Go ahead, Nationwide: make our day

MONEY TALK
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The Independent Online
Will the Nationwide building society produce the next Halifax- style windfall? Last week the society reaffirmed its commitment to remaining a traditional society (ie not paying a windfall) in the face of claims that it had valued itself at about pounds 2,000 a member and that another financial company might make a bid for it. This week the society's members will be sent forms giving them a chance to vote for a new set of directors who want the society to cough up.

Michael Hardern, founder of the pressure group Members for Conversion, and four fellow "carpetbaggers" have put themselves forward for election to the board to push it to turn itself into a bank or be taken over - so yielding a payout. Their argument is that the vast majority of savers, who are the vast majority of the society's members, would be better off with handouts than with the better interest rate policy the Nationwide has been promoting.

The society's management is opposing Mr Hardern and has its own five candidates for the board. Voting slips need to be returned by 22 July.

However, even the candidacy of the carpetbaggers appears to have produced some softening in the public stance of the society. It now says it will "obviously look at [serious takeover] offers", although it claims "no one is about to make an offer that couldn't be refused". And it says that whether or not Mr Hardern and friends get elected, it will consider the support given to the different candidates carefully.

If that should mean more consideration given to the windfall options, few Nationwide members are likely to be disappointed. The value of financial companies has soared in recent months. The shares of both the Halifax and the Alliance & Leiciester have turned out be worth much more than originally thought, Norwich Union's flotation tomorrow is likely to provide a similar cause for celebration, while it is increasingly looking like the Bristol & West was sold to Bank of Ireland (windfalls due in August) on the cheap. Admittedly, if the Nationwide announced tomorrow that it planned to turn itself into a bank, there is no guarantee the market would be so buoyant by the time it converted. But if the society could get pounds 2,000 a member, perhaps double what it might have got a year ago, by selling out now then isn't there a case for doing so?

Financial companies are becoming virtual. According to one report, most firms will be dealing with customers over the Internet within two years. But there's no need to worry that you won't have the choice to sort out your finances face-to-face or by phone. You can now also contact me "on the net"/by e-mail. If you have any questions for our regular Readers' Lives column, if you want a Financial Makeover in these pages, or if you have any other comments about these pages, send your virtual mail to indybusiness@independent.co.uk, marking it for the attention of Steve Lodge. Of course you can still write to me: Steve Lodge, Personal Finance Editor, Independent on Sunday, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, or fax me on 0171-293 2096 or 2098. Apologies, but I cannot enter into a personal correspendence, virtual or not.

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