With-profits bonuses set to disappoint

Once the favoured investment for millions of Britons, they have lost their appeal in recent years. Julian Knight reports
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With-profits investments have acquired something of a pariah status in recent years. Anaemic performance, the imposition of seemingly arbitrary and punishing exit penalties and a welter of bad publicity has decimated the reputation of what was once the favoured investment vehicle of millions of Britons.

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of active with-profits policies out there, and this week many people will find out how much of a bonus – equivalent to interest – their investment has earned in the past year.

But after a difficult year on global stockmarkets and with record low returns on money invested in government debt, experts are not holding their breath for anything special.

"What we are likely to see from the with-profits providers over the next few weeks is that firms which have a track record of paying small bonuses will continue to do so, while those which have been more generous in the past will – because of market conditions – cut their payouts," says Patrick Connolly, a director at financial advice firm AWD Chase de Vere.

Problems in the with-profits sector date back far further than the recession or even the start of the global financial crisis. In fact, according to Mr Connolly, if you want to understand how with-profits lost their lustre you need to go back to the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"Providers competed to pay ever-higher bonuses to attract new business into their funds, and by doing so they weakened their financial position, invested heavily in shares and moved away from the safe and steady ideas that lie behind the with-profits concept," Mr Connolly says. And the key concept behind with-profits is one of supposed "smoothing", basically excess profits made in good times held in reserve to pay bonuses during the bad times.

But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, funds paid too much out and held too little in reserve for the inevitable bad times. As a result, bonuses were slashed and draconian exit penalties introduced to simply stop some funds from going to the wall, it seemed.

"The sector has never recovered from this, and even when we have good years for investment the bonuses are still in the main very poor.

"Only a few funds, such as Prudential, L&G and maybe Aviva, have the strength to buck this trend a little," Mr Connolly adds.

But there are plenty of so-called "zombie" funds out there which are in virtual stasis, accepting no new money, managed by third-party firms, paying minimal bonuses and still subject to exit penalties. As a result, many investors are stuck with a poor-performing investment.

"It's for this reason that I have not recommended a with-profits investment for over a decade. It's yesterday's product, opaque, expensive and poor performing," says Steve Laird, an independent financial adviser at Belfast-based Carrington Wealth Management. "In some ways the worst thing about with-profits is that policyholders are never truly sure what their investment is worth," he adds.

However, there are some still willing to big-up with-profits.

"It's not the concept behind with-profits that is wrong it's the management of certain funds," says Helen Jones an actuary at NFU Mutual.

"In these troubled times people still want the idea of smoothed returns and in some case a guarantee of the capital returned. And remember, many of the funds have moved out of equities and looked to diversify more. We, for example, have 70 per cent invested in a mix of equities and property, and we've never failed to declare a bonus," she adds.

The bad press has gone too far says Anna Sofat, a director at independent financial advice firm Addidi Wealth. "Sure, there is a lot of dross out there, but that is, I'm afraid, true of most investment classes. With-profits worked for decades. I have some pension investors who did much better by being in a with-profits fund rather than shares and there are still firms such as Prudential who are getting their investment mix right."

There is an investment which replicates the with-profits concept without the drama of annual bonus declarations and imposing exit penalties when things get tough.

"Absolute-return investment funds look to smooth out the peaks and troughs as well, and although some have attracted bad publicity, there are some really good funds in the sector," Mr Laird says.

The funds invest in shares and other asset classes while hedging their investment decisions through complex, financial tools such as future contracts. Critics, though, say some charges can be high and some funds' performance has been poor.

For those with-profits investors who are set to be disappointed by bonuses to be announced in the coming weeks, Mr Connolly urges them to ask some key questions: "How strong is your provider? Is the fund still open to new business? What is the surrender value of the policy? How long have you left to run?

"In many instances it may be best to get out now, but this should only be done after taking specific, financial advice," he says.