Private Investor: I got them free, sold cheap and lost a packet

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The Independent Online

It's funny how you can watch a share for years and years with nothing happening and then suddenly all hell breaks loose, everyone wants it and it's surrounded by bid talk. It's even worse if you've been given the shares for nothing and then sold them. Such is my experience with Alliance & Leicester.

When it was a building society, or rather when it was the Leicester Building Society, I was a saver (it was the local society after all) and, thus, a member entitled to the "windfall" shares awarded when, after the merger with the Alliance Building Society, it was eventually floated.

There is, I would guess, still a bit of a concentration of members of the present company in the Leicester area. Me, I sold the shares not so long after the float and forgot all about them, occasionally glancing at the share price and reflecting on how wise my decision had been. I never thought that the shares would ever breach the magic £10 threshold, and yet now they have, with a rumour of a £13 or thereabouts bid doing the rounds.

As with those other quoted and still independent remnants of our once-mighty building society movement, Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, no one seems to have thought Alliance & Leicester could survive on its own in the big bad world of banking, and yet that was hardly ever reflected in the share price.

That went on for years and that, I have to say, was the window of opportunity that I missed. There they were sitting at around £8 for as long as I can recall, and I never even thought about adding them or, rather, restoring them to the portfolio.

A mistake, obviously, and in the great sell-off of corporate Britain to foreign entities it seems that nothing, not even the banking sector, is sacred.

Tony Blair pointed out the other day how most of the gas, water and electricity flowing into No 10 is delivered by companies that are now owned abroad, and wondered what the fuss was all about.

The French, on the other hand, seem to favour "economic patriotism", or nationalism if you like, to such an extent that even the great yoghurt enterprise Danone has been determined a prize national asset.

I think they're wrong about that, but if they want to sate their gallic pride by buying my old building society, then I suppose it's good luck to them. The inevitable job losses at the Leicester HQ will no doubt follow and the brand may well be mismanaged into oblivion, but c'est la vie.

I certainly doubt that Banco Santander's takeover of Abbey National will revolutionise British banking. I just wonder why it is that British banks never seem to have the same degree of freedom in buying other European assets, that's all.

So, even though I might dislike the move for reasons of sentiment and fairness, I ought to think about making some money out of this great move to consolidation in the banking sector.

A&L still looks the best of the bunch, because it hasn't had the problems Bradford & Bingley has had and because the yield is still quite respectable. But I don't buy the shares because I have been waiting for a little weakness in the price to offer some sort of buying opportunity. That may prove an error.

As to selling shares, I'm still not sure as to whether I should carry on chucking Vodafone out. I sold down a chunk a few weeks ago, but there's more in the portfolio. Talking about economic patriotism, Vodafone must be counted one of Britain's great business "champions".

Except, that is, when it comes to the share price, which has remained stubbornly low, even when almost all the rest of the market has picked up.

If only some continental telecoms company would come along with a juicy bid for Vodafone - but I think that they're in even worse shape than our Newbury-based friends. At least the Vodafone people have followed my advice about the fun and games in the boardroom. Paying themselves millions while the company stagnated was never going to be a winning strategy for the hearts and minds of investors.

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