The end of building society windfalls

Speculators are now turning to insurance companies, says Clifford German
Investors in Bristol & West Building Society who had less than pounds 100 in their accounts on April 15 are, uniquely, being given to the end of the year to top up their balances and qualify for a free handout when the society is finally taken over by Bank of Ireland.

All members will get something. But those who opened their accounts after the beginning of last year, as well as nearly 200,000 borrower-members, are likely to get only pounds 250 in preference shares and have to wait until next year to get it. For those who only joined the rush at the last minute and had to make a minimum investment of pounds 2,500 to qualify, that is a much less successful speculation than any of the previous windfalls investors in earlier conversions and takeovers are expecting.

That partly reflects the fact that Bristol & West has been one of the less successful societies in recent years, paying for a succession of poor investment decisions including a very costly venture into estate agency. As a result Bank of Ireland paid significantly less per pound of assets and earnings than Abbey National paid for National & Provincial

It also reflects the fact that most of the best prospects have now succumbed. A list of the societies still committed to mutual status now starts with the Nationwide and Bradford & Bingley, which were in the top ten two years ago, and then moves to Britannia, Yorkshire and Birmingham Midshires, which were second division only a year ago.

These smaller fry are not big enough to convert alone into banks or to offer an instant solution to a financial institution trying to buy market share in a recovering UK mortgage market.

Meanwhile societies awaiting a new status and committed mutuals alike are stuffed with cash they did not really want and are in a good position to compete strongly in the mortgage market, although whether they will want to increase rates for investors is a moot point.

Committed speculators are switching to buying endowment policies issued by insurance companies considered most likely to convert into quoted companies or be taken over. Securitised Endowment Contracts, the London-based market- maker in traded endowment policies, says there is strong demand for policies issued by Scottish Amicable, Scottish Life, MGM Assurance and NPI among the mutual life offices, as well as listed life companies GRE and London & Manchester, while the promise of special bonuses is attracting buyers of policies issued by Friends Provident, Norwich Union, Prudential and Britannic.