Equity funds race ahead

Nic Cicutti on a popular sector

As the world's financial markets betray the first hints of nervousness after two years of almost uninterrupted growth, the problem of how to continue making gains suddenly assumes greater importance. With almost pounds 20bn in funds, the UK equity growth sector is by far the most popular for hundreds of thousands of investors.

Average returns for this sector have been respectable in the past 12 months. HSW, the statistics provider, calculatesthe average growth in the value of the 149 funds around since 1 December 1995 was 9 per cent. In the past two years, returns have averaged 30.9 per cent.

The figures show some remarkable variations, including the measly 1.6 per cent advance achieved by Eagle Star's Environmental Opportunities fund and the 0.4 per cent loss nursed by Exeter's Capital Growth unit trust.

But other funds have raced ahead, Baring's UK Growth trust achieving 17.4 per cent in the past 12 months, Lincoln National's 22.3 per cent and Johnson Fry Slater Growthshowing 46.2 per cent growth.

For investors, the most important aspect of any decision on where to place their money is not just a record over one or two years but a fund's long-term performance.

The unit trusts in the graph above have all achieved that longer-term performance, remaining consistently in the top 25 per of funds in the sector almost every year in the past seven. Some have done so even longer. But while the returns are all good, the management style can differ.

Richard Royds, managing director of Mercury Asset Management's unit trust operation, says his company's Recovery fund, which shows returns of 104 per cent in five years, is based on its managers' willingness to change tack if they believe the markets arechanging. "We changed our manager some months ago when Paul Harwood, head of our specialist unit, took it over," Mr Royds says. "The performance up to then had been very good but this gave us the opportunity to look again at where the fund was going."

Until Mr Harwood took over, the Recovery fund portfolio had been heavy on small to mid-market firms quoted on the London Stock Exchange. Since then, given market volatility, he has placed greater emphasis on FTSE 100 shares.

Fidelity's Special Situations Fund is another to have delivered consistent returns, with growth of 148.7 per cent placing it in fourth position over five years and first, with 293.9 per cent, over 10 years.

A Fidelity spokeswoman says: "The fund manager is Anthony Bolton. The way he selects his stocks is that almost any share may at some time represent a special situation. Generally, valuations will be attractive in relation to net assets or earnings potential, with additional factors involved which may have a positive influence on share price."

For example, the fund will look out for companies in recovery situations, new technology, or bids. Investors should beware that the fund's bias towards smaller and medium-sized companies can lead to short-term volatility relative to the benchmark.

Jim Campbell, who manages one of the smallest funds in the sector with barely pounds 2.5m, the Commercial Union PPT UK Growth Fund, has also remained in the top 30 over the past five years, delivering overall returns of 97.8 per cent. He says: "Because it is a smaller fund, it is possible to be much more aggressive. The risk is greater but so is the reward."

The Commercial Union fund will hold shares in about 50 companies, less than is usual. But Mr Campbell says: "I can concentrate on stocks I like. But the volatility of the market means more bottom-up stock selection."

Jeff Sanders, fund manager at Standard Life, also believes in careful stock selection for his UK Equity Growth fund, which has delivered returns of 148.5 per cent in the past seven years.

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