Investment trusts, or investment companies as they are also known, are ironically well-known for being rather overlooked by your average saver and financial adviser.

Part of the problem comes down to the sector being seen as cumbersome and old-fashioned, even opaque, a view which is only worsened by the widespread lack of understanding about their structure and function, but there are signs that times may be changing.

In the five years since the investment management world was levelled by the Retail Distribution Review (RDR) the status quo has started to shift.  Investment trusts are increasingly judged on par with the open-ended sector and sales of investment companies via adviser platforms have increased five-fold since 2013.

Sales of investment trusts to advisers hit an all time high in 2017 according to the AIC, hinting a sea-change in attitudes towards the sector is well and truly underway.

It helps that retail and adviser platforms now offer a range of investment trusts alongside OEICs (open-ended investment companies) but the sector still faces a host of challenges, not least a basic understanding of the key differences between the closed-ended and open-ended structure.

Despite the apparent surge in interest and sales, research by financial services consultancy the lang cat found 95% of assets on advised platforms are still held in open-ended funds or cash five years after RDR, so there is a clear need to push for more education on the ins and outs of investment trusts.

The need for more education for the end investor is clear, particularly given the  evidence from Cass Business School that investment trusts outperformed their comparable unit trust counterparts by an average of 0.8% between 2000 and 2016. Do savers really know what they might be missing out on?  

As well as the structural benefits, you can add longevity, liquidity and the generally lower cost of investment trusts to the long list of positives offered up by investment trusts. Now it is just a case of getting the message out there.

For income investors, the ability of an investment trust to hold back 15% of the income it earnt in one year as a reserve to smooth out dividend payments in tougher times is a clear winner, as is the ability to borrow to invest and maximise returns when times are good.

They offer more liquidity and stability for investors wanting to access assets at the more alternative end of the spectrum, too. Their structure means they are less vulnerable to the vagaries of the market, saving many property investment trusts from the trauma which followed the Brexit referendum in June 2016 when some open-ended property funds suspended trading after being unable to meet a flurry of redemptions as the housing market slid.

150 years of history

While they might be likened to the grandfathers of modern investment, with the oldest investment trust celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the future of investment trusts looks bright with the ‘golden oldies’ joined by trusts focusing on more up-and-coming areas. Specialist sectors such as property and infrastructure, as well as debt, accounted for 90% of the assets raised through trust IPOs in 2017 and the growing world of Venture Capital Trusts is yet another example of the growing number of opportunities emerging.

Rather than the curmudgeonly alternative to the open-ended fund world, there is a lot more to the world of investment trusts and many more exciting opportunities emerging that investors can take advantage of and it appears advisers and private investors may be latching on to the idea at last. 

With time, the sector should catch up with its more mainstream rivals - it is just important the messaging is there to help investors and advisers keep up with the changes.

Louise Hill & Sarah Gibbons-Cook