Investing for income? Here are six investment trusts to buy now

For many savers and investors, income is getting hard to find. But it's not impossible to find, says Merryn Somerset Webb. Here, she picks six investment trusts that are currently yielding more than 4%.

I had a note from my bank this week reminding me that I receive interest of 0.01% on the cash I hold with them. I immediately resolved to paint the kitchen, buy an air fryer (people keep telling me I must have one) and top up my gold holdings.

If the bank paid me 10% I would have little interest in doing any of these things. This sounds obvious, but it is worth briefly thinking about why. 

It all comes down to the way in which the interest you are offered represents the value attributed to your time, says Edward Chancellor in his (very good) new book The Price of Time

The interest I am paid on my money, which I am lending to the bank for its own use, should be enough both to compensate me for the delayed gratification that comes with not being able to use my cash now, and to maintain its purchasing power. 

Savings accounts just aren’t working any more

French economist Frédéric Bastiat credited Benjamin Franklin with the bons mots: “Time is precious. Time is money. Time is the stuff of which all life is made.” If that preciousness isn’t recognised – and at 0.01% it most certainly is not – it makes sense to feel like the cash-on-deposit deal isn’t working for us (which it is not) – and to favour keeping the future in the present (using the money now) or looking for a place to put it that attributes a bit more value to it. 

This is a totally normal reaction. It seems ridiculous now (and looking at the inflation numbers it should have seemed ridiculous then too) but let’s not forget that in March 2020 the Bank of England cut its main interest rate to an all-time low of 0.1%. Over the following year the amount of cash paid into cash Isas fell substantially, and the money paid into new stocks and shares Isas rose by £10bn on the previous year. 

Three-quarters of all Isa accounts in 2019-2020 were subscribed to in cash. Last year it was down to two-thirds. Stocks and shares Isas also made up 58% of the value of all Isa funds last year – up from 49%. 

This will be partly about people using their spare time in the pandemic to sort out their long-term finances, partly about piling into the building bubble of 2020-2021, and partly about the introduction of the personal savings allowance, which can make cash Isas feel a bit pointless. But the main driver is still likely to be that 0.1%, a number that it made complete sense to refuse to put up with. 

The problem with this is that, irritated by our own futures being undervalued, too many of us poured cash into companies whose futures were rather overvalued. Instead of looking for companies throwing off real cash and dividends in the here and now, investors stuck their money in growth stocks – Scottish Mortgage, for example, regularly topped the leading buys of every big UK investment platform. 

This maddened old-fashioned fund managers. All the way through 2020 and 2021 I received increasingly infuriated messages from a retired friend. Why would all those complaining about yield not just buy the oil companies; or Vodafone, which was trading at a five-year low in the middle of last year and even after dividend cuts was yielding 6.3%; or British American Tobacco (BAT), which was regularly yielding more than 7%? 

This is not to suggest that dividend-paying stocks are a substitute for cash on deposit; of course they are not (this is a subject that could take up many columns but the short reason is that with any equity your capital is always very much at risk), they are just a significantly better bet than non dividend-paying stocks. 

Still, lessons have been learnt (again – a reminder that while in all other areas learning is cumulative, in finance it is cyclical). Vodafone is up by 15% since the last rant I received from my old friend; Shell is up by 73% and BAT by 27%; Scottish Mortgage is down by 33%. 

What to buy for income

The good news for those of us looking for income is that there is still plenty of it about. And its appeal is not just for the income itself but for the knowledge it gives you about the company in question, in that its managers both attribute some value to your capital and are capable of producing the income to pay that value to you. 

A new report from Stifel points to 25 equity investment trusts in the UK with a current yield of more than 4%. Most have a good long-term record of delivering dividend growth and substantial dividend reserves (money they have accumulated from dividend payments made to the trust over the years and can use to pay out future dividends to their shareholders and hence smooth returns if need be). They are also regularly turning up in Scottish Mortgage’s old place at the top of the platforms’ most-bought funds lists. 

There are a few things to look out for. Eight trusts aim to pay out a percentage of their asset value every year, usually in the region of 4%, regardless of whether they have received that percentage as income or as capital gain. 

One is Montanaro UK Smaller Companies (LSE: MTU) – which has a 5.9% historic dividend yield, largely paid out of capital rather than income. In the year to the end of March 2021, for example, revenue per share was 1.2p and the dividend 5.5p, says Stifel. 

That’s the kind of thing that – tax implications aside – matters little to anyone when capital gains are high but might matter much when they are not. In the same year the trust’s net asset value (NAV) rose 35%. Since then it has fallen 5% (and is 25% from its highs).  

Some might be fine with that – if you are looking at your investment trust portfolio as an annuity, you won’t mind running down capital to such an extent. Most will not be fine with it, I think.

Trusts to look at if you want a steady income paid out of dividends, and occasionally out of revenue reserves, include City of London (LSE: CTY) (paying 4.5% and jammed with the likes of BAT, Shell and Rio Tinto); Merchants (LSE: MRCH) (4.8% with a very similar portfolio); JP Morgan Claverhouse (LSE: JCH) (4.3%); and Lowland (LSE: LWI) (4.8%).  

For those wanting to see value outside the UK, Murray International (LSE: MYI) makes the list with a yield of 4.2% and now has a 17-year record of rising dividends. 

A word of warning: many of these trusts now trade on premiums to their NAV. You are paying more for the trust than for the market value of the sum of its parts. 

That effectively means you are attributing more value to the skills and of course the time of the fund manager than they are charging you in management fees. That may be an entirely valid thing to do at the moment – but you might as well be aware that you are doing it. After all, the price of time matters. 

• This article was first published in the Financial Times

• Merryn Somerset Webb holds shares in Shell.

SEE ALSO:

• The ten highest dividend yields in the FTSE 100

• Five dividend stocks to beat inflation

• Aviva: a share for income investors to tuck away

• Three unloved income stocks with rising dividends

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