A new moneyspinner on the block

Just a year into its life, the Alternative Investment Market is proving its value.

On 19 June last year, a new stock market was launched with all the sceptical acclaim of a new British car. Yet 12 months on, the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) is alive and well and seemingly growing by the month.

Although there is still a long way to go before it even reaches adolescence, the toddler has already proved its worth and silenced many of its critics.

There is only one clear initial reason why we need stock markets: they raise money for industry, and that means more investment, more jobs and more economic growth. But why on earth would we need another stock exchange? Surely there are enough red braces in the world without creating the excuse to encourage more?

The main London Stock Exchange is very effective for larger and international corporations, and in fact trades more international shares than any other market in the world, but it is definitely not geared up to handle the tiddlers.

AIM was established with the key intention of making stock market flotations simpler, more understandable, more accessible and hopefully less expensive.

With this in mind, everything from the flotation procedures to the brochures were designed to see how best they could be made more user-friendly to those not normally involved in such transactions. This included not just the companies and their directors, but also the investors, who are normally the last people to be considered.

Instead of the flotation process being centred on the Stock Exchange in London, the responsibility was devolved to broaden the process through new animals known as Nominated Advisers. These advisers had to have a respectable track record but did not need to have the size or costs of the London merchant banks.

There are 167 companies now on AIM, with a current value of approximately pounds 3.45bn. A total of more than pounds 340m of new capital has been raised and this is increasing steadily. This is more than anticipated, and certainly a surprise to those who were expecting or even encouraging infanticide earlier in the 12 months.

Perhaps the most encouraging element is the amount and value of trading that is going on. Far from being occasional, the volume has been quite brisk and been probably ahead of those smaller companies on the main market. It had been thought that just biotech and property companies would be the chief beneficiaries. This has not been the case to date. So far it has spread from printing companies to pawnshops and brewers to broadcasters.

But what about us as investors, should we dive in enthusiastically? Some of the shares listed on AIM have performed spectacularly, including Africa Gold, Celtic FC, DBS Management, Dawson Holdings, Old English Pub Group, Pet City, and Surrey Free Inns. But the answer is a clear no. By all means invest, but cover your targets carefully first.

AIM is a fascinating market, but you should only invest if you are willing to accept a higher level of risk. That risk can earn you a greater return, but also a greater chance of loss. Caveat emptor is the Latin tag which should direct us to be wary, but having weighed up the risks invest carefully.

The good thing about many AIM companies is that they are localised, and thus we as investors can bring our own knowledge and skills to bear to our own advantage. If in doubt, you could consider a pooled investment in AIM, like Singer & Friedlander's AIM Investment Trust.

AIM has had a remarkable first year, and no doubt it will have to suffer the pains of adolescence in the future. To date it has been a great success, and has all the chances of continuing to do so - and let's hope the Toddler doesn't throw a tantrum. Happy birthday.

The writer is business planning director of Barclays Stockbrokers Ltd.

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