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Prudential the 'star' of 2011.

BILLIONS of pounds sitting in the mighty with-profits funds run by the big insurance companies were invested to build lump sums, cover mortgages or pay pensions - and many savers will be wondering why they bothered.

In February and March, the major providers announce their annual bonuses - equivalent to interest earned on savings accounts - according to the performance of their funds during 2011.

The money, added to the basic sum assured of each policy, is paid to the policyholder on maturity.

This year, and for years previously, the news for many is grim. Even when shares perk up, many with-profits bonds struggle to gain much benefit.

Legal & General (L&G), with 600,000 with-profits customers in a pounds 14 billion fund, says its fund grew 1.7% in 2011; it is maintaining annual bonus rates on its endowments (to reduce potential shortfalls for homebuyers) but has cut bonuses on most bonds and pensions.

Aviva's fund lost 1%, while Friends Life claims to have delivered 5.6%. A ten-year pounds 10,000 bond is worth pounds 14,904 with L&G, and pounds 14,199 at Standard Life.

By general agreement, the star performer is again the Prudential. Its 20-year Prudence Bond delivered around 6.9%, the 20-year pension fund produced 5.7% and 25-year endowment some 6.2%.

Prudential claims an estimated pounds 22 billion has been added to the value of its with-profits fund since 2002; its fund is up 92.7% in 10 years, against a 59.5% rise in the FTSE All-Share index.

Patrick Connolly at leading financial advisor AWD Chase de Vere says: "This bonus declaration is a clear endorsement that Prudential remains, by some distance, the leading provider of with-profits investments.

"But overall, with-profits returns continue on a downward spiral as product providers, including Prudential, make cuts to annual bonus rates and payouts, almost regardless of how the underlying investments perform.

"However, there are huge differences between the best and worst providers in terms of where they can invest, the bonuses they pay and likely future returns.

"Payouts from the Pru compare favourably with stronger with-profits providers such as Aviva and Legal and General, and are hugely superior to weaker providers like Scottish Widows and many Phoenix Life funds."

The poor performance of too many funds is no surprise. Many have never recovered from paying out far too generously in the late 1990s, when they paid larger and larger bonuses to pull in new business.

As they battle to right the listing ship, providers have reduced risk by selling equities and putting more money into fixed interest investments, bonds and gilts.

Even when shares have a barnstorming run, little benefit might filter through to with-profits investors. Ironically, many of the hardest-hit savers won't know their money is invested with Phoenix as it is a consolidator of 13 with-profits funds worth pounds 37 billion, all closed to new business.

Before any investor dumps a with-profits policy, says Connolly, they should get it examined by a financial advisor. This could take two or three hours' work, and most advisors charge pounds 150-200 per hour.

SHARE TIPS Chemicals group Elementis makes highly specialised products used in a bewildering range of sectors, from oil drilling to industrial paints to cosmetics, and it does so very profitably, says the Mail on Sunday.

The latest results from the company showed sales up 7% on the previous year at 697 million US dollars (pounds 440 million) but operating profits were up 30% at 137 million US dollars (pounds 86.5 million).

Profit margins were improved as a result of raising prices and cutting costs.

Elementis has gained from improved performance across both its main divisions. The biggest is speciality products, which accounts for about 58% of group sales and produces additives that affect the way liquids behave, such how well they flow, whether they spatter or whether they form a level surface. These have a huge range of applications, paint being the most obvious.

Its chemicals are also used in the oil and gas industry, where they form part of the fluid used to cool and seal drills in bore holes. Elementis has benefited from rapid growth in new types of drilling, most notably for natural gas in shale beds.

The company's other main division makes chromium-based chemicals that are used in a wide variety of applications. Its profits were up 57% last year.

At 176.25p a share, the group is conservatively valued against current earnings. Buy.


Prudential claims an estimated pounds 22 billion has been added to the value of its with-profits fund since 2002
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 5, 2012
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