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Unit trusts are open-ended investments; therefore the underlying value of the assets is always directly represented by the total number of units issued multiplied by the unit price less the transaction or management fee charged and any other associated costs. Each fund has a specified investment objective to determine the management aims and limitations.
- The fund manager runs the trust for profit.
- The trustees ensure the fund manager keeps to the fund's investment objective and safeguards the trust assets.
- The unitholders have the rights to the trust assets.
- The distributors allow the unitholders to transact in the fund manager's unit trusts
- The registrars are usually engaged by the fund manager and generally acts as a middleman between the fund manager and various other stakeholders.
Unit trusts are open-ended; the fund is equitably divided into units which vary in price in direct proportion to the variation in value of the fund's net asset value. Each time money is invested, new units are created to match the prevailing unit buying price; each time units are redeemed the assets sold match the prevailing unit selling price. In this way there is no supply or demand created for units and they remain a direct reflection of the underlying assets. Unit trust trades do not have any commission.
The fund manager makes a profit in the difference between the purchase price of the unit or offer price and the sale value of units or the bid price. This difference is known as the bid–offer spread. The bid–offer spread will vary depending on the type of assets held and can be anything from a few basis points on very liquid assets like UK/US government bonds, to 5% or more on assets that are harder to buy and sell such as property. The trust deed often gives the manager the right to vary the bid–offer spread to reflect market conditions, with the purpose of allowing the manager to control liquidity. In some jurisdictions the bid–offer spread is referred to as the "bid–ask spread".
To cover the cost of running the investment portfolio the manager will collect an annual management charge or AMC. Typically this is 1 to 2 percent of the market value of the fund. In addition to the annual management charge, costs incurred in managing and dealing the underlying assets will often be borne by the trust. If this is the case, the provider will extract revenue equal to the AMC without incurring any expenses managing the fund. This makes the charges in such vehicles lack transparency.
A unit is created when money is invested and cancelled when money is divested. The creation price and cancellation price do not always correspond with the offer and bid price. Subject to regulatory rules these prices are allowed to differ and relate to the highs and lows of the asset value throughout the day. The trading profits based on the difference between these two sets of prices are known as the box profits.
In the UK many unit trust managers have converted to open-ended investment companies (OEICs) in recent years. OEICs normally have a single price for purchase and sale, although recent regulatory change now permits dual pricing too, in line with unit trusts.
The motivation for conversion is often cited as a simplification and precursor to offering funds Europe-wide under EU rules.
More cynical observers may have noted that there is increased latitude to hide charges in the OEIC Dilution Adjustment(more commonly referred to as "Swinging Single Price") whilst maintaining the veneer of simplification.
The first unit trust was launched in the UK in 1931 by M&G under the inspiration of Ian Fairbairn. The rationale behind the launch was to emulate the comparative robustness of US mutual funds through the 1929 Wall Street crash. The first trust called the 'First British Fixed Trust' held the shares of 24 leading companies in a fixed portfolio that was not changed for the fixed lifespan of 20 years. The trust was relaunched as the M&G General Trust and later renamed as the Blue Chip Fund (Source M&G).
By 1939 there were around 100 trusts in the UK, managing funds in the region of £80 million. (Source M&G)
For more details of the trust origin of the unit trust and its relationship with American mutual funds, see Sin, Kam Fan (1998) The Legal Nature of the Unit Trust. Clarendon Press ISBN 0-19-876468-5
Ways to invest
In the UK Units can be bought direct from the fund manager, held through a nominee account or through an ISA (individual savings account).
From the 1 January 1987 to 5 April 1999 it was also possible to invest via a PEP (personal equity plan) however these were discontinued and all PEP accounts automatically became stocks and shares ISAs on 6 April 2008. See http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/stats/peps/pep_b_1.htm for details.
- Sin, Kam Fan (1998) The Legal Nature of the Unit Trust. Clarendon Press ISBN 0-19-876468-5
- Lee, Boon Keng and Ong, Andy. Personal Financial Planning in Singapore. INS communications PTE LTD, 1997. pg. 120, ISBN 981-00-9422-1.
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- The FCA regulates unit trusts in the UK under their CIS (Collective Investment Scheme) rules.