PEP survey: The best guide to future performance

Past success is no guarantee of future returns, but performance tables can still yield useful information. Juliet Oxborrow explains
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The most lucrative place to put your PEP cash five years ago was an investment trust little known to private investors called Scottish National. By the beginning of 1998, a pounds 6,000 five-year PEP investment in the capital shares of Scottish National, managed by Gartmore, was worth a staggering pounds 33,700. Sadly, the trust is to be wound up later this year and shares are no longer available, although a successor trust has been created.

Even if shares in the original trust were still available, it is unlikely they could repeat this dramatic appreciation, which was largely the result of the trust's structure. But that's the danger of looking at past returns to see which are the most promising investment prospects: they tell you of performance that has already passed.

However, past performance can point to important trends in the stock market. For example, continental European unit trusts have now come powerfully to the fore, returning on average 22 per cent growth in the year to 1 March. Top performers, like the Newton European, have grown by more than a third over the past 12 months. Financial advisers believe this growth will continue.

It is also worth looking at the laggards in the market as they may be due for a change in fortunes. Japan is tipped for recovery and, even if this again proves to be a false dawn, at least it is currently very cheap to invest in. However, as a non-European fund, it can only account for a maximum of pounds 1,500 of your general PEP allowance.

Rather than looking at investment funds in isolation, look at them in the context of other funds in the same areas to see how they have performed relative to their peers. Managers who can contain losses in a falling market should have the skills to outperform in a rising market.

Some investment houses, notably Schroder, argue that smaller company funds are also ripe for a re-rating, having been left out of the stock market rally of the last two years.

If you are a cautious investor, pick a widely spread international fund which can chop and change between markets to scoop up the best growth. Some of the largest and oldest investment trusts are internationally invested, including the Foreign & Colonial trust and the Witan trust, managed by Henderson. These are highly venerated trusts whose shares are constantly in demand and so are unlikely to see sudden dramatic lurches in value.

Among unit trusts, the best international funds have been the highly specialised ones that invest in a particular sector of the stock market, most notably Framlington Financial and Save & Prosper's Financial Securities fund, which both invest across the world's banks, life assurers and investment houses.

Also look at performance tables to get a "feel" for a management house's pedigree. The "holy quartet" of Fidelity, Jupiter, Perpetual and Schroder are often recommended because their funds have provided above-average returns across many sectors.

Juliet Oxborrow is editor of 'What PEP'.