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Tax free returns during life and on death: time to take AIM

The Alternative Investment Market or AIM is the London Stock
Exchange’s sub market for smaller companies. 
That said, many of the companies listed and traded on this exchange have
market values (or capitalisations) comfortably in excess of those listed on the
Main Market.  I spend much time
explaining this to existing and potential new clients because the general
perception of this investment area is that it relates to tiny, high risk ‘penny
share’ companies which are a few steps from going bust.  Accordingly many would-be investors simply
avoid the AIM and I would argue (in some cases) wrongly so.

Granted of the 1000 or so companies listed here, the
majority are small market value (primarily) resources companies which are illiquid
(can be tricky to buy and sell) and logically high risk.  But a cursory glance at the AIM 100 index
constituents list will reveal many much larger companies and here might begin a
stockpicker’s research process.  ASOS for
example, the online retailer (and the largest company on AIM) has a market cap
of £4.6 billion which would make it a FTSE 100 company if it chose to come off
AIM.  Breedon Group,  the UK’s largest independent quarrying of
building materials company has a market value of £1 billion and would comfortably
be one of the larger FTSE 250 companies if fully listed.  There are many others.

Of these larger market cap companies,  most are growing large profits (yes they make
money) and where applicable dividends. 
Most have respected long serving management teams and established
institutional investors on board.  Most
have robust (lowly leveraged) balance sheets, 
significant net assets and many trade at attractive valuations based on
current share prices.  If this sounds
interesting,  it should be and that is
before we even talk about the significant tax advantages that come with being
invested in this space.

To assist with cost, 
there is no stamp duty payable on the purchase of AIM shares (unlike
Main listed) and they can now be held in tax free ISA accounts.  This means any capital gains made (if the
shares are sold) and any income received by way of dividends are tax free
during the investor’s life.  But most
importantly,  “qualifying” AIM companies
are also exempt from Inheritance Tax (IHT) after a 2 year holding period.  This is because HMRC has classified AIM
shares as business assets and those companies that qualify will attract
Business Property Relief (BPR).  It is
important to stress that BPR is not available on all listed AIM shares and
stock selection is thus important to achieve all available tax breaks.  Companies for instance,  must not be listed on another exchange in
addition to AIM ; in other words,  there
must not be a ‘dual listing’.  Companies
must not be in financial services or be investment companies either.  Mining companies should be avoided also.  In simple terms,  the qualifying company is ordinarily a
vanilla UK domiciled business carrying out a bread and butter trade utilising
domestic assets.  Companies available in
this regard span telecom,  medical
services, engineering, transport, retail and professional services sectors.  In other words there is a very decent range
of companies to potentially invest in.

Commentary regarding AIM investing often highlights the
smaller company element to this space and the corresponding illiquidity in the
underlying shares.  It describes the area
as higher risk than investing in larger, 
perhaps blue chip companies. 
While at face value it might be easy to agree with such statements,  the fact is over the past few years,  well capitalised profitable AIM companies (on
the whole) have massively outperformed the large company investment
universe. 

I have under my management numerous AIM portfolios which
have appreciated in value by 50% over the past few years on capital (plus
dividends) and that is before one remembers the entire account is free of IHT
when the investor passes on !  To the
extent that volatility and risk normally go hand in hand,  good quality AIM companies look arguably lower
risk than large cap companies in my mind.

True there has been some additional stimulus which has
assisted the appeal of AIM.  The
capability to buy these companies within ISA environments (from summer 2013)
opened up vast amounts of private client capital which was previously only
allowed to buy collective investments (funds) or direct Main Market listed
equities.  It is also fair to say that
liquidity is less on AIM and this invariably means large institutions such as
hedge funds or leveraged market players will not get involved in this market if
indeed they are allowed to be.

By holding AIM companies with an ISA account,  an individual is able to have a tax free
portfolio of stocks during life which will automatically turn into an IHT free
pot of money upon death.  Infact I am
spending an increasing amount of time migrating client funds within ISAs
(accumulated over many years) into select qualifying AIM companies precisely
for this reason.  It is obviously important
the client understands the different (possible risk) characteristics of the
underlying investments as part of such a process.

Investing in AIM companies for IHT relief is a far simpler
way for an investor to mitigate death duties than more complex IHT
strategies.  Trust creation (one of the
more common approaches) can be timely, 
expensive and fiddly.  Being a
direct shareholder in many of the UK’s leading growth companies is straight
forward and easy to understand and if an investor requires access to the
invested capital,  shares can be easily
sold unlike assets tied up within a trust. 

While tax rules can always change over time,  it seems unlikely that governments who have
only over the recent past been increasing the tax advantages of investing in
AIM will change their stance any time soon.  Encouraging investment into UK plc in such
ways obviously brings corporation tax take advantages to the extent that such
companies continue to generate increasing levels of profit.

This report was written by Philip Scott, Director at SI Capital on 10/4/17.