Those windfalls aren't in the carpet bag yet

Suddenly, building societies are sexy. But it's hard to predict which will merge and deliver free cash

"How many more will go this year?" frets Wjet4.

"I've yet to find a building society that does not have a process of making you donate any windfall to charity," adds Tinker.

"And what to do about Nationwide, that granddaddy of them all?" ponders MsL.

When talk of their mergers and demutualisations reaches internet chatrooms and blogs, it's a sure sign that building societies are buzzing. What is normally one of the quieter sectors of the UK's ferocious financial services market has become the focus of lively consumer interest since the start of this year.

Three proposed mergers - Leeds and Mercantile, announced in January; Portman and Lambeth in March; and, 10 days ago, Newcastle and Universal - will deliver windfalls to their members ranging from £100 to £2,500. Speculation is rife that more are to come.

The merger activity is being driven by the potential for building societies, or mutuals, to cut their costs and gain a greater share of the mortgage, savings and investment markets. At the same time, they are giving a commitment that branch closures will be kept to a minimum.

Most of the UK's 63 building societies have long insisted that new members sign away rights to any demutualisation payouts. This is intended to deter the "carpetbaggers" - those who open an account simply to cash in on possible gains from stock market floats.

But the Kent Reliance building society caused a stir recently by abandoning its demand that all new customers with mortgage or savings accounts sign a "charitable assignment" form, so giving away any windfall they might receive. Now, in the event of any demutualisation - as unlikely as many think that might be for such a small society - new members will have the same rights as existing ones, as long as they put at least £100 into the mutual.

The successful demutualisation campaign run by the insurer Standard Life ended last week when 98 per cent of members who voted sanctioned its plans to float on the London Stock Exchange. But within hours, Nationwide, the UK's biggest building society with 11 million members, had issued a tart response.

"Reports of the death of mutuality have been greatly exaggerated," stressed Stuart Bernau, Nationwide's executive director. "It is very much alive and kicking in the building society sector.

"Mutuality matters but we also recognise that an organisation really does have to work hard to make it matter," he added.

Yet it is merger speculation, not the death of the mutual, that is the current hot topic in the sector.

As the chatroom comments quoted above show, there is great interest in whether new members of merged building societies will qualify for any windfalls. In contrast to payouts made after a demutualisation, merger windfalls (taxable, it should be remembered) over the past few years have tended to be given to all members, regardless of how long they have held their account.

Take, for example, the takeover by Portman, the UK's third-biggest building society, of Lambeth. Whereas many members had signed away their rights to a windfall under the "charitable assignment" clause, there was no such rule in the event of a merger. So, in this case, Lambeth borrowers will receive at least £400 and there will be up to £2,500 for savers. To qualify, members must have been saving or borrowing at least £100 on 31 January this year.

Robert Sharpe, chief executive of Portman, talks openly of his desire to grow the mutual by acquiring other building societies. Late last year, a merger with Yorkshire building society, which would have created a powerhouse to rival Nationwide, fell through at the very last minute.

Privately, many chief executives talk of much more activity this year, although most are guarded about their own intentions.

But two weeks ago, Philip Williamson, chief executive of Nationwide, made it clear that while he wasn't going hunting, any smaller society was welcome to get in touch. His phone hadn't been ringing, though, he added.

Britannia, the UK's second- biggest building society, sounds a similar note. "We are not putting out feelers, but if any proposition came along we would look at it," says a spokeswoman.

Rob Proctor, deputy chief executive at Kent Reliance, says: "It's inevitable some merging will take place this year; [smaller societies] cannot rest on [their] laurels. We recognise that the world is changing and it's going to be more difficult for smaller players.

"We haven't had any merger approaches this year but building societies are always talking to each other."

So there are no obvious clues for those chatroom surfers and others looking to try to bag a windfall from a merger - or even a surprise demutualisation.

"It's increasingly hard to find the next building society [that's going to change ownership]," says Justin Modray of independent financial adviser Bestinvest. "The days of carpetbagging aren't entirely dead, but it's harder to do."

Those keen on taking a punt could, he says, try depositing a small sum of at least £100 in societies where they are allowed to do so without signing away any windfall rights.

But he adds: "Far better to focus on one or two building societies with good savings rates that you think will do well."

Adrian Coles, director-general of the Building Societies Association, anticipates more merger activity but dismisses any effort to try to second-guess the next one: "Most people who do so will be very disappointed."

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