The mood of the moment

'Tis the season for an adroit investment to take advantage of the tax break. Ken Welsby reports

The postman had a pained expression on his face the other morning as he handed over my mail and that of my neighbour. "It's getting almost as bad as Christmas," he said. "I've never seen anything like it."

The cause of his complaint was easy to see: in addition to the usual crop of bills, credit card statements and even a couple of real letters, we were the grateful recipients of no fewer than a dozen mailings from investment houses. And so, to judge by his bulging mailbag, was just about every other resident in the street.

Just as the stores like to remind us that there are only so many "shopping days" left to Christmas, so the fund managers are reminding us that, as of today, there are only 13 investing days left to go, to the end of the tax year.

Put up to pounds 6,000 into a personal equity plan before 5 April and all the money you make on your investment is entirely tax free. But you must hand over the cheque and complete the paperwork before the deadline.

Many of the leaflets and brochures which the postman delivered made the same point, and it's one that forms a constant refrain from financial advisers: you will make more money investing in shares than leaving your money in a savings account.

The problem is that, unless you want to spend all your spare time number- crunching, you're unlikely to assemble a portfolio of consistent winners.

Unit trusts and investment trusts offer investors a way to reduce the risks. They should outperform other types of investment such as building society accounts - although they will not beat the individual, out-and- out winners in the stock-market stakes.

Over the last five years, for example, pounds 100 a month saved in a building society account would now be worth around pounds 8,000. The same amount in a reasonably performing unit trust would be worth more than pounds 12,000.

Most of the PEPs advertised by the large fund management groups put your money in unit trusts or investment trusts. They range from general funds investing in well-established UK companies, to specialised ones concentrating on high risk/high reward sectors such as health care and high technology - or in particular countries or regions such as North America, the tiger economies of South East Asia or Latin America.

But remember: because of its status as a tax shelter, your PEP must invest most of its funds in what are known as qualifying assets - in simple terms, shares in companies based in the UK or continental Europe.

The problem is timing. Private investors are often tempted to buy units or shares when prices are high, and stay on the sidelines when they are falling. Yet the best way of making money is by buying when prices are low.

With this in mind, you may want to consider tucking away pounds 20 a month or more in a monthly savings plan. Over the long term, your savings should average out the ups and downs of the stock markets. If you had saved pounds 100 every month in a top-performing unit trust over the past 10 years, your investment would now be worth more than pounds 25,000 - far more than any savings account could delivern

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