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How investment companies work

Investment companies share some common features with other collective investment funds such as unit trusts, but they have several special features that make them unique.

This section explains the features and why they might be important to you.

Closed-ended structure

Investment companies are known as closed-ended, rather than unit trusts which are open-ended.

In an open-ended fund, the fund is constantly expanding and contracting as investors move their money in and out of the fund.

This means that managers have to plan and manage the fund to be able to meet the demands for investors who may want their money back at any time.  Open-ended funds are often restricted to investing in liquid assets, in other words investments that can be sold at short notice.

 

Investment companies, however, have no such issues, as they have a fixed number of shares in issue at any one time, which are traded backwards and forwards on the stock market, which has no impact on the portfolio.

In addition to allowing managers to take a longer-term view, this enables investment companies to invest in less liquid assets classes such as private equity, venture capital and commercial property, with the potential to deliver better long-term returns or higher levels of income.

 

 

Listed on a stock exchange

Shares of investment companies are traded on a stock exchange, just like the shares of ordinary companies. They can be listed on one of several stock exchanges, for example:

  • the Official List of the London Stock Exchange (LSE)
  • the Channel Island Stock Exchange
  • the LSE Alternative Investment Market (AIM)

In the UK, investment companies are most often listed on the LSE's Main Market.

Boards of directors

Investment companies have independent boards of directors. The directors’ duty is to look after your interests as an investor, by ensuring the company is as successful as possible.

The directors meet several times a year and monitor the company’s performance. They answer to the shareholders, which means you have some say in how the company is run.

Shareholder democracy

When you buy a share in an investment company you become a shareholder. Shareholders in investment companies have the same rights as other shareholders in other companies.

Shareholders can:

  • vote on issues at the company's annual general meeting (AGM)
  • table motions to be discussed
  • call for extraordinary general meetings (EGMs)
  • vote in a new board of directors if they are not happy with the current one

In other collective investments, you don’t have as much of a say in how the fund is run.

Gearing

Investment companies, being companies, can borrow money to make additional investments. This is called 'gearing'. It lets the company take advantage of a long-term plan or a particularly attractive stock without having to sell existing investments.

The idea is that the additional investment makes enough money to pay off the loan and make a profit on top of that. If it works, the more the company borrows, the more profit it makes. If the investment fails, the more the company borrows, the more it loses.

Investment companies can usually borrow at lower rates of interest than you’d get as an individual. They also have flexible ways to borrow – for example they might get an ordinary bank loan, or issue preference shares.

Not all investment companies use gearing. Many of those that do use modest levels. It’s a decision taken by the fund manager and the board of directors. The gearing policy of the company may change from time to time. It’s regularly reviewed by the board and manager.

Other kinds of collective investments can’t use gearing to the same extent as investment companies.

Find out more about the risks of gearing

Different share classes

Investment companies which issue only one class of ordinary share are commonly known as 'conventional' investment companies. The shares usually give shareholders a right to dividends and the opportunity to increase the capital value of their investment.

Some investment companies, called ‘split capital investment companies’ (splits) issue more than one class of share. These are designed to suit different types of investor and different attitudes to risk. Some split shares aim to pay high levels of dividends for investors who want an income. Others aim to pay out only a capital amount at the end of the company’s life.

Find out more about split capital investment companies

Specialisation in particular sectors

Investment companies can invest in a much wider range of investments than other types of fund.  In fact, they can invest in almost anything.  The investment company will set out its particular approach in its investment policy.

Investment companies can specialise in things like:

  • a particular region or type of company
  • mainstream global companies
  • companies from different parts of the world
  • particular business sectors

There are various specialist investment companies including:

Some investment companies are what are called a 'fund of funds' – they only invest in other investment companies, which means they take advantage of another layer of investing expertise (the fund managers in those investment companies). This can give good results, but the disadvantage is that you may be exposed to additional layers of operating costs and gearing.

The different investment companies suit different investment purposes. For example, you might put some core money in a large globally invested company, and add spice by investing a little extra with a smaller specialist company.

Management

Each company has a fund manager who makes the day to day decisions about what stocks and other investments to buy and sell.

Most investment companies are managed by an external management group which may manage a number of companies. The board of directors select the fund manager (or managers).

Companies that have no management group involvement are called 'self-managed'. This means the board of directors selects and employs a salaried fund manager (or managers) directly.