April 25, 2024
Stock Market

Why we ALL need a British Isa




It is time for a refresh. A major refresh that would breathe new life and fire into our tax-friendly investment portfolios – while giving a big boost to UK businesses up and down the country.

A win-win, a must-must. A flag-waver for Great Britain post-Brexit, a country that collectively we do down more than we big up – a result, I think, of our lack of brashness (the Americans have nicked all of that) and innate inclination towards conservatism.

No, I’m not talking about a ‘refresh’ of government, although I would understand if some of you thought I was thinking along those lines (Labour hasn’t won the forthcoming General Election quite yet).

I’m referring to the urgent need to reinvigorate the investment habit in this country, undermined by years of government and regulatory meddling. 

An objective that can be met by rebooting the tax-friendly Individual Savings Account – and turning it to the advantage of our great nation while keeping its tax-free status (on both capital gains and income) 100 per cent intact.

Ladies and gentlemen, its time has come – bring on the patriotic Great British Isa and let’s get investing in OUR country. 

An extra annual Isa allowance – £5,000 on top of the existing £20,000 – that can only be used to invest in UK-listed companies. 

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An investment vehicle which I am sure could put the ‘great’ back in Great Britain and help stimulate the economy by encouraging the likes of me and you to buy British (shares) rather than go overseas in search of investment opportunities.

That is, to hold equities in companies such as AstraZeneca, BAE Systems, BP, Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline, Rolls-Royce, and Unilever – the creme de la creme of UK plc. 

And then to raise an occasional glass of Johnnie Walker’s Black Label (Diageo-owned) and toast them as they rise in value or provide us with a healthy dividend.

Yes, the UK’s own version of the Magnificent Seven – maybe not as tech sexy and Artificial Intelligence-infused as the seven across the pond (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia and Tesla). 

But companies that are global leaders in their respective fields and deserve our investment backing. 

Its moment could come this Wednesday when Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt delivers the last Spring Budget of this Conservative Government. 

In the past few days, most of the Budget rumours emanating from the London offices of His Majesty’s Treasury on Horse Guards Road have taken on a cautionary note: ‘no’ to income tax cuts (boo); ‘no’ to a reduction in stamp duty on house purchases (boo); and a fat ‘no’ to a more benign inheritance tax regime (boo). 

If these rumours are factual – rather than a cunning Treasury wheeze to damp down our expectations of an end to austerity so that Mr Hunt can look saintly come Wednesday – it will mean few tidings of joy coming our way. 

Maybe, another one per cent cut in National Insurance and an extension of the fuel duty freeze.

And just maybe, an announcement confirming the launch of the Great British Isa. Let’s hope so. 

Certainly, Treasury officials seem keen on the idea as do swathes of business leaders, investment houses and former politicians such as Baroness Altmann. 

The former Pensions Minister believes a Great British Isa would boost British businesses, ignite UK financial markets and benefit both the economy and society. 

A big fly in the ointment could be Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who apparently is of the view that the Government should not be telling investors where they must be investing their hard-earned money.

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If true, this would be a great shame – and represent a betrayal of the foundation stones upon which Isas are built. 

Although Isas came into being nearly 25 years ago (April 1999), they were for all intents and purposes a remoulding of the Personal Equity Plan (Pep) that went before. 

Introduced in 1986 by then Chancellor Nigel Lawson, the objective of the Pep was simple: to encourage investment in the UK stock market by UK investors, not in overseas equity markets.

The Pep went on to play its part in the revolution of the ‘City’ in the 1980s – Big Bang – turning London into one of the world’s go-to financial centres, attracting overseas capital by the bucketload. 

Investing, fuelled by an ongoing programme of privatisations (for better and for worse), suddenly became de rigueur.

On Friday, Baroness Altmann told me: ‘It is so important to ensure any investment tax breaks are used to support Britain and not to bolster overseas companies and markets. 

‘The UK stock market has been devalued as our once strong investor base has eschewed domestic assets in favour of low-cost internationally invested funds that hold precious little in the UK.’

She added: ‘Backing Britain through Isas will help revive the UK stock market, bring about better investor returns and help boost the economy too. 

‘A win-win-win. If people want to invest overseas that’s fine, but why should they receive taxpayer subsidies. 

‘There should be encouragement to buy British as we have so many great companies that are languishing on low market ratings relative to the rest of the world – when they clearly shouldn’t be.’

Toast: Investors could raise a glass of Johnnie Walker if owner Diageo’s shares rise

Fine words which I trust Mr Hunt will take on board ahead of Wednesday’s Budget.

There are so many reasons why the Chancellor should launch the Great British Isa.

For a start, the Isa regime has been a longstanding success story, fuelling many people’s desire to invest for their retirement.

Although governments have fiddled with it over the years – for example, bringing out versions to help people buy their own homes or to use as quasi-pension funds – most people understand how it works. 

In simple terms, you can invest £20,000 in any one tax year and any gains (capital or income return) are tax-free. 

While not as attractive as pensions because contributions do not benefit from tax-relief, they are easier to grasp and are not submerged in the complicated rules that pensions are entwined in.

Latest data from His Majesty’s Revenue & Customs indicates that around £742 billion is held in Isas by adults, £460 billion of which is in equity-based plans.

A Great British Isa would build on this success.

It is also time that the Isa was made more attractive. The £20,000 annual allowance has been frozen since April 2017 and is ripe for an increase. The Great British Isa would do this, topping it up to £25,000.

But the biggest reason why we should have the British Isa is because it would provide a great fillip to the UK stock market – and boy does it need one.

As a result of a toxic mix of City complacency, crass City regulations dissuading many institutional investors (insurance companies and pension funds) from investing in UK equities, and widespread private investor disinterest, the UK stock market is going nowhere.

Indeed, it is leaking companies as they are either bought by private equity at rock-bottom prices – or decide to list elsewhere such as the United States to drum up greater investor interest in their shares.

The investment house Premier Miton says that the Great British Isa could raise more than £200 billion in five years for British businesses – and push up company share prices in response to investor demand.

Of course, not everyone is so gung-ho about the Great British Isa. Some claim it would add to the complexity of Isas while others say it would increase risks for investors. It has even been described in some quarters as a gimmick.

Although I’m respectful of their views, I think they are wrong. The Great British Isa is not the answer to all the ills of the UK stock market, but it would provide a boost to both investors and UK plc. 

And if countries such as France, Italy and Japan already have similar schemes to encourage investment in their homegrown companies, why shouldn’t we.

Win-win – or as Baroness Altmann would say: ‘Win-win-win.’

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