For this to be any use to you you need to be a worker drone in a company that is listed on the London Stock Exchange, and has a save as you earn scheme. In practice I think that means it’s probably a FTSE100 firm.
The idea of sharesave is to encourage employees to take a share in the company, all considered A Good Thing. They’ve been running for years, I recall my Dad doing these. If your company offers one, they are a no brainer, do it, do it now, and do it to the max (£250 per month), as long as you don’t go into debt and have cleared your consumer debts other than mortgage. Once you have five year’s worth of contributions, you get that one way bet at no extra cost. It’s rude not to take part in an offer like that 😉
Caveat employer… don’t hold shares in your employer longer than you need to
You should generally avoid holding shares in your employer other than as part of sharesave or share incentive plan (another wheeze like SAYE, without the one way bet but with big tax advantages). That is because if your employer falls on hard times not only do your savings take a hit due to the share price bombing, but you are more likely to lose your job. The only exception I can think of is if you believe your employer is likely to be bought by another company, which is usually terrible news for employees but can be associated with a share price hike. It’s still a long shot and there are better ways of preparing for redundancy…
For a similar angle but from a bunch with more financial clout than me, see the FT on will you buy into the John Lewis economy on the hazards of over-exposure to your employer. Think Northern Rock when you fancy holding onto shares in your employer longer than you have to…
What’s so good about sharesave?
The reason sharesave is a no brainer is that it makes you the kind of offer you will never get anywhere else, a one-way bet on shares. The worst you can do is simply end up saving cash for three or five years.
What happens is in any year you are offered the option to buy shares in three or five years time at a price fixed at near what it is now. You start a monthly savings plan for up to £250 p.c.m. post-tax allocated in any proportion to the three and five year schemes. In five years time if the share price is higher than the option you exercise the option and then sell the shares immediately, pocketing the difference. Obviously if it’s lower you don’t exercise the option, and say I’ll have my cash back thank you very much, with some interest added usually. In a slightly depressing observation on the financial acumen of some of my workmates, I’ve known some people exercise the option when it isn’t in the money, and that’s even after the firm has added a letter to the maturity note saying you should note you can buy the shares cheaper on the open market. There’s no helping some people 😉
In the past it was easier because you were able to drop schemes where the option price was higher than the latest offering, but HMRC has
stopped that wheeze, (No, they didn’t, just some accounting changes made it so letting employees do that cost the company. See this comment for details. If your company still allows you to drop a scheme and reallaocate the savings allocation to fresh schemes, then you want to read How to Use Sharesave Redux) so though you can drop a scheme you aren’t allowed to allocate that monthly allowance to later schemes until the original term is up. This means you need to think first before acting, to avoid stiffing yourself further down the line.
How to play sharesave to best advantage
First you need to ask yourself realistically how long you expect to be working for this firm. If it’s only for five years then buy the three year scheme for two successive years, £125 a month in year 1 and the same amount in year two (i.e. £250 in total in year two and three, then £125 in year four). However if you are looking at working there longer, then you need a plan.
Diversification is still your friend with sharesave, even though you are only dealing with one share. What everybody seems to miss, is that you have two temporal periods (3 and 5 years) and the chance to sample the share price every year.
What you don’t want to do is look at the option price for the two schemes in the first year, decide the 5 year scheme is cheapest, and lob your whole £250 savings into that. You want to maximise the diversity of your time-slots.
Diversify your temporal risk
You also want to maximise the amount of time you’re in the market, so if you are going to be a lifer in this firm (or even aim to work there for a decade) then buy £50 of the first year’s 5yr scheme, £50 of the next years 5yr scheme, and so on. After five years, your allowance for the first year’s scheme will come free as it matures, and you can allocate that to the sixth year’s SAYE scheme. If you sell as soon as your options mature, assuming they are in the money, then you will have the cash to allocate to your next allowance, so this one-way bet is now free.
You can do that instead with the three year scheme, but your options will only be in the market for three years rather than five, which reduces the amount of time your cash is in the market exposed to that one-way bet.
I simulated this using the FTSE 100 index as a proxy for a typical blue-chip firm offering a sharesave scheme.
and the cumulative profits over a 20 year period:
The cumulative profits understate things because of inflation, and it also shows the heady profits that were to be had from the stock market in years gone by, the fat years after the early 90s recession up to the dot-com boom, then the 10 lean years from the dotcom bust to now…
The pattern is familiar, I made most of the money from sharesave in the years leading to the dot com boom, and very little in the decade after. Unfortunately there was corporate action for my employer in 2001 which means I can’t get a historical time series back to 1990. The ride was a bit more choppy than this graph shows, and sadly I didn’t realise that the 5 year schemes are so much more valuable than the three, so I did a mix of 3 and 5 years.
Watch out for specifics
The industry your employer is in doesn’t necessarily have the same statistics as the FTSE100. It’s likely to be a damn sight more choppy – I know my company is. So it may be worth simulating the last decade or so of price data for your firm. Here is the spreadsheet I used, exported to Google docs. There may be cyclical patterns in your company’s share price that make some of the assumptions break down. Having said that I’d have done fine running rolling five years sharesaves with my employer’s shares.
Don’t go with your gut
I learned something from writing this post. From a gut feeling, I had gone for diversifying the period, buying a mix of 3 and five year schemes. I had not realised until now the fact that the 5 year schemes give me more time in the market and how valuable that was.
This may have been offset by the fact that for my entire sharesave career I was able to drop previous schemes where the option price was higher, and reallocate the allowance to the more advantageous sharesave scheme. HMRC disallowed that in 2009, so you won’t be able to do that. Now if you take out a 5 year sharesave scheme even if you stop saving you can’t reallocate that allowance until the original 5 year term is up.
Responding to exceptional share price events
My employer had a near death experience which resulted in some pretty nasty management practices. Previously I had assumed I was going to carry on working to 60 at that time, but one particular incident showed me I was unlikely to make the course, so I switched all effort into saving up to be able to retire early. This near death experience slammed the share price in 2009, so the option price on that sharesave was very low. Though I didn’t know if I would still be working there in 2012, I dropped every single previous sharesave and threw everything into that year’s sharesave, with half the money allocated to the 3-year and half to the 5-year scheme. Obviously I have to put a lot more per month into the 3-year scheme as you only have 36 months to buy your shares, as opposed to 60 months. The aim is to have an equal monetary stake at the end. This works out to £94 in the 5-year and £156 in the three.
The principle is that you don’t know what will happen in 3 or 5 years time, so I want to bet on both horses. Say the Euro blows this year, then the 3 year options might lapse but the price on the option maturing may be lower. In that case don’t execute the option. There’s still chance for some of the storm to blow out and the 5-year option to come good. Although I don’t expect to be working there when the 5 matures, once the scheme has been running for three years then under some of the circumstances I may leave I could make it paid up.
If the 3 year option matured tomorrow, I would do very well out of this sharesave, indeed I couldn’t liquidate the shares without becoming liable for capital gains tax, which would be a first for me. I believe that the Euro is doomed beyond redemption, and that the denouement could very well happen this year.
So I have gone to IG Index and shorted half the number of shares I have options in. Barmy, you might say, why the hell short something I own, but that has the effect of locking in half the options at the current price. If they go down I make a profit at IG to compensate, if they go up I have to pay IG but I get more selling the options. I’m prepared to pay that as insurance. In three month’s time I will short half the remaining half, assuming it makes sense, to lock in the price for three quarters of the shares.
Spread betting comes with an extreme wealth warning, but it’s the right tool for the job here. Another case where you may want to short a stock you hold is to avoid eating a capital gains hit. Just carry on holding the shares and short them, buying the short and the number of shares you own / 100 (because IG prices move £1 for every penny the share price moves, with you rescale back but selling 1/100th of the amount). If nothing untoward happens I may have to do that in August; sell half the shares to avoid the CGT liability and roll over the IG short on half the total which I will still hold, eliminating my exposure to my employer without selling the entire stake.
Spread betting works for the tax-free employee share incentive plans too. With these, you buy up to £125 of shares from pre-tax and NI income, which you have to hold for five years before you can sell.
Sadly, this is another trick I missed, so some of the shares I hold went through the near-death experience, though they’ve come back up. I could have shorted thse guys as I bought them every month, taking the tax-free bump up and protecting my purchase against the vagaries of the stock market. However, it just goes to show one of the dirty little tricks of capitalism. By the time I got experienced enough to spot this insurance scheme, I’m about done with the opportunity to use it. As a colleague once wryly observed, money is drawn to money…