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What are Enterprise Investment Schemes?


More and more people are asking me about Enterprise Investment Schemes (EIS) these days.

Maybe it’s because the well-off are weller-offer than ever before that these more obscure schemes are hitting their radar.

Perhaps it’s the squeezed middle resenting their tax bills.

In my personal life, I know it’s a consequence of an infuriating number of my friends joining the mid-seven-figures club on selling businesses.

At the other end of the spectrum are the patrons of crowdfunding sites like Seedrs and Crowdcube. These platforms heavily promote the tax benefits of investing in start-ups that qualify for EIS status.

And crowdfunding is indeed – for good or ill – very accessible.

EIS funds can have high minimum investment hurdles. If you can’t slap down tens of thousands with some of them, your name’s not on the door.

In contrast, I’ve claimed 30% tax relief on a £10 EIS investment with Seedrs. I even got a pizza and beer thrown in.

So – free nosh aside – what’s all the fuss about?

What are Enterprise Investment Schemes?

Enterprise Investment Schemes (EIS) are tax efficient investment vehicles offering 30-50% income tax relief.

EIS enable venture capital-style investing, with downside protection and tax-free capital gains.

Downside protection is a way of saying your maximum losses are reduced. This is due to upfront tax relief – a bit like getting cashback from HMRC on your initial investment. There’s also the possibility of reducing your tax bills with loss relief. This offsets EIS losses against income or capital gains.

Taking into account these reliefs, an investment of £1,000 into an EIS qualifying start-up might only expose you to a maximum loss of £375, if you’re a 45% taxpayer, even if the investment went to zero.

Of course, there’s an opportunity cost. You could have put your money into a global tracker instead. Then your £1,000 might have grown to £1,300 over three years, say, although this would be liable to tax.

You can invest into EIS-qualifying companies directly or via an EIS fund.

Further research might see you choose between:

  • Approved versus unapproved funds
  • Capital preservation versus capital growth
  • EIS versus Seed EIS (SEIS)

Whether investing directly into EIS-qualifying start-ups or via EIS funds, you need to be happy with the companies themselves. Or else have a lot of faith in the EIS fund manager choosing them for you!

EIS versus VCTs

There are two specific tax-favoured ways to invest in start-ups in the UK:

  • EIS offer tax benefits such as tax-free capital gains, income tax relief, and IHT and loss relief.
  • Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs) offer tax-free dividends and income tax relief. Again, any (rarely substantial) capital gains can be tax-free.

Investors who annually max out their ISA allowances and pension contributions might find VCTs the logical next step.

I’d stress though that high costs and mediocre returns mean this isn’t a no-brainer. The benefits of tax relief can be outpaced in the medium-term by a taxable investment that grows faster, helped along by lower fees.

If you decide to investigate VCTs, I’d look for funds with a track record of dividend payments from a maturing portfolio of companies. The most established VCTs are now decades old, with proven managers.

As for EIS, more sophisticated or high net worth investors looking for tax efficient investments are often steered in this direction – perhaps by an Independent Financial Advisor.

The ability to use EIS investments to defer big capital gains tax bills can be particularly attractive to these people. But a lot of research – and potential professional advice – is a must if this is your motivation.

The tax benefits of EIS

Most retail investors look no further than VCTs when considering the next rung of tax-efficient vehicles after ISAs and pensions.

However the EIS tax breaks are undeniably attractive:

  • Income tax relief. 30% income tax relief (rising to 50% for SEIS, as explained below) on a maximum investment of up to £1 million per tax year (or £2 million if into knowledge-intensive companies).
    • The income tax relief can only reduce an individual’s income tax liability to zero.
  • Tax-free capital gains. The sale of EIS shares at a profit is free of capital gains tax provided you’ve held them for at least three years.
  • Capital gains deferral relief or exemption. A capital gain made on the disposal of any kind of asset can be ‘deferred’ by re-investment into EIS-compliant companies. The deferred gain is then due on the sale of the EIS shares, unless the sale is to a spouse or on the death of the shareholder.
  • Capital loss relief. Capital losses on EIS shares can be set against income in the year the loss arises, or the previous tax year. The benefit of this tax relief will depend on your marginal income tax rate.
  • Inheritance Tax (IHT) relief. Investments in EIS-compliant shares should generally benefit from 100% relief from inheritance tax. This is provided the investment is held for two years and at the time of death. (This arises because the majority of EIS investments should qualify for Business Relief. But take specialist advice on this if needed).

Approved versus unapproved funds

If you decide to go down the EIS investment fund route, you’ll find there’s a choice between two types of funds – ‘approved’ or ‘unapproved’.

Approved funds

An approved fund’s prospectus has been reviewed by HMRC. The rules recently changed to encourage investment into knowlege-intensive companies. As I understand the guidelines, an approved fund must invest at least 50% of its assets into EIS-compliant investments within a tax year, and 90% within two years. Further, 80% of those investments must be made into knowledge-intensive companies for the fund to be an approved knowledge-intensive fund. This enables higher maximum tax relief of £2 million, and tax relief at a pre-determined date.

Such funds are very new, but they have started to appear.

Because of the deadlines on investing capital, you should be confident your chosen fund has identified its deal flow in advance.

Unapproved funds

The vast majority of EIS funds are unapproved, and investments made benefit from income tax relief.

For example, a fund manager may take up to two years to invest the fund. If they manage the timing of investment so that the fund is split equally over the two years, income tax relief is available across two tax years at 30% (as currently legislated).

Unapproved funds therefore offer greater flexibility in regard to income tax relief.

There’s a huge range of EIS funds available, and not much comment about them. One place to see what’s on offer is the WealthClub website.

Direct EIS investment

Monevator readers are likeliest to make any EIS investments by dabbling in crowdfunding via Seedrs and Crowdcube.

The minimum investment here can be as little as £10. You often get fun rewards depending on how much you put into your chosen firms, too.

Other perks include meeting company management and a nice community feel to crowdfunding events. The whole scene can be educational.

You get the same tax reliefs as if you’d invested in an EIS fund.

Set against all that, crowdfunding into unlisted companies is the Wild West of investing. Arguably few startups would chose to crowdfund if they could get venture capital backing, which implies lower-quality opportunities. It’s still relatively early days, but there have been far more failures than notable exits. Valuations are often fanciful. It’s an easy way to lose money.

I’ve chosen to invest a small single digit percentage of my net worth across dozens of EIS-qualifying startups. But this is definitely not for everyone.

Directly investing a larger sum into a single EIS-qualifying firm could be attractive if you truly understand its sector and the nature of its business.

However, if you directly invest into only one or two companies, your portfolio will lack diversification. If you’re a chunky shareholder, you may even find yourself needing to put more cash and time in further down the road to keep the business going.

Investing with an EIS fund

With an EIS fund, you should benefit from a wider exposure compared to direct investment.

Your money will be spread across a number of businesses – perhaps in different sectors and at different stages of growth.

A fund will also have deeper pockets than all but the wealthiest individuals. This means it should have the firepower to provide any extra capital if needed to unlock the value of an investment.

For these reasons, I’d suggest that unless you personally know the EIS-qualifying company – perhaps because it was started by friends, family, or work peers – that funds may be the best way to invest larger sums into EIS.

Capital preservation or capital growth

EIS funds today are focused on capital growth, either via a generalist or specialist fund.

The government took a hard line against previous capital preservation vehicles that acted against the spirit of the EIS legislation. There are now tests is in place to determine whether or not the product qualifies for EIS relief. You (or your advisors) need to be sure that any EIS fund you select is truly compliant under the government’s rules.

When investing for capital growth, a fund manager or investor seeks capital gains on an investment, typically over a four to seven-year period. In the meantime you aim to benefit from income tax reliefs on your investment in the short-term and tax-free capital gains and IHT relief in the medium to long term. There’s also that substantial loss relief should an investment fail.

The clear risk is your fund doesn’t perform over the long-term. So you need to be confident your money is going into a balanced portfolio with a high probability of a capital gain.

EIS versus Seed EIS

A last option to consider is Seed EIS (SEIS). This is like EIS on steroids, with even higher tax reliefs for investing in even younger, riskier companies.

Under SEIS, you can invest up to £100,000 in a financial year to benefit from 50% income tax relief, irrespective of your tax bracket.

The definition of an SEIS business is different from that of an EIS-compliant business:

  • Seed EIS businesses are smaller (fewer than 25 employees and gross assets of less than £200,000).
  • The businesses are younger (less than two years old).

A company can only raise a maximum of £150,000 from SEIS in its lifetime.

Clearly 50% upfront tax relief substantially protects the downside of a Seed EIS investment. Especially as you can claim loss relief, too, if need be.

VCTs, EIS, SEIS, or as you were?

I understand the growing interest in all these vehicles. Very high earners squeezed by the tapered annual allowances on pension contributions can’t be blamed for looking elsewhere.

My honest opinion though is most readers don’t need to get involved with any of them.

For most people, filling their ISAs and using their pension allowances every year is enough. They don’t need anything more exotic.

Upfront income tax relief is superifically very attractive. But remember the returns are likely to be low (VCTs and EIS funds) or non-existent (most direct investments you make via crowdfunding).

I’ve had a few of my crowdfunded investments go up more than tenfold, on paper. Which sounds great! But the reality is any investor in unlisted companies needs to see a few enormous winners to make up for all the duds.

If you invest via an EIS fund, you outsource this to a manager. That at least gives you a diversified portfolio, but performance seems to have been hit and miss so far. And with both EIS funds and VCTs, high fees are nailed-on.

I say ‘seems’ incidentally because good luck finding an easily decipherable comparison of EIS fund returns. This isn’t surprising, given the nature of the beast, but it’s still a big drawback. You’ll find much more trumpeting of the amount of money the funds pull in, as opposed to what they’ve paid out.

VCT returns are more widely available. They have been mediocre, but when you take into account the initial tax relief the best have not disappointed their holders.

VCTs are pretty illiquid, however, so ideally you’d be happy to bank those tax-free dividends indefinitely.

Do your research

Nobody will come a cropper punting fun money into EIS startups on Seedrs. If that’s a hobby for you, then best of luck.

As a major portion of your wealth planning though, these vehicles require a lot of thought and research. You may also benefit from financial advice. (Not to be mistaken with a sales pitch from the sector.)

Further reading:

Note: I am an investor in Seedrs. We’ll both get a £50 investment credit if you follow my link to sign-up and invest £500 within 30 days.





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