Derek Pain: Progress of a sort as we are blessed with more info than ever

No Pain, No Gain

It could be argued that small shareholders have never had it so good. Although the bulk of the City still regards them as the (very) poor relations of the investment scene, they can obtain, thanks to the internet, more information about their shares than ever before.

In the bad old days, information was often in short supply. When I arrived in the City more than 50 years ago, newspapers were the main source of share prices and company news. By necessity they had to be selective and a great many companies – particularly small ones – were lucky to get a mention.

Another avenue was stockbrokers telephoning clients with news of developments, but they rarely bothered with the small player. And most communications direct from companies were by post. When strikes interfered with the leisurely delivery system, it was not unusual to find a company representative on the doorstep, particularly if a contested take over bid was under way.

I vaguely remember the company secretary of a now-forgotten concern called, if I recall correctly, Liverpool City Caterers, arriving at my home on a Sunday afternoon in the early 1970s when a strike had paralysed postal communications. He wanted my signature on a takeover document. I was happy to oblige, and after a glass or two he resumed his quest for LCC shareholders.

Since those dark, rather slow-moving news days, the information flow, both in quality and quantity, has improved immensely. The arrival of the internet has certainly transformed the lot of small shareholders. They can now log on to, say, the ADVFN web service, and at no cost obtain real time share prices and company news.

Should they insist – I do – postal links are still available. But many small shareholders are not computerised and unable to enjoy this information feast. In the main, they are those who are knocking on in years. They still rely on newspapers that continue to provide a vital service, various telephone links and what amounts to the modern day equivalent of the pigeon post. There is also an important service provided by the BBC, through its Ceefax text pages.

On Ceefax, there is a considerable range of company news and (via BBC1) around 2,500 share prices which are updated every 15 minutes. I suspect many find the BBC service invaluable. Besides covering top shares, it even offers the prices of obscure stocks such as Legendary Investments, priced at a mere 0.16p.

But this month's much-heralded switch to digital signals a BBC text cutback. The end of analogue TV means the BBC share service will be reduced to the top 350 shares, in effect the 100 shares of the benchmark Footsie index and those in the supporting FTSE 250 index. Out will go the vast majority of prices that are now displayed. The likes of Legendary Investments will no longer get a look-in.

Said the BBC in an email exchange: "We hope to offer the full service currently available on Ceefax if bandwidth allows."

I would not hold my breath for the old-fashioned share displays to be resumed in this multi-channelled digital age.

Another blow then to those who, by design or affordability, are not on the internet. Many companies no longer post interim statements and only send out, as they are still legally required, the yearly report. Those which post occasional information – such as take over developments – are dwindling by the month.

And, of course, telephone dealing with certificates is much more expensive than online trading. It is getting increasingly difficult for many computerless shareholders, particularly the elderly, to even remotely keep up with City developments in these days of what is almost a continuously updated information overload.

At least moves to dispense with yearly hardback reports and even the much-cherished paper share certificates have been abandoned but I suspect they will rear their ugly heads again in the not too distant future.

Spirit Pub Co, a no pain, no gain portfolio constituent, may, I think, survive the BBC carnage. Its shares have recently performed well.

Stockbroker Shore Capital remains a buyer and says that the group's strong recovery holds out hope that a dividend will be introduced. As I write, the shares are at a peak 62.5p, capitalising Spirit at £412m.