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The mean season

It was a decent headline grabber at the time. Mike Webb, the former head of retail at Invesco Perpetual, proclaimed: “We could lose a generation of investors.”

The statement was made in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the FTSE100 plunged to a 34-month low of 5,070.

Tens of thousands of people who started investing in equity markets two years previously were sitting on huge losses. Many in the industry feared that the bloodbath would turn people away from equities as sales of unit trusts plummeted.

It seemed an excitable comment at the time but you wonder whether it has turned out to be profound. Sales of Isas have certainly been on the downward spiral ever since, suggesting that a generation of investors has indeed been lost.

In 2001, the fund industry was bemoaning the fact that the mounting Iraq crisis was knocking investor confidence and that Isas sales were just £5.5bn. They should have counted their lucky stars as sales have failed to reach such dizzy heights since.

They reached £3.9bn a year later and then £3.6bn. They hit a low in 2004/5 when net sales barely touched £1.8bn before rising gradually to £2bn in 2005/6.

Even before the credit crunch took hold last summer, sales were half the figure they were in 2001 and a quarter of the alltime peak in the technology boom.

This year, sales are really struggling. The official statistics will not be published for a few weeks but until the end of February, net sales had reached £761m. It is likely that this year will go down as the worst Isa season in its nineyear history.

No wonder fund managers are concerned that investors who have stuck with Isas are about to throw in the towel. Statements arriving on the doormat of investors over the next few weeks will make a good few hearts skip a beat.

Most of last year’s top sellers have had a tortuous time thanks to the prol-onged agony that has been the credit crunch.

Flavour of the month at the time were commercial property funds and Isa investors continued to pile into this sector despite warnings that it was over-valued after three years of strong growth.

Investors in two of the most popular funds, Norwich property trust and New Star property, have lost about 20 per cent of their money over the year. Scottish Widows’ fund (Swip UK real estate), another popular choice, has fallen by almost 40 per cent over the past year, according to Morningstar.

But it is not just specialist high-risk funds that have fallen in value. Even solid defensive funds run by some of the most well respected managers in the business have failed to make money in such turbulent markets.

Last year – like this one – one of the most popular Isa fund has been Invesco Perpetual’s high-income fund run by Neil Woodford. It has lost almost 10 per cent of its value over the past 12 months.

Anthony Nutt who runs the best-selling Jupiter income trust, has presided over a 16.5 per cent fall in value.

It is of no surprise that fund managers – some for the first time – are busy writing newsletters to accompany statements in a bid to calm investors. They fear that another generation of investors will be lost when they open their morning post in May.

It may be too late. The 40-year-old-plus brigade may still seek out Isas but they are a dying breed. The Government’s boast almost a decade ago that Isas would kickstart an equity culture is proving extremely hollow.

Younger generations are saddled with huge mortgages or are trying to save a deposit to secure a homeloan. They have little in the pot to save elsewhere.

The final numbers of Isas bought in the past few weeks have yet to be counted but sales are reported to be weaker than last year. Recent volatility has not helped but that does not disguise the fact that Isas are close to being a washout. The Isa season may be over but you wonder if it ever began and whether it will ever thrive again.

Paul Farrow is personal finance editor at the Telegraph Media GroupMoney Marketing

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