Fees still matter

With just a few days remaining to put your money out of reach of the taxman, Merryn Somerset Webb explains what you should bear in mind when choosing a home for your money.

I did some financial exams just before Christmas. One of the questions in the essay section was: "One of the most important elements in choosing a fund should be the level of charges and other expenses.' Critically assess this statement."

As regular readers will know, we have been critically assessing this statement in MoneyWeek for over a decade. Sometimes life is kind. However, while I think you know how we feel about charges (and I'm pleased to say that the examiners appear to agree with us), it is a subject worth revisiting given it's now only a matter of days until those who want to use their full individual savings account (Isa) allowance for this year need to have moved the cash into their wrappers. Once that's done, they'll want to start thinking about where that cash goes.

We've got some good ideas for you on this in the magazine (see our Roundtable). But as you wander the investment universe with your £11,600, try not to commit to anything until you have looked back to a note, referenced by Peter Bennett of Walker Crips this week, but originally written in 1997 by the kings of the low-cost tracking business, Vanguard.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

In it, they showed the effects of total costs of 2.5% a year around what the average unit trust still costs once trading commissions and the like are included on £10,000 invested for 40 years at a growth rate of 10%. If you had been able to invest the money cost-free in the index, you'd have ended up with £452,600. In the fund? £180,000. Of the return, 62% is "trousered" by the fund manager. It is, as Bennett says, "jawdropping".

But it's worse than even these figures suggest. Why? Because most funds don't even do as well as the index. Over the average five-year period, just 25% of fund managers beat their chosen benchmark. So, to be clear, 75% of them merely meet the performance of their index, or underperform it.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't buy active funds there are good arguments to be made to suggest that, particularly in low-return environments such as ours, good managers are worth seeking out. But it does mean you should look at costs and structures carefully before you buy anything this year.

Do so, and as the model answer from my exam (see Cisi.org) notes, the evidence would "generally be critical of hedge funds and insurance bonds" and would "favour investment trusts relative to unit trusts".

Our model portfolio of investment trusts is available here. I would also draw your attention to the closed-end funds mentioned by David C Stevenson and to the Witan Investment Trust, which recently announced its 38th consecutive dividend rise; returned over 15% last year; is reasonably priced (the total expense ratio is 0.69% although there are performance fees); and still sees its shares trading at an 11% discount to their net asset value.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.