten years, for example, private equity funds have been the best performers, but they were also the worst hit during the financial crisis of 2007-09, most of them losing more than 50% of their value. It is therefore vital to understand the risk characteristics of trusts as well as their style of investment.

Are investment trusts cheaper than open-ended funds?

They certainly used to be. That was mainly because, while their fees for managing the fund were in line with unit trusts and OEICs, investors in trusts have never paid commission to brokers and other intermediaries to help attract investors. Nearly all open-ended funds used to do that, until the practice was outlawed by the City regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority in 2013. Now the fees on both types of fund are broadly similar on average, albeit with notable exceptions. Management fees have been falling in recent years. The AIC funded a useful survey showing which platforms are able to hold investment trusts and their cost.

Does anyone rate investment trusts?

Yes, a number of research businesses analyse trusts and give them ratings. These are among the best-known: Morningstar, Trustnet, Citywire and the Financial Times. Some give star ratings, others categorise trusts by letters (AAA being the best). Be careful though: a recent study by the Financial Conduct Authority found little evidence that trusts with good ratings do consistently better than average. Most ratings are based to a larger or smaller extent on extrapolating past performance, which is dangerous. However looking at ratings can be a useful way to do an initial screen of trusts to own. Some online platforms also offer Best Buy lists. According to the FCA, best buy lists do appear to have some value.

How can I pick the best investment trusts?

It is not easy. In practice you need a combination of good research, an understanding of the fund manager’s process and commitment, careful analysis of the fund’s past performance and a degree of good fortune. Because they have been around for so long, some trusts have been able to build a long term reputation for reliable performance. More than 20 trusts, for example, have increased their dividend each year for more than 20 years, taking advantage of an investment trust’s ability to put aside some of their profits each year as a reserve to help them smooth out dividend payments, a feature that income-seeking investors in particular like. Open-ended funds do not have this ability.

But past performance really is a poor guide to the future. Only if you can understand why and when a particular trust has done better than its benchmark are you likely to have any chance of judging whether and when it will do well in the future. Changes in gearing and discounts can make a big difference form one period to the next. As boards sometimes change their managers if their performance falls short of what they are expecting, trusts with long-serving managers can be a source of comfort. Unfortunately most private investors do in practice seem to look primarily for trusts which have done well in the most recent periods.

Which media cover investment trusts best?

You will find the fullest coverage in specialist publications, some of which also run model portfolios: Citywire Investment Trust Insider, Investors Chronicle, Money Observer, Money Week, Investment Trusts newsletter are all helpful. John Baron, a former City fund manager, who writes articles about investment trusts for the Investors Chronicle, also has an excellent website where subscribers who pay around £200 a year can see a range of portfolios he runs for different kinds of investors and the changes he makes to them.

Further reading on investment trusts:

FT Guide to Investment Trusts, by John Baron

The Investment Trusts Handbook, edited by Jonathan Davis

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