Britain enjoys a summer of money

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The Independent Online
In years to come, the middle months of 1997 will be remembered as the Summer of Money.

The massive flotation of Halifax building society, which begins on Monday, is just the biggest in a series of "de-mutualisations" or takeovers which will punctuate this summer, releasing up to pounds 29bn into consumers' pockets.

An estimated one-third of all adult Britons are likely to benefit from the windfall pay-outs - from the Woolwich and Northern Rock building societies, and insurance companies Norwich Union and Scottish Amicable - and while most of the money will be saved, up to one quarter will be spent within 12 months.

Homes and holidays seem to be the most likely areas to benefit from the summer boom as recipients choose between spending their pounds 1,000-plus sums on a holiday or installing a new kitchen.

Money spent on cars, debt repayment and extra investments seems a less popular option.

Travel agents and builders are not the only winners in the Summer of Money. The total cost to building societies and insurance companies of converting their status is around pounds 480m, of which the Post Office will probably receive around pounds 80m in mail shots alone.

Other costs include new computers and extra staff, but the single biggest winners will be the City. One conservative estimate is that around pounds 100m in fees will be shared around various advisers, including merchant banks, brokers, lawyers, accountants and public relations firms.

Some high-flyers will pick up huge bonuses next year for this work, some perhaps up to a pounds 1m. The prospects for staff at law firms such as Linklaters & Paines, who have won work on four of the conversions, and brokers Cazenove & Co, who are working on three, are especially bright.

The directors of the societies and firms at the centre of the conversions will not be losers either, as their pay, probably linked to profits, is likely to rise steeply. However, with the exception of the Alliance & Leicester, whose chief executive Peter White has an option on 125,704 shares (at 533p each) in three years, none of the companies have plans to award its directors free shares or options.

Yet the money spent in the City on the changes is dwarfed by the huge sums cascading into people's accounts this year.

A recent survey from the insurance company Legal & General predicts that, in descending order, money will be spent on holidays, home improvements and furniture.

And in the latest test of consumer confidence for the European Commission, market researchers GFK have found a significant leap in public optimism. In their report, economist Ben Sanderson, of Nottingham Trent University, says: "There is interesting evidence which suggest that consumers may well spend rather than save these share handouts."

Steve Radley, chief economist for the Henley Centre for Forecasting, predicted an exciting period ahead, with an "unprecedented" amount of money available to consumers.

"People generally are more cautious nowadays but at some time there's a need for luxury and the windfall fulfils that need."

He said there was also a feeling that the injection of money could help kickstart the housing market, and that some people have postponed moving until they receive money which can help pay fees.

A spokeswoman for Thomson Holidays said the company had brought out its 1998 summer brochures deliberately to attract those with bonuses.

She said sales were already "encouraging" but thought the main business may come after the impending Halifax and Norwich Union share outs. "We are hoping for - and expecting - a surge [in business] when the payments are released later this year."

Market research indicated that of those who will spend their extra money - much of it within a year - 51 per cent will spend it on holidays, she said.

B&Q, the country's largest DIY chain, said sales were already healthy, but hoped it would benefit from any extra spending. "We are confident that some of the money will go on home improvements and hopeful that a chunk [of the windfall payments] will come to us," said a spokeswoman.

Stephen Moon, director of the National Federation of Builders, said its research showed the amount of work on home improvements was still in decline. "It's a long overdue area of expansion." He said people had clearly delayed their repair and improvement work and he was confident that some would use their windfalls for this.

A spokesman for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said it was still unclear what impact the new money would have on sales though they expected the private car business to increase.

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