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Private investors have been buying government bonds in record volumes in recent months as juicy yields and a favourable tax treatment provide much more attractive returns than many savings accounts.
Still, the overall numbers are low compared with demand for standard savings products. Gilts are more complex than savings accounts, and if you sell one before its maturity date, you could lose money if the price of the bond has fallen.
But they are also government backed and with yields on short-dated bonds reaching their highest level since 2008 this week, at more than 5 per cent for a two-year bond, investor interest continues to rise.
How can I buy one?
Gilts are traded on the London Stock Exchange and can be bought through investment platforms such as Hargreaves Lansdown, AJ Bell or Interactive Investor in the same way as you would buy a share in a company or an exchange traded fund.
They are quoted showing the date at which the bond matures, as well as the coupon, which is the percentage of your investment that will normally be paid as income in twice yearly payments.
All gilts redeem at £100, so if the price quoted is under £100 you will receive a profit when the bond matures. The level of the coupon will depend on when the bond was issued, with low coupon bonds offering higher capital gains at maturity than higher coupon peers of a similar maturity date.
Be careful when selecting a gilt, as many investment platforms do not make clear the yield available.
How do I pick a gilt?
The most popular gilts are currently those maturing within the next couple of years and paying a low coupon, according to Interactive Investor, which says bonds maturing in January 2024 and 2025 are its top two most purchased gilts.
In normal market conditions, yields — which combine the coupon and the capital appreciation or loss at maturity to represent an annual equivalent rate — will be higher for longer-dated bonds as investors demand a higher rate for lending over an extended period of time.
However, shorter-dated bonds currently offer higher yields than longer dated ones, as investors bet that the Bank of England will be forced to cut interest rates in the face of a recession.
Ben Yearsley, a financial planner at Shore Financial Planning, said he has been topping up his gilt which matures in January 2025, because it has a low coupon rate, and most of the returns are through capital gains. “With a 5 per cent return and most of it tax free, it’s kind of a no brainer,” he says.
How does the tax treatment work?
You can hold a gilt within an individual savings account, in which case no tax is payable at all. In a normal investment account, the tax advantage is that while income tax is payable on the coupon, no tax is paid on the increase between the purchase and sale price — or its maturity value — regardless of the bondholder’s tax band.
This means discounts on short-dated bonds with a low coupon value currently offer the most striking tax advantages.
On June 22, for example, the January 31 2025 bond paid a coupon of 0.25 per cent and traded at £92.40 — providing an annual equivalent yield, before tax, of 5.28 per cent.
This is lower than the best available 18-month fixed rate deal available on the Moneyfacts website, which offers a rate of 5.6 per cent.
But when tax has to be paid — after an individual savings allowance and the £1,000 personal savings allowance have been used up — the gilt becomes more attractive, particularly for higher and additional rate taxpayers.
Zoe Gillespie, a director at RBC Brewin Dolphin, calculated that the yield after tax for the bond expiring on January 31 2025 was 5.17 per cent for higher-rate taxpayers and 5.16 per cent for additional-rate taxpayers.
If the bondholder had to pay income tax on the capital uplift as well as the coupon, the yield would have to be 8.62 per cent for higher-rate taxpayers and 9.38 per cent for additional-rate taxpayers for the saver to achieve the same net yield — known as the “gross equivalent yield”.
Should I buy a bond fund instead?
Bond funds can be a simpler way to get exposure to higher yields, with a blended maturity across the portfolio damping volatility, and the ability to keep owning the fund without it maturing.
However, you don’t get the tax advantages by buying a fund, and you can’t lock in a fixed rate, as the pricing will depend on when you choose to sell.