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Alliance Trust3.00

Investment Trusts

What are they?

Investment trusts are companies listed on the stock exchange whose sole purpose is to trade as an investment fund. While they're effectively funds and may hold very similar investments (e.g. shares) to unit trusts, there are fundamental differences.

Investment Trust NAV Because they're listed on a the stock exchange, investment trusts have a share (not unit) price. However, unlike unit trusts this doesn't necessarily reflect the actual value of the investments held within the investment trust (i.e. the 'net asset value' - NAV). If there's fewer buyers than sellers then the share price may trade below the net asset value, hence the investment trust would be trading at a 'discount'. If the reverse was true it would be trading at a 'premium'. The majority of investment trusts currently trade at a discount to their NAV.

This means you could make or lose money from share price to NAV movements alone, i.e. independently of actual fund performance!

Investment trusts can also borrow money to increase your investment exposure (known as 'gearing'). Suppose you invest £100, the investment trust might borrow a further £25, giving you around 1.25 times more potential gains or losses than you'd get in a comparable unit trust.

These factors tend to make investment trusts riskier than an equivalent unit trust, although returns could be greater. Charges are usually lower because investment trusts don't pay commission to financial advisers.

Investment trusts can also have more than one type of share (known as 'share class'). For example, it's possible for one share class to receive all the income from the trust and for another share class to receive all the growth. These types of investment trust are known as 'split capital'.

How do they work?

There are several parties involved in the running of an investment trust, as follows:

Board of directorsFund ManagerRegistrarBank

The board of directors have a legal duty to uphold the interests of shareholders. This includes ensuring the fund manager is performing satisfactorily and meeting the fund's objectives. The board has the power to replace a manager if necessary.

Investment trust charges

There are two types of charges you'll face as an investment trust owner: dealing costs when buying or selling and annual charges while you own the shares.

Dealing CostsAnnual ChargesISA Charges

You'll normally need to buy or sell an investment trust through a stockbroker, for which they'll charge a dealing fee. Online and telephone brokers are usually the cheapest, with fees of around £6 - £15 per trade. Because this is not cost effective for a monthly saving, a few investment trusts offer a savings plan with lower fees.

There may also be a difference between the buying and selling price of the shares called a 'bid-offer spread'. This is created by stock market middle-men and not the trust itself. While the spread tends to be small (2% or less) in the normal course of events, it can widen significantly if a trust is especially popular or unpopular.

What affects the premium / discount to NAV?

An investment trust's share price is affected by the number of buyers versus sellers, i.e. their popularity. If sellers are trying to sell more shares than buyers are willing to buy at the current price, the share price will fall until they're once again in balance. If the reverse is true the share price will rise.

So what affects a trust's popularity?

Less PopularMore Popular

Investment trusts tend to fall in popularity (i.e. the discount widens) when:

  • Markets are falling - some investors will naturally sell and investment trusts with gearing are usually the least popular because the gearing compounds losses.
  • Underlying investments out of favour - suppose a trust invests in property and investors are steering well clear of that sector, there'll be few buyers and the share price will suffer.
  • Poor relative performance - trusts that perform poorly versus peers are likely to fall out of favour and be sold.

What are split capital trusts?

Some investment trusts have more than one class of share, allowing them to offer different types of return to different investors. These are known as split capital trusts, or 'split caps', and normally run for a fixed number of years before they wind up (when the underlying investments are sold and the proceeds returned to relevant shareholder classes). A common scenario is for income shares to offer all of a trust's income while capital shares offer all the capital growth.

Candid Example Mr Income buys £100 worth of income shares and Mr Growth £100 of capital shares in XYZ Investment Trust, with each receiving all of the trust's income and growth respectively.
Mr Income benefits from receiving an income equivalent to holding £200 worth of conventional shares and Mr Growth likewise re: capital shares.
However, this also increases their risk as they're more exposed to movements in income and capital value.

There are several possible share classes:

ZerosIncome SharesCapital SharesOrdinary Income Shares

Zeros offer no income but a pre-determined capital return at wind-up. They usually rank ahead of the other share classes in terms of receiving proceeds when a trust is wound up, but there's no guarantee there'll be enough in the pot to pay the expected return. Although less risky than the other share classes, there's still a risk of losing some, or even all of your money.

When buying any of these share classes it's important to determine what average annual (trust) performance is required to be confident of receiving the expected return at wind up, known as a 'hurdle rate'. You should also check the extent that a trust's assets currently cover the expected return, known as a 'cover ratio'.

The split capital investment trust scandal took place between 2000 - 2002, during which an estimated 50,000 investors were believed to have lost about £700 million.

The problem was two-fold.

  1. Thanks to rising markets and low interest rates, many split caps borrowed heavily to increase their gearing (in some cases to around 100% of the trust).
  2. A number of split caps invested in each other, a so-called 'magic circle'. These 'cross-holdings' increased demand for each other's shares, pushing up the price.

This cosy arrangement worked well in rising markets, but fell to earth with an almighty bump when markets plunged during 2000. The high level of gearing accelerated losses and the cross-holdings meant that some trusts collapsed like a house of cards.

Amongst those hit were investors in zero dividend shares ('zeros'), previously viewed as a relatively safe investment and favoured by/sold to cautious investors. This led to an uproar and a massive subsequent investigation by the Financial Services Authority (FSA). Compensation totalling £143 million (funded by 18 of the offending companies) was finally paid out to 25,000 investors in 2006, representing 40% of the money they lost.

How quickly can I get my money back?

Because investment trusts are traded on the stock market you should be able to sell shares easily and receive your money within days. However, less popular investment trusts may struggle to find buyers, which could mean a slow sale and/or a poor bid price.

What happens to income?

An investment trust might receive income from its underlying investments at various times throughout the year. The trust will combine the various incomes and pay it out as a dividend on pre-determined dates, usually twice yearly. Unlike unit trusts, an investment trust can retain up to 15% of its annual income as reserves, providing a potential buffer to help boost income in lean years.

What are warrants?

Warrants give you the option (but not obligation) to buy shares in an investment trust at a fixed price on either a fixed date or range of dates in the future. They're often given away when an investment trust first issues shares, after which they may traded on the stock market.

They effectively provide a geared exposure to the trust they're linked to, making them more volatile, hence higher risk.

Candid Example Mr Optimistic buys 100 warrants for £20, entitling him to buy 100 shares in Investment Trust A in five years time at 120p per share, the current share price is 100p.
After five years the share price has risen to 200p. Mr A can buy 100 shares at 120p and immediately sell them at 200p, netting him a £80 profit on his £20 stake.
However, were the share price at expiry 120p or less the warrant would be worthless, as it would be cheaper to buy the shares directly.

Can I invest in an investment trust for my (grand)child?

Yes, it's very straightforward. Read the section on investing for children to find out more. Some investment trusts have set up specific savings schemes for this purpose.

Investment trust sectors

To better help you compare like for like, the Association of Investment Companies (AIC) has created a range of investment trust sectors. When looking at a trust you can check it's AIC sector then easily compare it will similar rivals. However, some sectors have fairly broad investment guidelines, so trusts within a sector can sometimes vary quite markedly.

How can I buy investment trusts?

There are normally two routes to buying investment trust shares:

StockbrokerDealing Scheme

Buying through a stockbroker incurs a dealing fee when you buy or sell an investment trust. Online and telephone brokers are usually the cheapest, with fees of around £6 - £15 per trade. Bear in mind that if you wish to save on a monthly basis then the dealing fees may become uneconomic. For example, a £10 dealing fee on a £100 investment is equivalent to a 10% initial charge!

Beware that if you wish to hold the investment trust within an ISA you'll need to buy a 'self-select ISA wrapper' from your stockbroker, which is likely to cost upwards of £20 a year.


Investment trusts pay income as dividends. There's no tax within the fund on any gains when the manager buys and sells investments, but any gains you make on selling the fund will be liable to capital gains tax. The returns from zero dividend shares are also subject to capital gains tax.


The world of investment trusts is full of jargon. Here's some of the more common terms you might come across:

AICThe Association of Investment Companies, the trade body for investment trust companies.
Asset CoverMeasures the extent that the assets in the zero and income share classes of a split capital investment trust currently cover the expected return at redemption.
Capital SharesThe part of a split capital investment trust that usually gives you the right receive all the trust's proceeds at wind up after the other share classes have taken their entitlement.
DiscountWhen an investment trust's value based on it's share price is lower than the actual value of the underlying assets.
Hurdle RateMeasures the average annual performance required for the zero and income share classes of a split capital investment trust to receive the expected return at redemption.
Income SharesThe part of a split capital investment trust that usually gives you the right to all of the income produced by the trust and the return of your original investment at wind up.
Investment TrustA company listed on the stock exchange whose sole purpose is to trade as an investment fund.
NAVNet asset value. The actual value of underlying investments within an investment trust, often differs from the value based on the trust's share price.
Ordinary Income SharesThe part of a split capital investment trust that usually receives some, or all, of a trust's income and has an entitlement to the trusts's capital after the other share classes have taken their share.
PremiumWhen an investment trust's value based on it's share price is higher than the actual value of the underlying assets.
WarrantThe option (but not obligation) to buy shares in an investment trust at a fixed price on either a fixed date or range of dates in the future.
ZerosZero dividend preference shares. The part of a split capital investment trust that offers no income but a pre-determined capital return at wind-up.