UK charities spending more than 3% of the value of their long-term investment portfolios each year face a significant risk of eroding the real value of their capital, according to a report.

While many charities are withdrawing 4% of their capital every year – in the belief that investment returns will maintain the purchasing power of their remaining endowment – the report says this may be unsustainable if the real value of capital is to be preserved.

“Sustainable Portfolio ‘Withdrawal Rates’ for Charities”, from Newton Investment Management, suggests the typical portfolio operated by UK charities, made up of 60% equities and 40% bonds, has generated a long-term return of just 3%.

Withdrawing 4% a year will therefore reduce the real value of a portfolio by one-sixth over 20 years.

The study used the WM Common Investment Fund universe – with total assets of £4bn (€4.7bn) as at 31 December 2012 – as a proxy.

The results show that even a small over-distribution or under-distribution can have a significant effect on the real value of a portfolio over 20 years.

With 2% taken out of the portfolio above the 3% sustainable level, its value would be reduced by 33% over the period.

Conversely, under-spending by 2% per annum would add nearly 50% to the real value of the portfolio after 20 years.

By reviewing all 10 and 25-year periods over the last 113 years, Newton found that holding more in equities increases the overall probability of maintaining the purchasing power of invested capital, albeit at the cost of greater volatility in the short term.

However, even over 25-year cycles, no combination of asset allocation and withdrawal rate gave an implied 100% probability of maintaining the real purchasing power of capital.

Over a 10-year horizon, there was a one-in-five chance even an all-equity portfolio distributing just 2% per annum would have failed to protect the real value of an average charity’s capital.

The research also finds that charities can significantly reduce the volatility of their income by adopting a ‘smoothing’ withdrawal policy.

This sets annual spending as a percentage of the average of several years’ (say five) portfolio values, rather than just operating according to a year-by-year framework.

To ensure a sustainable distribution rate, the report suggests a number of practical approaches trustees should consider: 

  • The judicious use of spending reviews to bring spending back towards a sustainable 3% level
  • Spending income, but not capital, and investing for greater levels of capital growth
  • Managing the downside in investment returns by actively managed strategies
  • Using a formula to smooth withdrawals

Andrew Pitt, head of charities at Newton, said: “The current financial backdrop is increasingly challenging the assumptions investors make about future returns. The key question for charity trustees is: what is a reasonable level of annual withdrawal to take from a portfolio without depreciating its long-term value?

“Our research shows what constitutes a sustainable rate of withdrawal for a charity to make from its investment portfolio. The most important implication of our analysis is that charity trustees should address this topic as part of the regular review of their portfolio.”

The report can be downloaded here.