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Should investors play the UK reopening trade?

There were scenes of jubilation as lockdown restrictions were eased in England this week. Shoppers queued to bag a bargain in Primark; pub beer gardens are now booked solidly for weeks and restaurant dining is back on the menu — so long as you’re happy…

There were scenes of jubilation as lockdown restrictions were eased in England this week. Shoppers queued to bag a bargain in Primark; pub beer gardens are now booked solidly for weeks and restaurant dining is back on the menu -- so long as you're happy to wear a coat and thermals. The government's Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that some GBP180bn of "forced savings" have been made under lockdown, equivalent to nearly 10 per cent of UK GDP.

As the economy opens up, the thought of large chunks being spent is a tantalising prospect for investors eyeing UK stocks, but economists are divided about how far the "coiled spring" could rebound. My best investment of the week? Undoubtedly the GBP8 I spent on a fig negroni outside my favourite restaurant (I drank it wearing gloves).

As fantastic as this felt, I fear this taste of freedom could be shortlived. With a new wave of lockdowns in Europe, millions still on furlough in the UK and worries over Brexit, there's plenty of downside risk. Nevertheless, UK equity funds tracked by the Investment Association have, since November, produced the strongest gains of any fund sector, with total returns of about 30 per cent -- a sharp reversal from the underperformance of the previous three years.

Many UK private investors will not have enjoyed that bounce. According to the latest IA figures, investors sold down a further GBP1bn of UK equity funds in February, having withdrawn GBP18bn since the 2016 referendum. The bulk of that money has found its way into global funds, but analysts argue that some rebalancing may now be needed. "After years of plumping for global growth funds, some investors may find themselves lacking in exposure to UK, value and cyclical areas of the market," says Laith Khalaf, financial analyst at AJ Bell, the investment platform.

Early evidence from Isa season shows that sentiment towards the UK is slowly turning, with growing numbers of investors tempted to play the UK reopening trade. I stress the word slowly -- brokers' lists of the most popular investments still strongly favour global funds and big tech -- but UK recovery plays are creeping in. British Airways parent International Consolidated Airlines was the most-bought UK-listed share by AJ Bell's Isa investors in March, and has been the top performing FTSE 100 stock since last November, as hopes of a return to foreign travel grow.

Cineworld, Unilever and Rolls-Royce also made the top 10, with investors betting their prospects will be boosted as lockdown eases. Khalaf says pub companies such as JD Wetherspoon and cruise operator Carnival were also benefiting from signs of increased demand as the economy opens up. The only UK fund to make AJ Bell's top 10 was Jupiter UK Special Situations -- its top holdings include Aviva, Nat West and B&Q owner Kingfisher.

The lockdown DIY boom made Kingfisher the best performing FTSE 100 retail stock over the past year, with shares up 123 per cent -- more than double the gains made by online grocer Ocado. Similar trends are in evidence at Hargreaves Lansdown, the UK's largest retail platform, where investors looking for an easy and cheap way to play the UK recovery have been buying HSBC's FTSE 250 tracker. A much more domestic-focused index than the FTSE 100, it has been in Hargreaves' top 10 most-bought funds list since March.

The only other UK fund to make the cut is the Marlborough UK Micro-cap Growth Fund, a tech-focused fund where top holdings include S4Capital, the digital ad agency established by Sir Martin Sorrell, and Gamesys, the online gaming company that has just agreed to a GBP2bn merger with US casino operator Bally's. "There's a misconception that the UK doesn't have any tech companies, but there are loads at the smaller end of the market," says Nicholas Hyett, senior equities analyst at Hargreaves. The pandemic has certainly focused investor minds on tech, borne out in the staggering performance of some UK-listed stocks over the past 12 months.

It pains me to say it, but online gambling groups have been the standout winners from 12 months of lockdowns. Entain (the new name for GVC Holdings) has been the strongest riser on the FTSE 100 in the past year, up 138 per cent, and Flutter -- which owns Paddy Power and Betfair -- is up 94 per cent. On the FTSE 250, 888 Holdings has risen more than 200 per cent in the past year, and spread betting firm CMC Markets is up 138 per cent (as many FT readers have previously commented, its shares have been a better bet than the risky CFD trades it peddles to gung-ho punters).

However, online white goods retailer AO World is the top FTSE 250 performer, rising over 400 per cent in the past year as the pandemic delivered 2m new customers.

If you had this in your portfolio, you can probably afford to blow five grand on its top-of-the-range LG Signature wine cooler. A bit like returning English pub goers, investors in UK shares might set out full of optimism but I have a sneaking suspicion they'll end up being rained on. Dig down into the valuations of individual stocks, and you'll find a lot of the anticipated gain is already in the price.

The question for stockpickers now is whether the reopening will send some of these lockdown trends into reverse, or extend them further into the future as consumer behaviour permanently shifts. However, there is one group of FTSE 250 stocks that has yet to see much of a "freedom bounce" -- UK Reits (real estate investment trusts) specialising in London office developments. Commuters returning to the office is a trend investors have been slow to back, but I'm seeing more evidence on recent Zoom calls that people are.

In a survey this month, real estate analysts at Jefferies asked: "Would you return to the office immediately if permitted?" and got a resounding 'yes' from 57 per cent of UK respondents. London office-focused Reits Derwent London and Great Portland Estates are both trading on a 13 per cent discount to net asset value (NAV). That might look pricey compared to the yawning discounts on retail Reits, but Mike Prew, real estate analyst at Jefferies, has pencilled in NAV upgrades as the market improves and has a buy rating on both stocks.

Property shares have had a torrid time in the pandemic. I'm thankful that I took profits on the last remaining Reit in my Isa portfolio before the March lockdown came into force, but rent collection levels are ticking up, and new occupiers are renting space (TikTok leased a six-storey office building in Farringdon last month). Investors tempted to "go long" on an eventual return to the office will undoubtedly require some patience.

But as Reits have to distribute 90 per cent of their taxable income to investors, at least there are dividends to be had while we wait.

Claer Barrett is the FT's consumer editor, and a financial commentator on Eddie Mair's LBC drive-time show, on weekdays between 4-7pm: [email protected]; Twitter @Claerb; Instagram @Claerb