Platforms call for UK government to resist launching ‘retrograde’ British ISAs

Institutional investors urged to play a more proactive role in boosting the UK stockmarket


A British ISA could create unnecessary complexity and pressure investors into taking on inappropriate risk, according to spokespeople from several investment platforms, who have billed the concept as taking “retrograde steps” and “a bad idea” ahead of next month’s Spring Budget.

Instead, key industry figures are calling on institutional investors to help “shoulder the burden” of boosting the performance of lacklustre UK equities, and believe the simplest solution to encouraging more retail money into the home market is to abolish stamp duty and increase the tax-free threshold of the original ISA.  

Days before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement in November last year, it was widely expected he would announce the launch of a British ISA, which would allow investors to increase their £20,000 tax-free limit by £5,000 in order to invest in UK stocks, in a bid to bolster the ailing home market.

See also: PA ANALYSIS: Would a BRISA be a silver bullet for UK equities?

This was notably omitted from the statement, however, with Chancellor Hunt instead pledging to “simplify the [ISA] scheme” and “widen the scope of investments that can be included in ISAs”. Confirmed changes from the 6 April this year include permitting multiple subscriptions to ISAs of the same type each year; and enabling savers to hold LTAFs and open-ended property funds with extended notice periods within Innovative Finance ISAs. ISA, Lifetime ISA and Junior ISA annual subscription limits remained unchanged at £20,000, £9,000 and £4,000 respectively.

The reason British ISAs were left out of the Autumn statement became apparent at the end of last month, however. According to a report from The Telegraph, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pushing back against HM Treasury over the scheme, which allegedly would have been rolled out from the start of the 2025/26 tax year – beyond the date of the upcoming general election. Concerns cited by the No.10 officials, according to the report, include dictating where investors should put their money, and a lack of appetite for the launch of a new ISA product.

Now, ahead of the Spring Budget on 6 March, platform providers and senior investment professionals are calling for the British ISA to stay firmly off the cards, with many warning they could have negative implications for investors.

Tom Selby, director of public policy at AJ Bell, calls the concept of a British ISA – sometimes referred to as a GB ISA or BRISA – “a bad idea”, although says it is not exactly clear yet what the scheme would propose.

“Some have suggested this could mean an extra ISA allowance to invest in UK companies and funds, which would increase complexity,” he explains. “Others have argued ISAs should only be allowed to invest in UK companies and funds, significantly reducing the ability for investors to diversify globally. Both would be retrograde steps and should be resisted by the government.”

Susannah Streeter, head of money and markets at Hargreaves Lansdown, says: “It’s not surprising there appears to be scepticism about the plan right at the heart of government. The economy is clearly in need of an injection of investment to help drag economic growth out of a stupor, but mooted plans for a British ISA to help direct investors’ money into UK-listed companies adds unnecessary complexity, could fail to achieve its aims, and could have a negative impact on UK investors.”

Concentration risk

One of the key criticisms of a proposed British ISA is the concentration risk it could expose investors to – made worse by the fact the UK stockmarket has been so volatile over recent years. According to data from FE Fundinfo, the MSCI United Kingdom index has a maximum drawdown – which measures the most money an investor could have lost had they bought and sold at the worst possible times – of 31.6% over the last five years. Its MSCI World counterpart has a maximum drawdown of 24.6% over the same time frame.

Rob Morgan, chief analyst at Charles Stanley Direct, says: “This is the big issue for me; there has been precious little said in this debate about what is right for the individual.

“A British ISA, if directed at single stocks, corrals private investors into taking on more stock-specific risk and concentrating their portfolios. Most investors are not in a position to navigate the complexities and risks of buying individual shares and are better served by using collective funds and spreading their investment.

“In addition, many investors already have significant exposure to the UK and further investment in this area is neither necessary nor desirable from the perspective of proper diversification.”

Andrew Prosser, head of investments at InvestEngine, agrees, adding that for an ISA to work best, investors should hold a globally diversified portfolio.

“If an equity investor managed to fill their regular ISA by investing in a global portfolio, and then also filled up their British ISA, the resulting portfolio would have an allocation of over 20% to UK equities. This is a significant deviation from the UK’s weight in the global equity market, which currently stands at just over 3%,” he explains.

“Investors may also be tempted to fill their British ISA before contributing to their regular ISA, which would result in even more concentrated portfolios. This ISA is encouraging savers to take large active positions within their portfolio for protectionist reasons. Home bias is already an issue for British investors, and this would exacerbate the issue.”

Indeed, Streeter concurs that UK investors are already firm backers of the London Stock Exchange, with 1 million of Hargreaves Lansdown’s 1.8 million clients currently invested in UK equities. This accounted for 80% of the platform’s trades in the last year, with 70% of investors holding at least part of their position in a company for more than 12 months.

Sheridan Admans, head of fund selection at Tillit, says: “While the BRISA poses an interesting possibility for encouraging investment in UK companies by UK savers, without more detail it seems like a great deal of expectation is being put on the shoulders of retail investors to come to the rescue at a time they are being squeezed by more immediate demands.”

Will it work?

Admans adds that, according to HM Revenue & Customs data from June 2023, stocks and shares (ex-cash) ISA subscriptions for 2021-2022 totalled approximately £34.2bn.

Given the UK listed market’s mid-2023 market cap of approximately £3.6trn, he says “the BRISA alone may not be the immediate solution to this pressing issue”.

And Jason Hollands, managing director of corporate affairs at Evelyn Partners, warns that UK savers could simply use such an allowance to invest less in UK equities in their core ISA allowance “to compensate for the restrictive nature of a British ISA”.

“A new British ISA would also likely only be utilised by those already maximising their core £20,000 ISA allowance,” he says.

“This is relatively modest number of people in the scheme of things, which also includes those using the £20,000 allowance solely for cash savings, not investments.”

Streeter agrees with Hollands that investors could find a way around compensating for the UK allocation requirements, adding: “Those who already max out their £20,000 ISA allowance could simply hive off all their existing UK holdings to the British ISA, and use the extra wiggle room to invest more overseas in their usual ISA.”

And even then, research from InvestEngine’s Prosser found that fewer than 15% of investors reach the maximum £20,000 capacity in their ISAs, in any case.

The other issue with relying on UK savers to bolster the health of the UK stockmarket is the FTSE 100’s global nature, with approximately 75% of its revenue being generating from overseas.

Paul Derrien, investment director at Canaccord Genuity Wealth Management, says this is a “big issue”, pointing out there is “significant amounts of overseas earnings in the FTSE 250 too”.

“So, who is this policy benefiting? Maybe there needs to be a restriction on how UK-centric the business actually is, though how this would be applied in practice sounds too onerous.”

AJ Bell’s Selby also says ISA investments into UK-based companies “will not necessarily result in a substantial boost” to UK firms, given FTSE 100 companies are “generally international businesses”.

Creating complexity

There will be creases to iron out when it comes to the design and implementation of the British ISA – if it ever comes to fruition. Details on the product so far are scant, although several commentators fail to see a fool-proof way for the product to improve UK stockmarket performance while simultaneously benefiting investors.

“What constitutes a UK investment? UK-listed shares or a subset? Would investment trusts or other collective vehicles be included?” Charles Stanley’s Morgan asks. “Would this be a separate extra allowance or part of an expanded ISA wrapper? The former would create yet another product and the latter would represent a challenge for monitoring and reporting.

“Any segregated allocation would rise and fall at a different rate to the rest of the investments in an account, and selling and buying activity would further complicate matters.”

Not only could providers come up against challenges, for the investor themselves, there is the additional argument that another ISA will only increase complexity – contrary to Chancellor Hunt’s pledge to simplify the initiative. To date there are five different types of Individual Savings Accounts: Cash ISAs, Stocks and Shares ISAs, Lifetime ISAs, Junior ISAs and Innovative Finance ISAs.

“The British ISA complicates the already convoluted world of tax wrappers when really the government should simplify the regime,” says InvestEngine’s Prosser.

“Instead of progressing with a British ISA, the government should streamline the ISA wrapper by only having one type of ISA to cover savings and shares, with a single annual limit and education cues about what investors can use their ISA for.”

Morgan agrees that a British ISA “is at odds with calls for ISA simplification”.

“Over the years a once-simple ISA regime has morphed into a many-headed beast with such variations as Help to Buy, Innovative Finance and Lifetime ISA popping up, potentially exacerbating lack of consumer understanding.”

James Yardley, senior research analyst at Chelsea Financial Services, says: “It sounds rather complicated and highlights a potential risk of this strategy by the government.

“The great success of ISAs has come through their simplicity. They’re easy to understand and implement, but as soon as you add in complexity people will switch off. In theory this may be a good strategy, but we will need to see more details first.”

The benefits

Not every aspect of the British ISA has been met with criticism. Yardley reasons that it could have “a much-needed positive impact on investor sentiment” towards the UK stockmarket.

“It will encourage people to invest in the UK,” he says. “A lot of people who should be investing don’t, which is a crying shame because it causes them to have much worse financial outcomes throughout their lives. ISAs are a great vehicle for people looking to start their investment journeys with freedom from capital gains and income tax.  

“We need a stronger UK stockmarket that allows British companies to access capital markets and grow more efficiently. What has happened to the UK market has been a self-inflicted calamity.”

According to data from Statista, the number of companies trading on the London Stock exchange between January 2015 and July 2023 has fallen from 2,429 to 1,900 – a 21.8% decline. Meanwhile, a survey from the Quoted Companies Alliance published at the end of last year found one in four listed UK small- and mid-cap businesses saw no benefit in being publicly quoted.

Canaccord’s Derrien also believes the British ISA could encourage investment back into UK firms, which could therefore “potentially stem the tide of companies not being listed in the UK”.

Mike Coop, chief investment officer at Morningstar Investment Management EMEA, says UK equities offer “a long history of innovation and commercial enterprise, as well as safeguards for investors”, despite negative sentiment. He therefore says a tax-effective way to gain access to British companies “would be welcome”.

“The research we use when we’re building portfolios for advised investors indicates better value on offer for UK listed companies at current prices than many other markets, so there is a return potential and, for those seeking income, the UK does offer currently a higher level of yield than many other markets,” he points out.

Dan Moczulksi, UK managing director at eToro, argues that if the British ISA is built in the correct way, retail investors “should not have to take any additional risk”.

“They should still be able to invest their core ISA allowance in whatever way they see fit and then have the choice of using an additive allowance for UK-listed companies,” he says.

“Any new vehicle which incentivises more investment in UK-listed companies obviously stands to benefit these companies. It’s a virtuous cycle. More investment in these firms means more capital for them to deploy, helping them to grow. It also means share prices move higher, attracting further investment for retail investors seeking good returns.

“This in turn makes the UK a more attractive place to list as a business, as firms feel confident that their share price will improve and they will attract a lot of investment. Big, well-known companies listing in the UK would then attract more attention from retail investors, and the cycle goes on.”

Remember PEPs?

While there is widespread agreement that something must be done to improve sentiment towards buying into UK stocks, some commentators says the scheme is reminiscent of Personal Equity Plans (PEPs).

Launched by the UK Government in 1992, the initiative was designed to encourage investment from UK savers into the home market via various tax incentives. However, the scheme was scrapped in 1999 and replaced with the ISA.

Charles Stanley’s Morgan says: “Rewinding back into the midst of time, this was the logic behind merging the Single Company PEP allowance with the General PEP to ultimately create the ISA in the first place.

“Investors were experiencing a wide range of outcomes with Single Company PEP, and it was decided that freedom of choice to encompass collective vehicles was preferable.”

Canaccord’s Derrien adds that, over time, the restrictions on buying UK businesses were removed as the product transitioned into the ISAs we have today.

Fixing the conundrum of the UK stockmarket

If the UK stockmarket is in dire need of revival, but a British ISA is not the tool to do so, is there anything else the government can do to breathe life back into our listed companies?

“Yes. A lot,” says Chelsea Financial Services’s Yardley. “They can eliminate stamp duty; reform the horrendous cost disclosure rules that disadvantage the investment trust sector; and empower a new generation of investors by enhancing financial education and encouraging people to move their Junior ISA investments out of cash and into the stockmarket.  

“They can also incentivise pension funds to invest in UK stocks – perhaps starting with the pension funds of MPs.”

Other investors agree that targeting retail investors is not the right course of action, with Morgan concurring that while UK investors have a decent exposure to their home market, “pension funds have little”.

Tillit’s Admans says: “Perhaps it’s time for the government to play a more proactive role in encouraging institutional participation in the UK stockmarket, directing more attention towards stimulating overall economic growth, and considering measures to ease interest rates and alleviate the pressure on living costs.

“Although the UK market presents itself as cheap, there’s a need for a more immediate and strategic catalyst to attract both local and international institutional investors to bump up valuations, rather than placing this burden solely on UK savers, especially amid a cost of living crisis and at a point in time where consumers are faced with higher mortgage rates. The cost of living alone saw £6bn less contributed to cash ISAs in the last financial year compared to the prior year.”

On the education front, InvestEngine’s Prosser says: “We would like to see more provisions for better financial education. Boosting it from an earlier age would enable more people to understand the benefits of long-term investing and move us away from being a nation where saving in cash is the default option.

“As part of this, consideration could be given to renaming ISAs to ‘Tax Free Accounts’ to make clear the main benefits of using them in order to increase engagement.”

Morgan says it is “no wonder” that private investors feel “increasingly put upon”, given recent significant cuts to capital gains and dividend allowances.

“Perhaps a more generous CGT rate or allowance for new holdings in UK stocks could be implemented, if held for a certain period,” he reasons. “The focus on capital gains would also naturally attract capital to more growth-orientated and smaller companies than on dividend-paying mature companies, but by simultaneously increasing the dividend allowance there could be a broader effect if desired.”

Evelyn Partners’’ Hollands says a British ISA would have to be accompanied by a wider package of reforms if it is to “move the dial” on UK stocks, which should include removing stamp duty on UK share purchases or “giving favourable tax treatment to UK shares in respect of inheritance tax or capital gains tax”.

eToro’s Moczulksi agrees that abolishing stamp duty when investing in UK-listed companies through the BRISA would “undoubtedly be an effective incentive”.

“Government contributions could also be the answer, adopting the same approach as a LISA, with the government contributing an additional 25% a year up to £1,000.”

Overall, however, the message from commentators seems to be clear: an increase in the original ISA’s tax-free threshold could solve a multitude of the UK stockmarket’s ailments. The allowance was last lifted almost seven years ago – to £20,000 in April 2017, from £15,000 just three years previously, and from £11,880 before that.

AJ Bell’s Selby says: “Given most investors have a natural bias towards UK companies and funds anyway, the most straightforward answer would be to simply to increase the ISA allowance.”

Hargreaves Lansdown’s Streeter adds: “Simply lifting the ISA allowance, without creating a new product, would result in a boost to investment in UK equities anyway. It would also still offer the potential for diversification, helping bolster retail investors’ resilience.

“Not putting all your eggs in one basket is one of the golden rules of investing, and it’s crucial that government policy continues to support that.’’

HM Treasury’s press office has been contacted for comment.