PEPS: The Final Countdown: Top of the PEPs

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ACTIVE FUND management can give better performance than tracker funds but is no guarantee of better returns. That is the main conclusion of a new survey of 50 top PEP funds for The Independent.

Warwick Butchart Associates Ltd, a Cheltenham-based firm of independent financial advisers, has analysed leading PEP funds over both three and five years. It found that European funds had performed best, but that some tracker funds were also among the top performers.

The findings will add fuel to the debate over whether investors should pay the higher charges that active fund managers demand or whether a low- cost tracker fund, whose investments mirror those of an underlying index such as the FTSE 100, are a better bet.

PEPs based on unit trusts can have three types of charges: initial, annual and redemption, but the situation can be further complicated by the fact that the initial charge may not be the same as the bid/offer spread - the difference between the price at which an investor buys (the offer) and sells (the bid).

Active funds typically have an initial charge of 5 per cent or so, with discounts often available to attract investors. Bid/offer spreads, which include the initial charge, are typically about 0.5 per cent higher. Annual charges are about 1.25 per cent, or 1.35 per cent for European funds.

A few funds bill you with a redemption charge if you cash in your investment.

Tracker funds are cheaper, reflecting the fact that managers simply buy stocks in index companies, undertaking little or no investment research themselves.

Trackers usually have an initial charge of between zero and 0.5 per cent and an annual charge between 0.5 and 1 per cent.

With their lower charges and good performance, it appears clear that tracker funds are best.

But David Burren, Warwick Butchart's investment director, believes that actively managed funds have three advantages.

First, the performance of the better funds endures in good times and bad. Unlike tracker funds, managers can take a defensive stance in times of market uncertainty - holding on to cash or even selling stocks if that seems to offer better value.

Second, those who invest for income, or want exposure to specific sectors, generally have no choice other than to look at actively managed funds.

Third, over the last few weeks there has been a rally in mid-cap stocks and a strong feeling that these stocks may do particularly well if the economy does start to show real signs of improvement. Tracker funds are not able to invest in this sector, unless a suitable index is available.

The PEP survey, based on information from Reuters Hindsight, shows that over three and five years actively managed, average-cost European funds have performed best.

Leading groups are Invesco, Newton, Gartmore, Threadneedle and Friends Provident. Also among the top-rated funds are the actively managed Jupiter Income, Jupiter UK Growth, River & Mercantile 1st Growth and BWD UK Equity Income funds.

Leading trackers include Marks & Spencer UK 100 Companies Accumulation, Direct Line FTSE 100 Tracker and HSBC Footsie Fund, all of which are too new to feature yet over five years but are among the top dozen or so over three years.

Contact: Warwick Butchart Associates Ltd on 01242 584 144

The writer is publishing editor of HealthCare Insurance Report