Personal finance: Time to take notice as gilts slay the giant

WHAT do 1921, 1982 and 1998 have in common? As far as I know, the only connection is these are the only three years since 1918 when ultra-safe government bonds - gilts - have won the annual investment contest with shares.

Last year's victory for gilts was the financial equivalent of Preston North End beating Manchester United. In 1998 the overall return from shares in the FT-SE All Share index was 10.6 per cent. Not bad, but gilts romped home with an amazing 21.7 per cent return.

It seems you shouldn't assume shares will outperform other investments. But that's what we have been taught to believe, and the history of the 20th century bears it out. Since 1918, shares have averaged an 8 per cent return every year while gilts have averaged just 2.4 per cent.

If you (or rather, your great-grandfather) had put pounds 100 into shares in 1918 and reinvested all the income, it would be worth just over pounds 1m now. The same money put into gilts would now be worth pounds 13,315. (Thanks, great- grandpa.)

So what's suddenly got into gilts? The economists at Barclays Capital, who come up with these figures in an annual study, are as astonished as the rest of us. It's not that shares did badly, it's just staggering to see gilts doing so well.

The Barclays Capital study puts a considerable part of the change down to a large working population saving more cash for retirement than ever before. Gilts are the ultimate safe investment. But as more of us save even more cash for retirement, and interest rates drop even further, the yields on offer will go down. The returns from both shares and gilts will fall and the gap between the relative returns is likely to narrow.

All this should set you thinking about the make-up of your retirement portfolio (and see page 18 for more advice on how you may be running your own retirement investments if the Government's new retirement savings plans get the go-ahead).

There's no reason to stampede out of shares, but there may be a long- term argument for switching more money into bonds and gilts. And the extra depressing part is we'll all have to save more than ever if we want a decent life in retirement.

The bright hope in all this is corporate bonds. Bond funds are the investment of the moment, and rightly so. Barclays' study shows that corporate bonds returned 18.8 per cent in 1998.

The bank concludes that there is plenty of scope for UK companies to raise more cash through corporate bond issues, and it believes bonds are undervalued compared with shares and gilts.

Corporate bonds are riskier than UK government bonds but, with interest rates at 5.5 per cent and still dropping, it's becoming increasingly hard to find decent returns without an element of risk.

From April, the tax breaks on shares held in PEPs become less attractive than those on bonds. So if you are still looking for a home for your last PEP, a corporate bond fund is worth investigating.