The share prices of VCTs have modestly recovered, but there's still big tax-free yields on offer.
Things may be looking up for private equity firms. Last week US giant Blackstone told investors it's looking into floating up to eight of its companies.
"At least for private equity, the worst is behind the industry," Blackstone's CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, was reported as saying.
I start this article about Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs) with this news because ultimately most of them also realise the value of their investments either through trade sales or through flotations, just like private equity companies.
Unquoted, illiquid investments such as non-public businesses were hit hard by the credit crunch; when investors felt unable to accurately value public companies, it's no surprise they took an even dimmer view of more opaque assets.
With equity markets depressed and financing for acquisitions hard to find, the opportunity for VCTs to realise investments was further curtailed by the credit crunch.
This climate -- together with perennial illiquidity and performance concerns -- had seen VCTs' discounts to Net Asset Value balloon, as we discussed in June.
The attraction was the potential to exploit the fear and uncertainty in the market, by buying VCTs on unusual discounts either in the hope of them narrowing, or for the generous -- often double digit -- tax-free yields.
The good news is VCT share prices have moved upwards, though not as far as the wider stock market.
The table below ranks generalist VCT funds by their total return over the past five years. Total return is defined as Net Asset Value (NAV) plus cumulative dividends paid.
We published a similar table in June; this time I've added two columns to the right, showing the share price then and its subsequent gain or loss to 16th October 2009.
|VCT||Total returns over 5 years (p)||Share price (p)||Latest published NAV (p)||Date of latest|
|Discount to NAV||Latest annual divi (p)||Tax-free yield||Share price at 4th Jun||Share price change to 16th Oct|
|Northern Venture Trust||146.50||63.0||74.5||30-Jun-09||-15.4%||7.50||11.9%||54.0||16.7%|
|Proven Growth & Income||145.50||41.5||43.6||31-Aug -09||-4.8%||45.50||109.6%||51.0||-18.6%|
|Baronsmead VCT 3||131.90||90.0||100.4||31-Aug-09||-10.4%||7.50||8.3%||91.5||-1.6%|
|Baronsmead VCT 2||122.90||79.3||88.5||31-Aug-09||-10.4%||7.00||8.8%||78.5||1.0%|
|Albion Development VCT||122.80||60.0||76.8||30-Sep-09||-21.9%||12.00||20.0%||67.5||-11.1%|
|Baronsmead VCT 4||121.30||82.0||91.3||31-Aug-09||-10.2%||7.00||8.5%||84.3||-2.7%|
|Albion Tech & Gen VCT||120.70||70.0||86.9||30-Jun-09||-19.4%||8.00||11.4%||67.0||4.5%|
|Northern 3 VCT||118.40||57.5||86.4||30-Jun-09||-33.4%||4.00||7.0%||47.5||21.1%|
|Northern 2 VCT||108.90||57.0||77.1||31-Jul-09||-26.1%||5.50||9.6%||44.0||29.5%|
|Matrix Income & Growth 4||104.60||81.0||105.1||31-Jul-09||-22.9%||2.25||2.8%||82.0||-1.2%|
|Aberdeen Growth Opp I||98.60||38.0||76.9||31-May-09||-50.6%||2.70||7.1%||35.0||8.6%|
|Matrix Income & Growth 2||96.80||52.0||70.2||31-Jul-09||-25.9%||0.00||0.0%||48.3||7.7%|
|Albion I & G VCT||76.50||49.5||65.7||30-Jun-09||-24.7%||3.50||7.1%||49.0||1.0%|
Source: NVM/AIC stats as of 4th June / 16 October 2009; Author's calculations
The VCTs' share price performance are a bit of a mixed bag, but in overall terms they are up an average of 6.3% since we last looked at them.
For what it's worth, the FTSE 100 rose from 4,386 to 5,190 over the same period, for a gain of 18.3%.
Some VCT managers claim the downturn has thrown up better opportunities for venture capital firms to invest in smaller businesses who've been shunned by conventional lenders. This could bode well for NAV growth in future years.
To get an idea of the potential of the very best VC investments, consider the sale last month of medical diagnostics specialist DxS to Qiagen by an investment syndicate led by NVM Private Equity, the firm behind the Northern-branded VCTs.
At $130 million -- including $75 million in cash -- it was a record exit for NVM, who invested £1.25 million when DxS was founded in 2001, and then with other investors put in more money as DxS grew.
The initial $75 million cash payment alone represents around eight times NVM's total investment of £3 million -- an internal rate of return of 34%.
Looking across the table suggests several VCTs from the big name companies that might still be worth looking at if you're an investor who particularly needs tax-free income and can afford to buy and hold illiquid assets.
This table should only be considered a first port of call in your research, however: The long-term performance of VCTs is decidedly varied, total expenses are a very high 3-4% a year, and some of the VCTs' market capitalisations are worryingly small.
Remember too that the dividends can be lumpy -- Proven Growth & Income's 109% historic yield includes a 31p dividend that's not going to be repeated anytime soon!
More from Owain Bennallack:
Disclosure: Owain has investments in a variety of VCTs, including some of those mentioned above.