The way in which capital gains tax operates in the UK makes it all but impossible for people to make a real return.
Why? Because there is no allowance for inflation in our system (Alistair Darling, the then chancellor, abolished indexing in 2008). Let’s say you buy something for £20,000. Over the next ten years inflation averages 8% Your investment also goes up around 8% a year. You sell it. You get £43,200. As far as you are concerned you haven’t actually made any real money – all you have done is maintained your purchasing power.
But that’s not how the taxman sees it. To HMRC, you have made a gain of £23,200 (£43,200 – £20,000) on which you get to pay tax at either 18% or 28%. The way this is structured means that the vast majority of people pay the higher rate. Let’s further assume that you have already used up your tax-free capital gains tax (CGT) allowance in this year. The result? A tax bill that leaves you with only £36,700 (after tax of 0.28 x £23,200, or about £6,500). Despite your, apparent cleverness in keeping up with inflation, you have just lost a chunk of your purchasing power in ten years.
Obviously, it isn’t always this clear cut. When we invest we hope not simply to match inflation, but to beat it – and if we do we have a chance of breaking even after tax.
There are also various assets that come CGT-free. Many people swear by wine investing and gold coins, such as sovereigns, count as legal tender so they don’t attract the tax (they do, however, trade at a premium and come with a huge spread between the prices at which you can buy and sell, which goes some way towards making up for this). Finally, most of us find that if we use our SIPP (self-invested personal pension) and ISA (individual savings account) allowances and add in our CGT allowance, we can manage to pay very little capital gains over an investing lifetime.
That said, you need to be careful with the way you use your allowance. Can you simply sell your assets at the end of one tax year, claim the allowance and then instantly buy the assets back? That way the allowance has been used, but, bar the costs of trading, they still have the assets (this used to be known as ‘bed and breakfasting shares’). Unfortunately, HMRC is on top of that neat trick. These days, if you buy back the shares within 30 days of selling them they still count as the same holding for tax purposes under the ‘matching’ rules. This prevents you crystalising a loss or gain purely for tax purposes. Sorry.