Secrets of Success: You don't have to be poor to prefer DIY

In most walks of life, people like to know what their fellows are doing; and it is clear that investing is no different.

In most walks of life, people like to know what their fellows are doing; and it is clear that investing is no different. Most professional fund managers are almost duty-bound to follow the behaviour of their peers, as their livelihood depends on the relative performance of their funds, even though (a nice paradox) their success in beating the market consistently depends on them doing something different from the bulk of their fellows.

But what about private investors? My impression, rightly or wrongly, is that they are just as keen to know what other investors are doing with their money. There is after all some psychological comfort in knowing that others are doing the same thing as you, although the consequences of being a conformist are much the same as for professionals.

It was interesting to note in this context some findings from an exercise carried out by Tulip Research, which specialises in surveying the investment habits of the rich. It has detected an interesting trend amongst high net-worth individuals to do more of their own stockpicking, in preference to using financial advisers of one sort or another to give them advice.

Specifically, its latest survey found that a third of those it surveyed take no advice from anyone before choosing shares for their portfolios. What is more, the wealthier the individuals were, the more likely they were to make their own decisions. The DIY investors had average liquid assets of just under £1m, while those who relied on advisers had about £650,000. The cut-off point for inclusion in the survey was a minimum of £250,000.

Of those who did rely on advisers to handle their investments, the most popular choice of adviser was IFAs, followed by stockbrokers, accountants and banks. A further interesting detail was that those who had opted for DIY solutions had some 40 per cent of their liquid assets in individual company shares, whereas those who relied on IFAs had only 25 per cent. The latter group had a greater proportionate exposure to unit trusts and cash or cash equivalents.

What is one to make of this pattern of behaviour? The trend towards DIY investing has accelerated in the last couple of years. In 2002, only 20 per cent of this high net-worth group claimed to be investing their money directly themselves. John Clemens, the managing partner of Tulip Research, thinks there are two main factors: (1) the bear market, which has left many wealthy people unimpressed by the performance of their advisers; and (2) the fact that many advisers are seen to be failing to keep up to date with the newest investment fads, of which "structured products" are perhaps the most notable example.

(If you are one of the many for whom the term structured product does not mean a lot, it refers to a wide and growing range of funds, or bonds, that use derivatives to "guarantee" return of capital and/or returns over a period of years, subject to certain conditions being fulfilled. It is one of the biggest growth areas in the investment business, although they are by their nature difficult to analyse. The "precipice bonds" sold to hapless investors in recent years are an example of how structured products can go badly wrong if you do not understand what you are buying.)

Mr Clemens also makes the point that many of the high net-worth individuals he surveys are professionals or business people who are now retired or working part-time. They have the time to spend more time on their investments and of course now have the advantage of being able to use the internet to get information and buy or sell shares cheaply in a way that was not anything like as easy before.

In this context, incidentally, it is interesting to see the latest Compeer survey carried out by the Association of Private Client Investment Managers and Stockbrokers, showing that execution-only trading by private investors reached a new high in the first quarter of this year. As always happens with new technologies, the real benefits of the internet bubble are only now beginning to appear in the shape of fast and comprehensive applications (such as instant portfolio valuations) that replace services traditionally provided for a fee by intermediaries such as brokers.

According to Tulip Research, what the high net-worth individuals are mostly buying are well-known blue-chip Footsie shares. This, one suspects, is not necessarily because they regard them as particularly good value - high net-worth individuals are inevitably more interested in owning diversified portfolios than they are in picking the best-performing stocks - but because they are confident that they can buy and sell them without being blindsided or shortchanged.

Almost certainly, too, they feel confident from their experience in business or professional life that they can make just as good judgements on investments from their own knowledge and contacts as to which shares are likely to do well as they can by relying on advisers to help them. While generalisations are dangerous, there is plenty of evidence that acting on buy and sell advice from the average IFA or broker is an unrewarding activity. You will most likely do just as well by buying an index fund or doing it yourself.

Is this trend towards DIY investing here to stay? I suspect that it is. Private client advisers have been going through a tough time in the last few years, beset by dull markets and a mounting regulatory burden. The industry is consolidating, as weaker firms go to the wall. But do high net-worth investors really need to know more about structured products? That is a different question.

My guess is that one of the reasons why advisory firms are struggling is not just that their advice is not always productive - there are as always honourable exceptions - but that they are struggling to come up with the level of service that private investors, especially the wealthier ones, think they deserve. The smart ones might even find it better to step back on the advisory front and do more to keep their clients informed and feeling well cared for.

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