Author: Cowie, Ian
Date published: June 1, 2010
Dreams of capital gains can disappear in a puff of smoke, as stock market shocks prompted by the Greek crisis, the Icelandic volcano and other bolts of lightning from a clear blue sky remind us on an almost daily basis. But the discipline of dividends, the iron law of income investing, can provide a measure of comfort in uncertain times.
The reason is that income investors cannot follow fashionable or overpriced stocks, nor ignore unloved high-yielders. They must buy unfashionable shares, whose dividends equal a high proportion of their price, and sell those that become more widely appreciated, if they are to maintain above-average income streams.
High yields can, of course, be a warning of trouble to come. BP is sometimes cited as an example of this, but I think that credits the market with a bit more collective foresight than it possesses. Nobody foretold the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Equity income investment trusts offer a less risky way to lock into high dividends, because each holds the shares of dozens of other companies, reducing exposure to setbacks or failure at any one firm. These pooled funds are cheaper than their better-known rivals, unit trusts, because their shares often trade at a discount to net asset value (NAV) and generally pay no commission to intermediaries.
This virtuous thriftiness was a historic disadvantage as a distribution model that could generate gains for buyers today. The Financial Services Authority is set to ban commission payments to independent financial advisers from 2012, forcing IFAs to live on fees, which may mean they sell more investment trusts; or at least treat them on a par with unit trusts.
Speaking of which, compare and contrast the popularity among IFAs of Invesco Perpetual's multi-billion pound range of income unit trusts and the relative obscurity of its sibling investment trust, Perpetual Income & Growth. This is trading on a discount of nearly 5 per cent - so £95 buys £100 of NAV - and yielding just over 4 per cent.
James Brown, of the stockbroker Winterflood Securities, says: 'Perpetual Income & Growth is managed by Mark Barnett, a senior member of Invesco Perpetual's UK team based in Henley. He took over this fund from Neil Woodford in 1999. Perpetual Income & Growth's long-term performance is impressive, with an increase in NAV of 1 3 1 per cent over ten years compared with an increase in the FTSE All-Share of 23 per cent, after including dividend income.
'It has lagged the rising markets of the last year, primarily a result of its defensive positioning.' Put another way, it's chock full of tobacco shares. Which is why I won't be buying; I'm squeamish about companies that kill their customers. In any case, there are better bargains to be had elsewhere. Brown says: 'For more diversified income growth, I'd recommend Scottish American Investment Trust, managed by Patrick Edwardson of Baillie Gifford.
'The fund suffered badly in 2008, particularly as a result of its exposure to listed property; however, performance has bounced back strongly since the start of 2009. Over the last year, it has returned 42 per cent on a total return basis, compared with 27 per cent for its international benchmark.'
Saints - as it used to be known - is currently trading at a 10.2 per cent discount to NAV and yielding 4.5 per cent. That would be the sensible tip, but instead I have bought something far more speculative for my selfinvested personal pension (SIPP): Henderson Financial Opportunities, which is an overlooked tiddler in a desperately unfashionable sector.
With a market capitalisation of £14 million and gross assets of £23 million, it does not even register on institutional analysts' screens. But it is yielding 8.2 per cent and trading on a 1 1 .5 per cent discount, despite delivering returns of more than 5 1 per cent over the last year, according to independent statisticians Trustnet.
In addition to hopes that its international portfolio (only 33 per cent in Britain) will continue to pay high dividends on bank shares - 43 per cent of assets - and insurance stocks, there are long-term prospects for recovery in these bombed-out sectors. It was also comforting to note that the trust's chairman, Julian Tregoning, bought stock in November and March.
Tregoning, a director of BNY Mellon whom I first met a quarter of a century ago at Flemings, is no fool, and it is always pleasing to see the manager eating in his own restaurant.
Elsewhere among international equity income trusts, Charles Cade of Numis Securities tips Schroder Oriental Income. He says: 'For investors seeking diversification outside the UK and exposure to faster growing economies, we believe that Oriental Income - managed by the highly experienced Matthew Dobbs - is an interesting investment with a yield of 4.2 per cent.'
I bought some for my SIPP at £1 . 1 7 last November, when I also picked up Henderson Far Eastern Income at £2.86. At the time of writing, Schroder Oriental is trading at 137p and Henderson is 306p ex-dividend.
Beat the Budget
Nobody - perhaps not even Chancellor George Osborne - can be sure what will be in the emergency budget on 22 June. But the coalition government has said it intends to bring capital gains tax (CGT) into line with individuals' rates of income tax.
That would mean more than doubling CGT to 40 or 50 per cent in most cases. There is also a risk that Lib Dem manifesto proposals may cut the CGT allowance from its current level of £10,100 per person.
So, although the coalition agreement document was silent on the topic of higher-rate tax relief on pension contributions - another Lib Dem manifesto target - this might be a good time to kill two birds with one stone. Take profits now and reinvest them - possibly in the same assets - within a SIPP.
Ian Cowie is head of personal finance at Telegraph Media Group