We also reveal the closed-ended funds that struggled this year

In the end 2021 proved a rewarding year for stock markets as vaccines were rolled out and economies began to recover from the worst ravages of the pandemic. 

In the early part of the year, growth was shunned for value before bouncing back into fashion as the year progressed.

On the whole, this was a volatile period, with investors contending with concerns over inflation and the rising interest rates to supply chain snarl-ups and, more recently, the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Scrutiny of the year’s best-performing investment trusts reveals some clear themes, with private equity and natural resources funds featuring prominently and country specialists focused on Asian nations enjoying contrasting fortunes.

THE TOP PERFORMING INVESTMENT TRUST

Shares has crunched the data from FE Fundinfo between 1 January to 3 December to reveal 2021’s best performing investment trusts. Leading the pack was Geiger Counter (GCL), a constituent of the AIC’s (Association of Investment Companies) Commodities and Natural Resources sector.

Managed by Keith Watson and Robert Crayfourd, Geiger Counter delivered a 96.8% total return during a momentous year for the uranium mining sector, leaving its shares trading at an 11.8% premium to net asset value at the time of writing.

The trust was bid up as financial markets became more acutely aware of the supply and demand imbalances in the uranium market, which has led to sustained higher pricing. Investment trust research firm QuotedData said Geiger Counter ‘captured the explosive performance of the sector’ and ‘handsomely’ beat its closest peers.

Crayfourd and Watson insist that nuclear power is benefiting from a positive swing in sentiment in its direction. They add: ‘Both governments and investors are increasingly aware of the need for nuclear power, both as a non carbon-emitting energy source and to provide baseload power in support of the green energy agenda.’

They point out that whilst renewables are ‘an ever-increasing component of energy supply, production is intermittent in nature, making nuclear an essential part of the energy mix, especially in meeting emissions targets.

‘We think that the current supply deficit is unsustainable and will drive a continued recovery in the uranium price, which will bring new projects into production.’

Geiger Counter’s managers also believe demand growth will be driven by a build-out of new reactors led by the emerging regions of China and India, which are focusing on improving air quality.

‘The portfolio has a strong bias towards small and mid-cap uranium mining companies and this reflects our view that these types of company generally have superior growth prospects (for example, production improvements or improvements in reserves) and, generally being less well researched, it is also where the closed-end nature of the company allows us to take a longer term view,’ they add.

IN SECOND AND THIRD PLACE WERE…

Hot on Geiger Counter’s heels with a 82.1% total return was Chelverton Growth Trust (CGW), managed by David Horner and David Taylor, which invests in companies listed on London’s main board and AIM with a market cap at the time of investment of up to £50 million.

Horner and Taylor seek out companies they believe are at a ‘point of change’ and also put money to work in unquoted firms where there is a likelihood of the shares becoming listed on AIM or the investee company being sold.

The portfolio recovered strongly in the financial year to August 2021, with net asset value per share increasing by 42% to 57.62p as the fund outperformed the 37.47% gain from the benchmark MSCI Small Cap UK Index.

However, in recent years, tender offers and buybacks have reduced it to an unviable size and so the board is reviewing ways to return cash to shareholders in the most effective way; expect an announcement in the early part of 2022.

In third spot with a 74% gain was Vietnam Holding (VNH), the Dynam Capital-managed country specialist which grew its net asset value per share by 99.3% in the year to June 2021, outperforming the Vietnam All Share Index’s total return by 7.3% in US dollar terms.

A high-conviction, concentrated portfolio, Vietnam Holding offers investors exposure to Vietnam’s leading IT and telecoms services company FPT Corporation, steel producer Hoa Phat and financials such as Vietin Bank, VP Bank, Military Bank  and Sacombank.

Manager Craig Martin says 2021 has been a stand-out year for Vietnam and Vietnam Holding in many ways. ‘Not only have we seen a very strong performance in our net asset value and share price, but we have been able to do more, measure more and report more on our responsible investing initiatives,’ he comments.

Martin also points out domestic investors have driven the Vietnam stock market to record highs ‘on the back of surging levels of liquidity and, with our team on the ground, we have been able to nimbly navigate the opportunities, and position our concentrated portfolio at the junction of great growth and reasonable valuations.’

Martin is excited by the prospects for 2022 as Vietnam ‘gets back to its multi-decade GDP growth trajectory of 6% to 7% per annum’.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Other trusts that produced large total returns in 2021 included Riverstone Energy (RSE), up 57.6% as recovering global commodity prices booted portfolio valuations and the fund continued to reposition its portfolio away from commodity price-exposed oil and gas investments and towards opportunities offered by the transition away from fossil fuels.

Private equity trusts HgCapital (HGT) and HarbourVest Global Private Equity (HVPE) posted impressive returns of 39.5% and 39.3% respectively, though they were eclipsed by BMO Private Equity Trust (BPET) and NB Private Equity Partners (NBPE), which generated returns of 58.2% and 57% respectively in the period under review.

Elsewhere, income-seekers sought out industrial buildings manager AEW UK REIT (AEWU), German business parks investor Sirius Real Estate (SRE) and Tritax Big Box REIT (BBOX), the large-scale logistics warehouse investment company benefiting from the e-commerce boom, with all three funds achieving total returns around the 50% mark.

And 2021 proved a banner year for Ashoka India Equity (AIE) and India Capital Growth Fund (IGC) as India outperformed even the US market, despite suffering from one of the deadliest waves of the pandemic earlier in the year, as well as for Mobius Investment Trust (MMIT), the investor in dynamic small and mid-sized companies in emerging and frontier markets.

IN THE DOGHOUSE

The year’s worst performers included aircraft leasing group DP Aircraft 1 (DPA), which lost 74.3% during the period and has plunged to an all-time share price low as Covid continues to impact the aviation industry.

Concerns over the Chinese Communist Party’s regulatory crackdown weighed on the Chinese markets in 2021, accounting for the negative total returns delivered by Baillie Gifford China Growth (BGCG), which lost more than 25% of its value and Fidelity China Special Situations (FCSS), down the best part of 15%.

An unexpectedly disappointing performer was Lindsell Train (LTI). Its 8.2% decline reflected a weaker period of performance from the trust, managed by ‘buy and hold’ investor Nick Train. Recent performance has been impacted by underweight exposure to software/platform technology and having no exposure to capital intensive manufacturing, while a number of the fund’s biggest holdings have suffered share price weakness, including London Stock Exchange (LSE), Unilever (ULVR), Heineken, AG Barr (BAG) and Nintendo.

Over the long term, the trust’s performance is impressive, boosted by strong returns from its cornerstone holding, the investment manager Lindsell Train Limited. ‘I will not make flippant or complacent predictions about prospects for Lindsell Train Limited, as we experience arguably the worst period of relative investment performance in our 20-year history,’ commented Train in Lindsell Train’s recent results statement.

‘As Gerald Loeb (author of The Battle for Investment Survival) reminds us; we know that winning the investment battle is not easy and takes discipline and seriousness of intent. We assure you, we remain disciplined and serious in our efforts to invest in assets with the potential of protecting or enhancing the real, after-tax purchasing power of your savings.’

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