William Kay: Time investment power went back to the people

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The Independent Online

Like most financial columnists, I have had my run-ins with Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but I am more than delighted to applaud her latest initiative.

I have long championed the cause of regional stock exchanges, abandoned 30 years ago as part of Britain's preparation for entry into the European Union. Local markets, which for more than a century had served the economies around Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol were swept away.

Now Ms Hewitt is encouraging the DTI's local agencies to assess the feasibility of launching low-cost, interest-based, share-trading systems regionally. First could be Birmingham, under the guise of the West Midlands region.

The fashionable political mantra this time is devolution. Ms Hewitt sees the plan as the latest in a long line of attempts to bridge the famous equity gap between investors and small companies, the subject of much haranguing of the financial sector by successive governments. The venture capital giant 3i is a relic of such initiatives, but the logic for returning to local exchanges is unassailable.

Local exchanges were the natural outcrop of the Victorian industrial revolution, when regional economies and companies were cut off from each other by lack of communication. Until the railways arrived, there was even a 10-minute time difference between London and Bristol.

In such cocoons, local investment communities, brokers, trusts, pension funds and personal investors, could identify a promising nearby enterprise without troubling the London Stock Exchange.

And small regional companies found it easier to make their case to investors familiar with the circumstances and who probably knew the directors personally.

When the exchanges were unified in 1973, such companies had to traipse to the capital and persuade London accountants, lawyers, bankers, public relations firms and stockbrokers that their shares were worth floating on the market.

We shall never know how many returned empty-handed, but even before the onset of the latest bear market it is likely the foreign ownership of the City can only have made it harder for regional companies to raise money. Investment banks are less inclined to take risks on the unknown now.

In theory, City small-company analysts can hear instantly about a provincial success story. They own most of the regional broking firms, and the internet abolishes distance. But many local trusts and pension funds have subcontracted their portfolio management to London fund managers, cutting a vital link in the regional support networks.

The Hewitt idea could do much to restore these networks and open up a huge vista of opportunities for provincial investors to make use of their local knowledge and get in on the ground floor of corporate growth stories.

If, as an increasing number of people believe, the bear market has ended or is reaching the end of its extraordinarily long life, the establishment of regional exchanges could not come at a better time.

If confidence continues to flow back into investors' cheque books, they will be primed to invest locally instead of taking whatever London cares to throw at them.

* Debt may be a four-letter word, but it is certainly not one excluded from polite company these days. At present interest rates, most of us reckon we can handle another chunk of borrowing to buy that car, kitchen or conservatory, or pay for a holiday.

The trouble is, that is precisely how the majority of borrowers slide into debt: not with a bang but with a succession of whimpers. Then they wake up. The average credit card debt has reached nearly £7,000, which at the extortionate rates charged by banks will cost a horrifying £1,400 in yearly interest. And that, remember, is the average. Plenty of people must owe double or treble that.

As Tom Tickell argues on page one, the best way to keep the debt habit under control is to map out a borrowing strategy. This is not easy, because it reverses the normal psychology of buying first and borrowing afterwards. But it is only by budgeting in this way people can keep tabs on what is happening, before it overwhelms them.

Newspapers have been wagging their fingers at readers for months, warning that low interest rates will not last for ever and borrowers should cut debt now before it becomes really expensive. I am under no illusion; that is easy to say, and harder to do. But at least forcing yourself to tot up what you owe will prepare you for the tougher times which may lie ahead.

* Gordon Brown is taxing us harder and with greater complexity. So, even allowing for the Government's unshakeable majority, you would expect our elected representatives to be even more vigilant about combing through the fine detail of the Chancellor's Budgets.

Not a bit of it. The Chartered Institute of Taxation, tireless campaigner for simpler and more understandable tax laws, has found that 80 per cent of MPs have read virtually none of this year's Finance Act, one of the longest and most complex on record.

Asked what they found most interesting in the new law, responses included "None of it could be described as interesting", "Interesting is not a word I would use" and "Interesting - are you joking?"

Tim Ambrose, the institute's president, said: "Without vigorous action from more MPs there is no effective mechanism to stop our tax laws increasing further in length and complexity." Quite.

William Kay is Personal Finance Editor of The Independent

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