Derek Pain: Small players could call the tune despite City contempt


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The Independent Online

Private investors, if only they bandied together, could have a dramatic influence on the stock market.

Surprisingly, they rate as one of the major shareholding groups. There is, of course, little chance of such a diverse bunch of individuals exerting much influence on any of the issues that occupy the City.

I have often berated the Square Mile for its indifference to the small player. Its attitude occasionally borders on contempt. Only last week I complained about the excessive costs that traditional shareholders (dealing by telephone, seeking share certificates and without internet access) encounter.

Yet the potentially powerful position of us little'uns is underlined in a survey conducted by Capita, the share registrars. It seems that individual shareholders now account for 11.3 per cent of UK plc, nearly outstripping, believe it or not, the likes of pension funds and insurers.

With the Isa limit due to be lifted next month the incentive for private shareholders is likely to be strengthened.

The insatiable appetite for the stock market has lifted the total held by individuals to nearly £239bn, only some 3.5 per cent short of the all-time peak achieved ahead of the devastating financial crisis that sent shares crashing.

The biggest stock-market influence is represented by an array of foreign shareholders who account for just over half of British quoted shares.

On average, the big guns hold shares for two years whereas the small player sticks around for five years.

The No Pain, No Gain portfolio has not contributed directly to the march of individual shareholders. Some of its constituents have not been inspired but the three that reported recently have enjoyed success.

Whitbread, the leisure group recruited as the financial upheaval was devastating the investment world, has issued another bullish trading statement. Total sales were up by 12.7 per cent in the first 13 weeks of its year with chief executive Andy Harrison saying the group "is well positioned for another good year with our strong brands continuing to win market share".

The Costa coffee division led the way with a 15.9 per cent sales advance, although the Premier Inn budget hotel chain was not all that far behind with a 14.2 per cent gain. Pub/restaurants managed 5.4 per cent.

The shares, as I write, are a little above 4,4p, below their peak but way ahead of the 1,105p the portfolio paid in 2008. There are various stock-market views about Whitbread. For example, broker Beaufort, saying buy, is impressed with the way the group is capitalising on growing demand for budget hotels and coffee. But another broker, The Share Centre, believes Whitbread's potential is already reflected in the share price and, advising a hold, suggests capital spending will keep the income yield low.

Another leisure company, the Spirit Pub Co. followed up impressive sales figures with an intriguing pub sale. It's no ordinary pub, mind you. The Black Lion in London's Bayswater went for a staggering £27m against a book value of only £7.6m. The pub rolled out operational profits of £700,000 before central costs were considered.

The third constituent is Avation, the aircraft-leasing firm that is pursuing Capital Lease Aviation. It has again increased its stake, this time to 68.85 per cent, by snapping up 2.5 million shares in exchange for a block of its own shares.

Spirit is now 76p against a 42p buying price and Avation flies at 133p (83.5p).

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