Unit investment trusts (UITs) are an unmanaged portfolio of professionally selected securities that are held for a specified period of time. They were first issued in the 1960s as a way to "package" and sell portfolios of professionally selected bonds, especially tax-exempt municipal bonds. The cost of a unit is generally $1,000. During the 1990s, the UIT concept was extended to stocks.
Unlike mutual funds, that are professionally managed, equity UITs are a "buy-and-hold" investment. Securities in the portfolio are held for a pre-determined time to generate dividends and capital gains for investors. At maturity, investors can take their cash and invest elsewhere or can "roll over" their balance into a new UIT.
Like their bond counterparts, equity UITs are an unmanaged portfolio of stocks that usually remains unchanged throughout the life of the trust. Some equity UITs follow a specific investment strategy such as investing in the five or ten highest yielding stocks among the 30 stocks included in the Dow Jones Industrial Average or only in stocks listed on foreign stock exchanges. Like mutual funds, an increasing number of equity UITs also select stocks from a particular industry sector (e.g., technology) or companies located in a particular state or region of the country.
Like individual stocks, UIT dividends and capital gains are taxable, whether earnings are distributed in cash or reinvested in additional UIT units. If the value of a UIT portfolio increases, that capital gain is taxed. Most equity UITs have maturities of six years or less. Shares can be sold prior to the trust’s maturity at a price determined by market conditions. Two advantages of equity UITs are not having to worry about changes in portfolio holdings or management and tax efficiency (low taxes because stocks in a UIT portfolio are rarely traded). A major disadvantage is their up-front cost. Equity UITs typically charge a front-end load (commission) of 3% to 5% of the amount invested.