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LICs slower, rougher ride - Eureka Report Article

February 4, 2008
LICs' slower, rougher ride
By Scott Francis

PORTFOLIO POINT: Many listed investment companies trailed the market average in 2007, and did not reward investors for increased volatility.

If I ever doubted the esteemed position listed investment companies (LICs) hold among Australian share investors, the reaction the last time I dared to question them taught me a lesson.

That last article (See Why L-I-Cs can be D-U-Ds) showed that many listed investment companies had produced a return for investors below the market average return. Subscribers were clearly disappointed to hear this news and many wrote questioning the figures: Unfortunately, it was not a once-off outcome. I've been waiting for the next reporting period to see if things had improved. They haven't. Once again, the returns in the six months to December 31 do not measure up to the returns of the average market.

This article also poses a key question that any investor in LICs such as AFIC or Argo or Milton must answer: With listed investment companies able to trade at a discount or premium to the value of their assets, does this create potentially unrewarded volatility for investors?

LICs are companies that are listed on the Australian sharemarket, and the business of the company is to manage an investment portfolio. In this case we focus on those LICs that manage portfolios of Australian shares.

First, to the methodology in putting together the data.

The data about LIC size and one and five-year returns is drawn from the ASX website. Returns take into account both growth in value and the dividends paid, and assume that dividends are re-invested.

The returns are 'benchmarked' against the All Ordinaries Accumulation index, which also includes growth in value and the dividends paid from investments. The data for the All Ordinaries Accumulation index is sourced from the ASX website.

I have included all the listed investment companies that are categorised under 'Australian Shares' that have at least a five-year investment performance, except for the following three exclusions:
  • Ironbark Capital was excluded because it invested in a combination of Australian shares and fixed interest investments, and it was not fair to compare it against the return from just Australian shares. (As you would expect, its return was less than the sharemarket return as it also invests in bonds. Including it would unfairly decrease the apparent returns from LICs.)
  • New Privateer was excluded because it issued a product disclosure statement early this year that suggested its activities are very different from a large-company LIC. Its one-year return was an unhealthy negative 31.69%, and the inclusion of its results would have negatively skewed the returns.
  • Mirrabooka Investments, an offshoot of Goldman Sachs JB Were, was excluded because it invested in small and medium-sized companies, and its return should be examined against a small/medium company index, not a large-company index.

The key question in putting together the performance data is: Should we use the returns that investors receive (the change in share price plus dividends), or the change in the value of the underlying investment portfolio? For example, during calendar 2007, investors in AFIC received a total return (increase in share price plus dividends) of 23.65%. In its most recent report the portfolio performance of AFIC over the same period (calendar 2007) is reported to be 16.5%. (These figures can be reversed as well - with the portfolio performance being greater than the change in share price plus dividends).

I have used the return that investors receive: the change in share price plus dividends. My thinking on this is that this is the return that investor can spend. If, as an extreme example, the underlying portfolio returned 50% while investors received a return through share price growth and dividends of 25%, it is the 25% return that investors actually benefit from.

The results

The following table summarises the results (and although these results disappoint in relative terms, I do not deny that most investors in most instances would appreciate return of more than 10%!). The orange shading marks those listed investment companies that have failed to beat the average market return over each period. If some LICs cannot even match the All Ordinaries Accumulation index then the investor has to wonder why they would bother with them when they could buy an index fund that is guaranteed to mirror the Accumulation index.

nHow the listed investment companies performed
Returns to end of December, 2007
Size ($m)
1 yr return
5 yr avg pa
All Ordinaries Accumulation Index
Aberdeen (ALR)
Amcil (AMH)
ARGO Invest. (ARG)
Australian Foundation (AFI)
Aust. United Investments (AUI)
Carlton Investments (CIN)
Choiseul Investments (CHO)
Diversified United Investments (DUI)
Djerriwarrh Investments (DJW)
Huntley Investment Company (HIC)
Hyperion Flagship Investments(HIP)
Milton Corporation (MLT)
Sylvastate (SYL)
WAM Capital (WAM)
Whitefield (WHF)
Average Out/Underperformance
Size Weighted Out/Underperformance

On average, LICs that invest in large-company Australian shares underperformed the All Ordinaries Accumulation index by 6.59% during calendar 2007, and by 2.36% a year over the five years to the end of 2007.

When adjusted to weight returns by size, the underperformance was 3.65% over the 12 month period and 2.67% a year for the five-year period.

Premiums and discounts

In the 12 months to June 30, 2007, Carlton and Choiseul investments had returned just over 20% and 16% respectively. They were about 3% and 7% below the average market return for this period.

Six months later the return investors received over the past 12 months has reduced to just under 4% and 5% respectively - more that 13% below the average market return for the period.

The question is: What has happened to these relatively large, relatively well-established LICs? The answer lies in the ability of LICs to trade at a premium or discount to their "net tangible assets", of the underlying value of their portfolios.

LICs report the value of their portfolios each month. These portfolios make up their "net tangible asset" backing and are reported as the value per share of the underlying portfolio. For example, at December 31, 2007 Australian Foundation Investments (AFI) had a net tangible asset per share of $5.96. After adjusting for tax if the portfolio was sold, the net tangible assets per share were $4.85. At the time AFI was last traded at $6.14. Therefore AFI is trading at a premium to the value of its underlying portfolio. Carlton Investments (CIN) was trading at $20.30, while the after tax net tangible assets per share were $21.22, meaning CIN was trading at a discount to the value of its underlying portfolio.

Getting back to the poor performance of Carlton and Choiseul. At the start of 2007 Carlton was trading at a 4.96% premium to the after-tax value of its assets. By the end of the year it was trading at a 4.43% discount. Choiseul started the year at a 25.25% premium but by the end of the year the premium had eased to 17.84%.

The poor returns received by investors in Carlton and Choiseul were far more a function of the fact that they started the year at a premium to the value of their portfolios and that this premium fell during the year. This cost investors more than 9% over the year in the case of Carlton, and more than 7.5% in the case of Choiseul. The poor returns that investors received were not a function of poor performance of the underlying investment portfolio.

Of course, the opposite can happen as well. If the premium increases over a period then an investor will receive a return better than the return of the underlying investment portfolio.

My question is this: If we assume that over time LICs will change the extent to which they trade at a discount or premium to the value of their assets, are investors rewarded for this potential extra volatility in their investments?

Compare LICs to a simple managed fund. Every day a price is set for the managed fund. The price exactly reflects the assets of the fund so the fund never trades at a discount or premium to the value of its assets.

I don't have an answer to the question, but there certainly seems to be potential risk in a LIC trading at a reducing value to its assets, as demonstrated by Carlton and Choiseul.


LICs have a reputation as the "thinking person's listed investment" in the Australian landscape. Their returns over both one and five years to December 31, 2007, have trailed the market average by some margin. Looking at the poor performance of Carlton and Choiseul over the past 12 months another question has to be asked: Are investors in LICs rewarded for the extra risk that they take on as LICs move between trading at a discount or premium to the value of their assets?