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Why LICs are closing and more should follow

The fundamental strength of Listed Investment Companies (LICs) and Trusts (LITs) is also their fundamental weakness. The strength of the structure is the committed capital which means portfolio managers are not forced to sell assets to meet redemptions. The weakness is that without the manager providing liquidity, it must come from the market. If there is insufficient buying demand for the selling supply, the price falls to meet investors prepared to buy at a discount to the value of the underlying Net Tangible Assets (NTA) or Net Asset Value (NAV). LICs are companies that issue shares whereas LITs are trusts that issue units, but this article will mainly use 'LICs' for both.

LICs are called ‘closed-end’ because there is a fixed number of shares on issue, as opposed to ‘open-end’ such as Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and unlisted managed funds, where managers create or retire units in the fund according to demand. Open-end funds can absorb shocks through the issuing and redeeming of units and trade around the value of their NTAs.

Kicking the can down the road

Managers have developed techniques to compensate for inadequate liquidity in their LICs, including:

  • Buying back shares at a discount
  • Increasing marketing efforts to improve buyer demand
  • Committing to regular payment of dividends

Share buybacks are common but often fail, reduce the size of the company and increase the percentage cost of fixed expenses. Buybacks do not create new buyers but liquidity for sellers and they tend to simply kick the discount can down the road. 

In frustration at the poor investor experience, and embarrassment that buyer support is insufficient, managers are giving up, moving their LIC money into another structure which allows investors to redeem close to NTA.

LICs struggling with large discounts

According to the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), there were 89 LICs with a market capitalisation of $49.4 billion as at August 2023. Rival exchange Cboe offers 20 listed managed funds. The number on the ASX is down from a peak of 115 in 2019, a reduction of 26 LICs and LITs in four years. 


Source: ASX Investment Products Summary, August 2023. Black line is number.

According to Bell Potter, as shown below, LICs are close to their widest discounts to NTA in history, with smaller LICs (less than $100 million) at around 25%. Even the large LICs which have traditionally traded around NTA due to decades of investor support and large shareholder bases are currently at discounts.

The table below identifies the discounts for many of the leading LICs. Two notable exceptions are Plato (ASX:PL8) and three of the Wilson funds (ASX:WAX, WAM and WMI), with the premium driven by a strong reputation for delivering income which encourages buyers to focus on the dividends rather than the premium, plus an ongoing commitment to marketing.

It’s a strange investment in Plato at a current premium of about 24% when the unlisted managed fund run with the same strategy is available at NTA and accessed easily via the ASX online mFund service.


Source: Bell Potter LIC Report, 1 September 2023

However, marketing is not a panacea for all funds, as Wilson also has as many funds trading at large discounts, such as WAM Active (ASX:WAA) -13%, WAM Strategic (ASX:WAR) -15% and WAM Global (ASX:WGB) -14%. It is ironic that WAR was launched to buy LICs and LITs at a discount and it suffers the same fate as its targets. In fact, Geoff Wilson says one of the joys of LICs is buying $1 of assets for 80 cents, and with WAR, they can be bought for 15% less, or 68 cents (disclosure, the author owns WAR in his SMSF for this very reason). But it's not much comfort for the investor who bought the initial offer at $1.

Why did Partners Group Global Income delist last month?

On 2 August 2023, unitholders voted to remove Partners Group Global Income Fund (ASX:PGG) from its listing on the ASX. This is not a market minnow shrinking away from its listing because its small size cannot cover listing costs. The fund has a market capitalisation of $465 million and is managed by a leading global fund manager with over $200 billion in assets under management globally (and another declaration, the author owns units in this fund).

Why did its investors who bought into the listed structure, which in theory offers on-market liquidity, vote to delist?

Here are some of the reasons given by Partners Group:

  1. The lack of liquidity on the ASX has resulted in PGG trading at a discount to its NTA about 90% of the time, with a discount more than 5% for about 40% of the time. Units have traded in the range of 18% discount to 3% premium, with an average discount of 15% in the last six months.
  2. Unitholders continue to give negative feedback about the discount and request Partners Group to address it.
  3. Alternatives such as share buy-backs would only increase the unit price in the short-term with no lasting impact.
  4. The proposed change to an open-ended unit trust gives an ability for investors to realise an investment at NTA and a better ability for Partners Group to increase the fund’s size.

Partners Group advised it will initially limit the liquidity in the new fund, which will give it time to arrange an orderly sale of its investments if needed:

“Currently the Fund is traded on the ASX with liquidity provided from the matching of buyers and sellers on price and volume on market. If the Fund is transitioned to an open-ended unit trust, it is anticipated that net withdrawals of Units in the Fund will be limited per month to 5% of NAV at the end of the preceding month (unless the Responsible Entity waives such restriction). This can potentially restrict Unitholders being able to withdraw their Units in the Fund for a significant period.”

Partners Group also said the “Regulatory changes to the way that LITs are distributed to investors” have compromised the merit of the LIT structure. Specifically, this is the ability to pay brokers and advisers a stamping fee to sell additional paper to their clients. This was always a highly-dubious distribution method, with sellers incentivised to put clients into new transactions based on the fee rather than the merit of the transaction. As firm evidence that it was the stamping fee driving the market, not genuine demand, the new issue market for LICs and LITs has almost disappeared without these payments.

Reasons for other delistings

Other managers have removed their LICs and LITs, and here are five examples and their reasons:

1. Simon Shields of Monash Investors closed his LIC (ASX:MA1) in 2021 in favour of an exchange-traded managed fund (ETMF) (ASX:MAAT). He told the AFR:

“LICs have been trading at a discount for a long time in Australia and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change. We’ve come from first tier fund managers and stockbrokers. We just felt it was besmirching us to be managing a LIC that was trading at a discount and we weren’t prepared to have this situation continue.”

To Shields’ credit, he knew some large activist managers had bought the LIC at a discount and at least one-third of the fund would be redeemed. Unfortunately, redemptions have continued and the size of the fund is now $18 million from $64 million at the time of the restructure. Said Shields:

“ETMFs are a better solution for having a listed investment product. Any reputable fund manager with their LIC at a discount has got to be worried that that’s an unfair situation and reflects poorly on them as fund managers.”

2. One of the country's most prominent investors, Ellerston’s Ashok Jacob, previously manager of Packer family money, delisted his global equity LIC (ASX:EGI) in 2019, saying in a letter to shareholders:

"It's important to note that the discount, while unacceptable, is an industry-wide phenomena, with the listed global equity sector trading at an average discount of over 17% as at 30 September 2019, and is often a reflection of market sentiment volatility and other events which can reduce investor demand."

3. In 2021, Antipodes converted its LIC (ASX:APL) to its 'Quoted Managed Fund' (ASX:AGX1) after many previous attempts to close the discount. It advised:

"APL’s Board has over the past two plus years been actively considering a range of options to address the unacceptable position of the APL share price trading at a discount to its NTA. Initiatives undertaken have included an accelerated on-market buy-back program, enhanced shareholder communication and the Conditional Tender Offer (CTO) approved by shareholders in November 2020. Nevertheless, the discount has persisted."

4. Also in 2021, the Australian Leaders Fund (ASX:ALF) delisted after agitation from shareholders, and investors were converted into the unlisted Watermark Absolute Return Fund. In this case, the delisting was the prevent a takeover and a loss of funds for the manager.

The most common reason funds delist is either forced or voluntary merger or takeover. Wilson has absorbed Premium Investors, Wealth Defender, Century Australia, PM Capital Asia and Absolute Equity into WAM Leaders. The Templeton Global Growth Fund (ASX:TGG) was merged into Wilson's global LIC (ASX:WGB).

5. While in some cases the takeover has been unwelcome, such as the public fight with PM Capital, in other cases, such as Absolute Equity (ASX:AEG), the Board wanted to delist to remove the discount which was not viewed favourably by AEG’s portfolio manager, Sam Shepherd. He preferred to focus on his unlisted business. The Board entered a consultation process in February 2022 where:

“the AEG Board and its advisors evaluated a range of alternatives with a view to maximise value for all AEG shareholders.”

Alignment of interests

The managers at Monash, Absolute Equity, Ellerston, Antipodes and Partners Group should be applauded for elevating the rights of their investors. They all decided the discount was permanent and not a good reflection on their brand nor beneficial for clients. Investors who supported an IPO at a $1 take no comfort in seeing the price at 80 cents, even if new investors receive a low entry price.

Why are other managers not acting in the best interests of investors? Mostly, they want to retain the funds and fees of a closed-end vehicle. The heavy redemption experience at Magellan and Platinum in recent years shows how money can leak out of open-ended funds. There is market speculation that Magellan may convert its global LIC (ASX:MGF) after options expire in March 2024. Magellan has form after converting its High Conviction Trust (ASX:MHH) to an ETF. More on this in another article.

One way to judge who else should convert is to evaluate the long-term discount history, as reported for example by Bell Potter and featured in the Firstlinks Education Centre. It shows the average Premium/Discount over various time periods out to five years, and the five-year range of highest premium to lowest discount. If a LIC or LIT has been at a high discount for five years, it is unlikely to recover enough support to push towards its NTA, especially facing such intense pressure from cheaper ETFs.

Another factor rarely discussed is that managers charge fees on the full NTA, not the market value. This can grosses up the percentage fee versus an unlisted fund. For example, if a fund has an NTA of $100 million and a fee of 1% pa, the manager collects $1 million a year. If the LIC is trading at a discount of 20%, $1 million on $80 million is 1.25% pa, and to rub salt into the wound, there may be a performance fee as well.

Here are some funds which have (based on the Bell Potter numbers for 1 September 2023):

  • A current large discount
  • A five-year large average discount
  • A range of high to low discounts over five years which are all negative

The boards and management of these LICs need to justify to their investors why they believe in a future turnaround in the discount despite little evidence for at least five years. There are many more in a similar position. It’s not that the managers have weak governance, little marketing or even poor reputations, but how are they balancing their own desire for fees against the ability of investors to realise full value?

A small manager such as NAOS or Sandon needs the funds to run their business. Some managers argue that the LIC or LIT structure suits less liquid assets which cannot be sold easily to meet redemptions. Sebastian Evans at NAOS told Morningstar that he needs the committed capital of a LIC structure:

“If we converted to an active ETF and needed to liquidate our holdings it wouldn’t work. We have a 30% holding in a business. I can’t sell that in a day or two."

But there are plenty of unlisted property funds which manage liquidity by limiting redemptions at NTA to a certain amount or time period.

Larger managers with far more in their unlisted funds should consider whether the hassle of listing a small part of their business is worth it. When I sat on the board of Peter Morgan's 452 Capital, the operations people spent as much time on the small LIC as the rest of the much larger unlisted fund business.

Where do LICs stand now?

The development of active ETFs or ETMFs is relatively recent, opening the way for LICs to convert to listed open-ended versions, as well as unlisted funds, to close the discount. Managers with large discounts face disgruntled investors, activist competitors and the rising demand for ETFs.

Although discounts are historically wide at the moment, many of the large, traditional LICs have a record of drifting in and out of discount, and these can present opportunities for investors. There is a role for the right managers with the right LICs but it's time for many other managers to move on.

Footnote

In a fascinating development for the King of LICs, Geoff Wilson has announced plans for an open-ended version of WAM Leaders, looking to raise $500 million to $1 billion. It will be his first move away from closed-end LICs since his initial fund about 25 years ago. 

Then on 12 October 2023, Forager (ASX:FOR) announced:

"The Manager considers that the LIT structure served this purpose well through several market cycles in the subsequent seven years. In the past four years, FOR’s units have been trading at a meaningful discount to the underlying NAV. FOR has implemented a number of initiatives in an effort to address this gap, including a semi-annual distribution policy and undertaking a regular buyback.

Whilst there have been some periods of improved trading since those actions commenced, it has not been sustained and FOR’s units have recently been trading at an average discount of more than 15% to NAV.

It is the Manager’s view that investor apathy towards closed-ended investment vehicles has become entrenched and that smaller, less liquid vehicles like FOR are unlikely to trade at NAV for the foreseeable future. The Manager’s current view is that the magnitude and sustained nature of the discount to NAV now outweighs the portfolio management benefits of remaining a closed-ended fund.

The Manager has considered a range of additional measures to further improve the traded market price of FOR units. The Manager currently considers that the solution which will be in the best interests of FOR unitholders is likely to be the orderly transition of FOR back to an open-ended fund."

 

Graham Hand is Editor-At-Large for Firstlinks. This article is general information and does not consider the circumstances of any investor. Graham holds some of the securities mentioned in this article and was on the Board of Absolute Equity Performance Fund until two years before its delisting.

 

31 Comments
Andre
September 30, 2023

The LIC closing are the small ones. Please analyses their fees, well above 1% fees with arguable high water mark performance fees not CPI adjusted. Assuming that the dividend return pre- tax is 6 %, trading below NTA must be expected. Also observe these LIC cash flow, the dividend income is not sufficient to pay the dividend paid and fees. These LIC rely on share placements or a net asset disposal to keep their cash flow even. This not the case for larger low cost fee LIC. These low fees LIC fees, rightly so trade at about their NTA value and rightly so. The point is that some small operators have come into the market with high fees and no captal investment in the LIC, not NTA discount, before the float, hence they are doomed.

Phil
September 27, 2023

I have never heard of an attached LIC tax deduction for a loss, I'll have to check that out. I'm not sure how how a Pty Ltd company can pass onto a shareholder a tax deduction.

Google says
September 28, 2023

See here:

https://www.ato.gov.au/Individuals/Capital-gains-tax/Shares-and-similar-investments/CGT-listed-investment-companies-concession/

Stuart
September 27, 2023

I can identify with some of the comments here - a LIC that I owned and was happy with appointed a new manager with a highly concentrated investment style. The directors also only met about each quarter and the price dropped as the conviction buys didnt come off and management costs didnt move. I was lucky to identify a small price spike and was lucky to get out for what I paid for them. They traded mainly below NTA too. My main thought was that if they wanted to do concentrated portfolios, then I can do that too and save on the management fees - they lost their mojo.

Phil
September 27, 2023

The lock in management contracts to related entities for up to 10 years without proper governance or right of challenge is also a major ' hidden' problem, they are literally locked in rivers of gold. The more successful the marketer, able to continue to raise capital, to pay 'yield', keeps the ball rolling and the founders wealthy on compounding fees over time.

Ian
September 25, 2023

For the older investor with a spouse that is not interested in the investment world, the large traditional LICs offer the spouse (upon the death of the investor spouse) a smoothed diversified franked income that does not require any immediate action and at a low cost (certainly much lower than that of a new and untested financial advisor).

Pete
September 25, 2023

Ian
ETFs like VAS also do what you have requested. In fact, VAS dividends are issued quarterly, not six monthly, and have a large Franking credit attached.
They seldom trade at a discount !
And yes, I also hold some of the mentioned LICs !

Bob
September 25, 2023

The PGG delisting process gave investors two alternatives - sell on market at a discount to NTA, or stay in the unlisted version and continue to receive good distributions, albeit it under restrictive liquidity constraints for a number of years. The second alternative is superficially attractive, but the paperwork required is quite onerous and will deter most investors from going down this path.

James Gruber
September 23, 2023

One of the more egregious examples of fees from an LIC is Sandon Capital Investments (SNC). It gets a 20% performance fee for outperforming the Benchmark Reference Rate, which I assume is the BBSW. Not the only red flag here - it also reports its performance in gross returns, never net returns. That's another pet peeve which others like WAM and affiliates also do.

Algynon
September 23, 2023

I'm also curious about the few LICs trading at a premium. I would have expected arbitrage to remove this for a well-advised investor. Depending on cost of conversion to an open-ended fund, gaining an immediate 24% increase in NAV would seem to be a riskless and substantial gain. Are these people speculating on the premium increasing? Are they operating through an adviser or influenced more by marketing than common sense? Or are they so confident in increasing investment returns that it will exceed the potential immediate capital gain? Or is it a tax issue? Or am I missing something?

Graham Hand
September 23, 2023

Hi Algynon. As the article says, there are only a few LICs trading at a premium, the two biggest premiums being WAX and PL8. If you are saying the investor should switch to an unlisted fund to gain 24%, I agree but at the moment, there is no unlisted version of WAX. However, there is for PL8 and it should be easy to switch.

Mic Smith
September 22, 2023

Take a look at Thorney Opportunites (ASX: TOP). The 2023 annual report is out and in the past 5 years the fund is down $163k and Management have been paid $22.7 million!
This fund has no high water mark and of all the LICs on the ASX this is one of the most egregious fee gougers. No wonder it trades at a 30% discount to NTA.

Ian
September 22, 2023

Always best to have an LIC with internal management, I reckon

James
September 22, 2023

I held both TOP and TEK (Thorney Technologies LTD) years ago for some tech growth exposure, but was soon disappointed when I realised that Alex Waislitz was extremely parsimonious with sharing the spoils.

David Thomas
September 21, 2023

The discount to NTA in the price of an LIC is almost invariably calculated on the pre-tax NTA, which is not the amount available to investors in the event of wind-up of the company or other distribution of assets.
I much prefer comparison of the ASX price to the after tax NTA, which is ultimately the amount available to investors.
In many cases the discount to NTA vanishes or reduces to 1-2% when the price is compared to the after tax NTA
I sold WAX a number of years ago when it was trading at over 20% premium to NTA. If buying $1.00 of assets at $0.80 is attractive, then surely selling $1.00 of assets for $1.20 is equally so.

Jimmy
September 21, 2023

One of the biggest reasons for discounts to NTA is FEES! If the manager charges 1% in fees, and the return is 10%, then a LIC should trade at 10% discount to NTA, compared to a traditional LIC. There is a big difference in fees between traditional LICs (eg AFI ARG) and others, and that’s reflected in the discounts of the LICs.

Kym Bailey
September 21, 2023

Share buy-backs will loose tax-effectiveness if the draft legislation to disallow the use of franking for any dividend component of an off-market buy-back passes into law. This will close another liquidity option for LICs

Rob Prugue
September 21, 2023

Their demise isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that it took this long. While a simple mantra, my rule was always if you wouldn’t put your Nana in that “investment”, why are you selling it to others. Unless the asset is unlisted, offering LICs at IPO is guaranteeing your client underperformance, and not due to investment efficacy but lack thereof form the vehicle.

Graham Hand
September 21, 2023

Thanks, Rob. I know you were against this structure in your Lazard days because you did not feel it was in the best interests of your clients, and although it would have raised a good amount of assets, you avoided the temptation.

Nicholas Chaplin
September 21, 2023

I agree that buying in the IPO has been the biggest pain from drop-offs versus NAV. However, the discount to NAV plays out significantly with ordinary shares too and yet doesn't get published. CBA and all the big companies run valuations internally that are vastly higher than their trading prices. We don't see it because NAV's for ordinary shares are not published. Maybe this would be helpful with the LIC's too. So it is really, the discount to issue price that is the problem. Without LIC's and LIT's coming to the Australian market, investors are poorer for choice, poorer for the lack of expert management and poorer for investment diversity availability.

SGN
September 21, 2023

An Excellent over view on LIC
Well done Graham

Passive Investing ETF has eroded LIC for sure.
A lumpy distribution from ETF is not an excuse to buy LIC.
The LIC "Closed End" has big , big disadvantage.
LIC Buying at discount really ?

na
September 21, 2023

good article but check out the LIC APL conversion - it’s a very different investment strategy investors were put into due to ETMF rules. Probably more compromises made by other fundies on this list to get out of the LIC spotlight as well. chasing the hot LIC money and subsequent exits not great for investors

Tony
September 21, 2023

I'm happy to buy and hold LICs at a discount - if the underlying assets perform in line with markets then you outperform at a net level - as you have bought $1 of assets for say 85 cents - no need for the discount to close. The great advantage of LICs is reliable franked dividends and no distribution surprises - this makes them ideal for those wanting to (say) fund a pension or who do not wish to receive large taxable distributions (in positive years) or no distribution at all (in negative years). The main disadvantage of LICs is that as they pay tax on realised gains and generally pay that out to shareholders that comes at the cost of slower growth in asset value. A good complement is to have some managed exposures where all distributions are reinvested to compound returns (if you're in a tax effective structure).
As an aside, I have seen many of the LICs in this article trade at very large premiums (AFI was a 25% premium only a couple of years ago). When markets are high and falling they are an ideal choice to cut back on and convert to cash. There are clearly some LICs used in SMAs, where they may be rising even where the market is falling, which equals opportunity.

Stephen Langford
September 21, 2023

Excellent comments. Some people don't get it. The reliable smoothed out income. Simple dividends not complex AMIT statements. No surprises. Opportunities to buy at a discount and sell at lesser discount or premium. Been like this for decades.

Don Challen
September 21, 2023

Couldn’t agree more. Excellent comments and spot on.

Will Wallis
September 23, 2023

Good point, Tony. For a SMSF, a reason to buy a few LIC is that, for a low management fee, there is someone keeping the portfolio up to date (so no admin for you) and you can top up periodically at a discount, so your return is about 10 % higher than holding the shares individually. Super is for the long term, so worrying about the possible selling price decades ahead is not a good use of time. Holding a few LIC's is much easier for your to administer than lots of share holdings. Overall, I find the discount is an advantage, and I hope managers don't worry about it.

michael
September 21, 2023

A further tactic to reduce the discount would be a reevaluation of fees. I haven't heard of any manager doing this.
People also want frequent dividends. An investor can hold, without fees, any number of 6 monthly dividend stocks. Why pay fees to receive a 6monthly dividend, that often is no better than market average, with less growth?

Mart
September 21, 2023

Graham - another really informative article, thank you. As you note, the larger / traditional LICs with good managers do still play a valid role for many investors. One question from me - unless I've understood incorrectly LIC structures have the ability to smooth income (dividends) whilst ETF structures don't (i.e. they have to pay out all income and capital gains by law etc). So ETFs can potentially lead to a big annual tax hit for the investor (and one that they can't necessarily control) whereas LICs can provide a more stable annual income. If this is correct then some investors would surely look more kindly at LICs ? This is not to take away from the meat of your article, merely to try and add a bit more perspective (if I'm correct !)

Brian
September 21, 2023

The investors who suffer most from LICs are the ones who support the issuer at IPO, only to watch the $1 issue price gradually trade down to 80 cents. And the manager also holds back distributions and franking credits in a reserve to 'smooth out' for future investors. Is that what you want when your broker or adviser puts you into an IPO? Investors who acquire the LIC at a 20% discount with profit and franking reserves are benefitting from the initial holder's pain.

Nick
September 21, 2023

Capital gains from ETF distributions to individuals are eligible for the CG discount whereas LIC structures are not eligible for the CG discount (either by the LIC or the investor). This also needs to be considered.

Possum
September 21, 2023

Most of the more conservative LIC's (eg ARG, DJW) give you an attached LIC tax deduction to compensate for the loss of the capital gains discount. This works like any normal tax deduction for individuals. Check your dividend statements for the amount. For an individual you use half the given amount, for a SMSF, two thirds. This is supposed to prefill in your tax return, but I can't recall if this is actually the case.
If you go to the ATO website and look up "CGT listed investment companies concession" it will give you the details of how this works.
It only applies to LIC's that hold their investments on capital account, not for those who trade shares on a more regular basis and therefore hold their investments as trading stock.

 

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