Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Are ISAs "Safe"?

I'm having lots of discussions with mainstream policy folk at the moment, and it's striking that they perceive money invested via tax-free Individual Savings Accounts as somehow 'safe'.

This is somewhat true, up to the limits of compensation scheme protection. But only if you ignore the enormous direct and indirect costs of the bailouts required to deliver that protection, not to mention the fact that ISA cash earns 0.41% interest after 'teaser rates' expire, and investment returns after management and dealing fees may be slight (as we've learned in the pensions market). 

Even worse, your ISA money can't be properly diversified because you can only invest it in a limited range of regulated asset classes. So the government is both incentivising you to invest narrowly, and disincentivising you from putting your eggs in the full range of potential baskets.

But worst of all, like much of the money in the regulated system, the £350bn in total ISA money is 'dead' - propping up bank balance sheets and generating mutual fund fees - rather than working capital in the hands of creditworthy people and businesses who need it.

So it's high time that policy makers re-aligned the ISA tax incentives with the day-to-day activities of people and businesses. We urgently need to expand the range of asset classes within the ISA scheme, using proportionate regulation where appropriate.

Image from the Building Societies Association.

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