Advisers and their clients aren’t always getting the whole picture when it comes to BR. Hardman & Co have identified several key issues that should be taken into account before any final decisions are made.
Looking from a high level, non-AIM products sound straightforward. Yet, the area is fraught with difficulties. Often an adviser is only writing a small amount of estate planning business each year, and so doesn’t have time to probe deeply into the products. Generally, clients only go through this process once and are usually in no position to become experts themselves.
All too often advisers can equate low annual target returns with low risk. This is often a fallacy, and most advisers that we talk to are unaware of the real risks involved.
In support of advisers, some of the providers have done an excellent job in providing education for advisers and clients. Octopus, in particular, even gets credit from several of its competitors for growing the market, which has led to it becoming by far the largest provider in this space.
However, this support cannot be considered unbiased and many of the advisers that we have spoken with feel the existing research providers are not filling the gap. Hardman & Co are now providing advisers with a more informed opinion.
We have identified many issues, some small, some very significant, that advisers and clients need to consider in their decision making. Some of the key ones are:
- Strategy analysis: What are the businesses actually doing and what risks are they taking?
- Lack of transparency: Six managers publish only abbreviated accounts for their products. This is a choice, and it makes it difficult for external analysts to confirm what is going on in a business.
- Poor disclosure: Fees are the most noticeable area but there are others. Key Information Documents (KIDS have helped but many products are exempt. In many cases, indirect fees are still obscure and other costs can be substantial. For example, in the past three years, listed renewable energy funds have outperformed comparable BR products by several percentage points a year. A large part of this gap is a relative cost disadvantage.
- Weak governance: Only three managers have products with a board in which the majority of directors are independent of the product manager. Six companies have products with no non-executive directors.
Many of these are not standalone issues. While hardly any products suffered from every issue, there were very few products for which we did not have any concerns. Governance, in particular, has been largely ignored to date but is likely to come more to the fore.
Oxford Capital Estate Planning Service, for example, had only one independent director, didn’t publish income statements (only balance sheets) and used a valuation process that was outside the audit. While we cannot directly link its issues to these, greater external scrutiny may have made the problems less likely.
One observation that we might make is that, of the 19 product providers in our survey, we are only aware of two that have significant numbers of investors that have done so purely for investment reasons. That these products are not attractive to investors who are not looking for BR is telling, although we note that some providers are attracting investments into similar strategies in other products.
Investments into non-AIM BR products means investing directly into one or more unquoted companies or limited partnerships. Many of these have ‘Trading’ in the name, as if to emphasise that they are real businesses. From an analysis perspective, this naturally suggests that the primary information to be used is the company accounts.
The benefit of this approach is that it should allow analysts to look at what the products are really doing, rather than relying on what the glossy brochures say. There are some challenges, which we alluded to above.
The first is that most activities take place in subsidiaries. These can be numerous and, on occasions, four or five layers deep. The consolidation of these subsidiaries is inconsistent across the sector, with many using net figures that do not reflect the underlying activity. Others fund through loans, which may or may not pay interest to parent companies at probably undisclosed rates. At least one manager uses a transaction price of a NAV based on a different consolidation basis to that used in the published accounts.
The second challenge is the use of abbreviated accounts. As we mentioned before, a third of managers use these throughout the operations. Even where full accounts are given for the investee companies, subsidiaries often have abbreviated accounts. This includes some larger managers, as well as smaller ones.
The final challenge is a lack of timeliness. The only restriction on production of accounts is the deadline that Companies House imposes, which is nine months after the financial year-end. We regard this as a relatively minor inconvenience, although we know there is at least one manager that has significantly restructured its product since the latest accounts and, as yet, we have no meaningful information on how the companies are structured now.
In response to these issues Hardman & Co provides a coherent intellectual framework for analysing and comparing BR companies. This can be summarised in the waterfall figure below.
Many products are producing a low net return; most target something around 3%-5%. However, the gross return required on the underlying assets to achieve that is usually substantially higher. Given that risk is the flip side of return, the starting point for assessing relative risk is this gross return.
That is not to say the underlying assets are ignored: both cross-strategy and in-strategy diversification are considered, as well as the managers’ processes for managing the underlying assets. The latter allows Hardman & Co to use its vast experience to make proper comparisons of what managers are doing and how effectively they are managing risk. It offers an invaluable service for advisers that are serious about the estate planning market.