The force is with you

Pay up or sell up, but don't miss your chance with British Energy shares

Stock market worries and the surprisingly good profits made to date on British Energy shares, the Conservatives' last and arguably most controversial privatisation, may suggest that investors would be better off selling the shares rather than paying the second and final instalment.

The 300,000 remaining shareholders in British Energy, the nuclear power station company, should by now have received payment notices - bills - for the final instalment, which is due by a week on Thursday (11 September). To avoid paying this, they must sell by this Friday (5 September).

The final call marks the closing chapter of the Conservatives' massive privatisation programme, which started more than a decade ago and has since been taken up around the world - and may yet be revived under New Labour.

Despite misgivings among some stockbrokers when it was privatised last year, and the fact that half of the original investors have now sold out, British Energy shares have performed very well, increasing in value by 60 per cent.

Investors have also received dividends totalling another 13.7p a share on an original purchase price of 100p - a better income than from any building society account.

Shareholders who pay the final instalment will either get a 10p discount on the 98p a share required this time round or, if they continue to hold the shares until July 1999, one additional free share for each 15 held. Investors were given the choice of the discount or the bonus shares at privatisation and this should be included in the payment notice just sent out.

Doing nothing should not be an option. If you don't sell the shares but don't pay the second instalment, you face having them sold on your behalf by the Government. But it will only pay you a maximum of 100p a share and you will miss out on all the profits to date.

Selling the partly-paid shares now will mean a good profit on the overall investment, not having to find the money for the final instalment, and avoiding the risk of being caught up in any further problems for shares as a whole.

But investors who want out and who also qualify for the instalment discount - rather than the bonus shares - could instead pay the instalment and then sell, hoping to reap the benefit of the 10p discount. However, they may have to wait until the end of September for a new, fully-paid share certificate needed for selling.

Stockbrokers are offering a range of views on what shareholders should do. Justin Urquhart Stewart, of Barclays Stockbrokers, said that investors with their shares in PEPs should look to pay the final instalment and continue to hold the shares for the good tax-free income they would produce inside a PEP. The next dividend is due in January. But investors who are not holding their shares in a PEP should probably sell and take profits now. Other privatised utilities offered better prospects, he said, while British Energy was more likely to suffer from regulatory problems than the other power generators.

Brian Tora of Greig Middleton, a national firm of brokers, emphasised that investors should pay the final call if they qualified for the discount, given that it is worth around 4 per cent of the overall price of the shares.

If you do decide to sell - now or later - you should contact the original share shop you bought the shares through or a low-cost stockbroker. Examples of the latter include CaterDeal (01708 742288) and ShareLink (0121 200 2242). Some stockbrokers, however, will no longer sell partly-paid shares.

For queries about the final instalment payment or details of shareholdings, phone 0117 975 1594.

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