AIM meets the deadline for its debut

Stock Exchange: New trading systems promise an establishment shake- up
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The Independent Online

On Monday morning, Winterflood Securities, the stockbrokers that specialise in small companies, will invite clients to its offices to celebrate the launch of the London Stock Exchange's Alternative Investment Market, the successor to the widely-discredited Unlisted Securities Market for junior firms.

It is hardly likely to be the event of the season. So far, industry reception to AIM has been somewhat lukewarm.

About 15 companies are expected to join the market from day one, compared with the 156 companies still listed on the Unlisted Securities Market and the 400 or so trading on the 4.2 market, which is due to be phased out in three months.

There are about 30 nominated advisers willing or able to give financial advice to companies wishing to join the new market. Those willing and cleared by the exchange to advise companies' directors on their obligations when they join include Panmure Gordon, Henderson Crosthwaite, Close Brothers and KPMG, the accountants and regional players

But the list is as notable for its absentees. These include Smith New Court, Hoare Govett, NatWest Securities and Cazenove - all active advisers to companies wanting to float on the main market. Cazenove's application is still being processed.

AIM was conceived as a way of replacing the USM with a widely accepted market for smaller companies, anxious to raise smallish amounts of capital without incurring the expenses of a full flotation.

It is one of the projects being followed closely by Michael Lawrence, the exchange's chief executive, whose end-of-year bonus is widely believed to be linked to the market starting on time. Yesterday, he was briefing senior managers on the events of the past year ahead of publication of the annual report, likely to coincide with AIM's debut day.

Mr Lawrence will no doubt have reported that AIM is on schedule, though he is less likely to emphasise the problems it will face in its early weeks.

Investors, some of whom have lost significant amounts in well-publicised flops on the main market, will be even more wary of placing money in a market which in its very nature does not demand as stringent conditions for companies willing to join it.

The Stock Exchange's nominated advisers for the market run the risk of putting their reputations at stake if and when a company has problems.

Even though there has been talk of some advisers offering a no-frills, cut-price service, most are determined to point out that they will be conducting due diligence as well as they can.

"We are happy to work on AIM companies, where they are good companies," says Tim Linacre, corporate finance director of Panmure Gordon. "But we would do the same amount of due diligence that one would expect from an adviser to a company on the main market."

Such a strategy comes at a price, however, so companies may find that joining AIM will not necessarily lead to greatly reduced fees to advisers, one of the main reasons for joining the market in the first place.

Guinness Mahon, the merchant bank, has decided not to list itself as one of the nominated advisers, even though it envisages itself possibly acting for a company wishing to join AIM later. "We are not prepared to float a company with endless risk warnings," says Christopher Stainforth, managing director. "I can see ourselves doing the odd AIM deal but we would conduct the same standards of due diligence we would incorporate for a listing on the main market. It would not be cheaper."

Not all are gloomy about AIM's medium-term prospects. Julian Palfreyman, of Winterflood Securities says: "All we need is a few winners and then people will become interested."

He cites the recent success of Memory Corporation, a microchips company, floated on the 4.2 market last December at 40p and whose shares now trade around 250p.

The launch of AIM will no doubt be affected by the recent decision to allow companies trading on the 4.2 market to have a further three months before transferring. Whatever the outcome, it is clear AIM's beginning will be a rather muted affair. But at least it looks like starting on time, which by Stock Exchange standards, is not a bad start.

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The London Stock Exchange said yesterday that it had withdrawn permission for dealing in shares of Wall Street Investments, a company currently traded under rule 4.2 of the rules of the exchange. The exchange said that after monitoring company share transactions it believed an orderly market in its securities might not exist. It said the ban would have effect until further notice.