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Investors continue to shun UK equity funds

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Funds investing in UK businesses face an uphill battle to regain popularity among retail investors in their home market after record outflows last year, despite some early optimism for London markets in 2022.

Net sales of mutual funds investing in British companies to retail buyers swung sharply into negative territory following the UK’s vote to leave the EU. These outflows amount to £21bn in lost cash for UK equity funds since 2016, according to data from the Investment Association.

There was no relief from the selling in 2021, despite the formal resolution of the Brexit process. Net outflows from UK equity funds deepened to £4.4bn in the year to November 2021, which would mark the worst annual performance since at least 2018.

“Investors wanted clarity on Brexit, which they got, but they still want to assess the effects,” said Alex Funk, chief investment officer at Schroder Investment Solutions.

Funk added that the impact of leaving the EU had been hard for investors to gauge “because Covid has masked a lot of the data”. 

The lacklustre figures for UK stock vehicles come during a booming year for retail fund sales more broadly across the investment industry, as savers deployed cash that they stashed away during Covid-19 lockdowns and tried to stay ahead of surging inflation.

Overall, total net fund sales to retail investors reached £41bn by the end of November, already beating the last three years’ full-year tallies. Global funds have been the biggest beneficiary of any geographic category, drawing in £12bn. 

“Global investing has taken off because of the rise of [environmental, social and corporate governance], impact and thematics,” said Funk, referring to investment styles.

The global sector will also have benefited from the appeal of US tech companies, he said. “A lot of the retail space will be momentum traders who keep buying more of the winners,” Funk said.

While some other regions also suffered from a broader shift in preferences, the losses for the UK this year dwarfed other geographic sectors. British stocks funds are also the only region to record outflows every year since 2016.

Richard Flax, chief investment officer at digital wealth manager Moneyfarm, said UK stocks’ performance has also been uninspiring. “The FTSE 100 has gone nowhere,” he said, adding that the flagship UK index is tilted towards “value” style stocks that have been out of favour relative to growth-oriented companies.

The early days of 2022 have provided some indications of a shift in these preferences. High-growth tech stocks tumbled last week while investors turned towards long-shunned value companies — such as banks, oil majors, big industrial groups.

Column chart of Net selling surpasses previous years in 11 months of 2021 showing British retail investors dump UK equity funds

UK stockpickers have also fought back against the bleak assessment of their home market. Nick Train, a fund manager and co-founder of Lindsell Train, said: “I see globally significant UK businesses, at least as good if not better than their global peers, but valued in many cases at a meaningful discount.

“There is more excellence in this apparently moribund UK stock market than people give it credit for,” he said at an event in December.

One-third of British retail investors said the UK presented the best investment opportunities for 2022, according to research by Barclays Smart Investor, making it the most popular region. However, in the same survey, the impact of Brexit remained one of investors’ top concerns about the year ahead.

UK funds have a long way to go to recover their lost ground. Selling of UK funds continued in December, according to the most recent report by Calastone, which tracks both retail and institutional fund flows. UK-focused equity funds lost £326m in the seventh consecutive month of net selling, it said.

“There’s no respite for unloved UK equities,” said Edward Glyn, Calastone head of global markets.

Glyn said part of the year’s outflows reflect “a healthy long-term trend of rebalancing portfolios away from a structural overweight in domestic stocks”. 

“But this rebalancing is normally achieved by simply putting new cash elsewhere rather than outright selling,” he said.

Glyn said the current selling “can only be explained by a loss of confidence in the UK’s prospects” given the “damage being done by the pandemic and Brexit”.

“Outflows have slowed a little, but we do not expect to see UK-focused flows shoot to the top of the rankings in the near future,” he said.



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