Derek Pain: Online crowd leaves many unconnected

No Pain, No Gain

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The Independent Online

I realise we live in a computer- obsessed world, but various organisations need to appreciate that not everybody has the occasionally dubious privilege of being online.

There seems to be a feeling in some quarters, including the City and indeed many quoted companies, that everybody in the country has a computer.

Of course most of us have access, but a significant minority, for a variety of reasons, are not connected. They are clearly seen as a nuisance by the internet set.

I worry about the future of many unconnected investors. Most are elderly and already suffering from a combination of inflation and low interest rates.

I am an old man myself and have acquaintances, including shareholders, who have no intention of getting computerised. Some are baffled by the whole creation.  Yet they are given short shrift by many people who are in a position of authority.

These days, a shareholder who relies on printed copies can generally expect only annual reports and dividend cheques.

Preliminary profit announcements, interim reports and any other communications are now confined to the computer. So it is not unusual for investors to spend much of the year unaware of what is happening to their investments, unless the media take an interest. And the media mostly ignore  small caps.

It seems counter-productive for companies to scale back on print. Often, yearly reports are works of art. Many businesses still regard their accounts as a promotional symbol and spend heavily creating glossy publications. I suspect annual reports have considerable merit as an advertising medium.

I have always been given the option by companies of retaining printed copies. But a communication from SnackTime, the vending group, offered no choice. It wanted my details so it could recruit me as an online participant.

As I insist on printed communications I contacted the company. SnackTime was prepared to continue supplying printed versions – it had just not got round to mentioning such a possibility. Director T.H.T. James told me he was “very happy to continue to send paper if that is what you want”. I appreciate the desire to save money on printing and postage but I do wonder whether us shareholders (or customers) see any benefit from electronic cost cutting.

Indeed I am annoyed with BT, where I am a customer. I will soon be expected to pay £1.50 for every paper bill sent to me. The alternative is to accept statements on line.

As I will be forced to print said bills for my accountant, using my paper and ink, I wonder what is in it for me – just a humble customer. On the other hand BT grabs more of  my cash.

I am not anti-computer and appreciate the need, in many fields, for progress. It just seems to me that people who should know better discriminate against those who are not online.

Indeed, the non-computerised brigade is already charged heavily through higher prices for its failure to comply with the computer age.

Now to the portfolio. Three constituents have been making waves with mixed results. Mears, the support-services group, produced an upbeat trading statement and Marston’s, the brewers and pub owners, rolled out lower interim profits but accompanied them with some relatively cheerful comments as well as a higher dividend.

The shares of both are happily recording profits. Mears, purchased at 272p, is, as I write, 371p and Marston’s, is 153p, up from 95p.

The third member, Northern Petroleum, has not been so beneficial. In fact the portfolio is out of pocket, having paid 68p for shares now worth 35p.

The group is repositioning, selling some assets and adding exploration exposure to its portfolio. So far the stock market has failed to appreciate the proposed transformation. Indeed Northern has been out of favour for some time. The shares were 160p a few years ago and even last year were above 90p.

A slump from profits of  €10.5m (£9m) losses of €528,000 has only strengthened the stock market’s disenchantment.

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