Ask Sindie: Will I be better off if Standard Life goes to the market?

A member of the insurer asks how he should vote on demutualisation
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The Independent Online

The verification is needed for me to receive shares if the insurer goes ahead and ends its life as a mutual to become a public company traded on the Stock Exchange instead.

But I have lost all the original documents and my repeated calls to the company for help always end in frustration: I simply get passed around.

However, I am more perturbed that I have no idea if the planned public flotation is a good idea or not. I don't want to vote for something I really don't understand.

Can you help on either count?

JJ, west London

A: Your policy details are easily dealt with; your voting decision rather less so.

In the first instance, Standard Life has set up a customer service team to deal with all sorts of queries relating to the planned float - from lost documents through to the differences between being a member of a mutual or a shareholder.

Call this 0845 275 3000 helpline - open from 8.30am to 5pm on weekdays - and staff will be able to process your request for copies of your original documents.

When these arrive, simply check the details against those sent by Standard Life.

Whether to vote in favour of the demutualisation - at a ballot scheduled for a special company meeting in May or June 2006 - comes down to your opinion of Standard Life's future: will it, and you, be better off with the status quo or a change to public status?

It's not an easy personal decision, based as it is on business strategies, but it's worth noting that there's a great deal of momentum behind a vote in favour of demutualisation.

Two weeks ago, Standard Life's board gave a green light to the change and will campaign to get members like yourself behind it.

It needs agreement from 75 per cent of its 2.4 million with-profits policyholders - customers with investment bonds, endowments or pensions - before it can go ahead.

The company believes that going public will give it a stronger position in the UK financial services industry. Without the injection of cash from shareholders, its current mutual status means it must garner much of its financial strength from the value of with-profits funds.

The appeal of these funds has been that they store up profits when times are good to "smooth out" returns when their investments hit trouble. But so strong was the downturn in the markets between 2000 and 2003 that this strategy came unstuck: the value of the funds was shattered and consumer confidence dented.

As a result, today's with-profits funds are much smaller, and that means less financial muscle. This can't go on, says the insurer, if it is to be competitive.

"By demutualising, Standard Life can access capital [from the stock market] otherwise unavailable," says a spokeswoman.

"If the company were to [stay] as a mutual, we believe there would [also] be increasing risks to with-profits policyholders."

Looking after its financial strength first is an understandable priority, but where does that leave you?

In theory, of course, you'll want any company that is in charge of your money to perform as well as it can. And if it believes that demutualisation is the best way forward, you'll need some pretty strong convictions to think otherwise.

A recent poll of financial advisers in Money Marketing magazine found 90 per cent were in favour, and 10 per cent against. Their opinion will probably carry great sway as many with-profits customers bought their policies from advisers, and will seek their guidance on the vote.

And plenty of City insurance analysts see the float as a fait accompli.

In particular, Ned Cazalet of Cazalet Consulting has been a vocal backer. Cast your vote against demutualisation, he recently suggested, and you'd be backing the insurer to carry on with a lack of cash and a limited business outlook.

And, crucially, let's not forget the immediate benefits to you. As a policyholder of some years standing, you'll qualify for free shares as a trade-off for "giving up" your mutual membership.

How many you get will probably depend on two things: the value of your endowment policy and the time you've held it. The final details for qualification have yet to be set, but rough calculations suggest most members will probably receive shares worth between £500 and £1,000.

What you then do with the shares is up to you: keep them and hope they prove a decent long-term investment, or sell them straight away for cash.

Regardless, you'll get less than you would have done five years ago when Standard Life's managers actually fought off a demutualisation campaign, arguing that members would be better off as they were. The with-profit struggles have put paid to that sentiment.

If you need help from our consumer champion, write to Sindie at The Independent on Sunday, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or email sindie@independent.co.uk. We cannot return documents, give personal replies or guarantee to answer letters. We accept no legal responsibility for advice given.

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