James Moore: Savers should be careful before they start a bond journey with Eddie Stobart


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The Independent Online

Outlook So now along with the advent calendar, cut-out clock and toy lorry you can get an Eddie Stobart bond paying 5.5 per cent! That'll go down well in the haulier's souvenir shop. The launch of said bond, aimed directly at retail investors, is serendipitous: it came on the same day inflation figures provided a nasty shock with the consumer prices index at an unexpectedly high 2.7 per cent.

That means, according to Moneysupermarket, basic rate taxpayers need a savings account paying at least 3.39 per cent to stay ahead of inflation, higher-rate payers need 4.51 per cent. Roll up, roll up, get yer Eddie bonds here!

Of course, the trouble with these bonds is that they aren't savings accounts. Or even savings bonds that lock people in for a certain amount of time with the carrot of a better interest rate.

They are securities carrying significant risk. Caveat emptor – buyer beware– applies. If interest rates go up to the level where 5.5 per cent looks unattractive, unlikely right now but not impossible, that's tough. You can sell the bond, but you'll lose money by doing so.

And if the company goes bust? Bye bye savings.

There are a number of businesses which have tapped the retail bond markets as a means of raising capital, Tesco Bank being a good example. It's backed by a blue-chip business with a jealously guarded reputation.

Eddie Stobart Group is a somewhat different beast. Oh, it makes money, survived the worst of the downturn intact, and has a pretty good market position. But its governance isn't exactly best of breed. Then there's the recent sale of property to the business owned by a company connected to its chief executive, Andrew Tinkler, which has attracted negative comment from Pirc, the governance watchdog.

That's an issue for shareholders, rather than bondholders, who don't get a vote on that sort of thing because they get paid before shareholders if things get nasty. But bond investors can't afford to ignore it. It's certainly worth asking whether institutional investors would be willing to buy into a bond backed by the haulage group at 5.5 per cent right now. I have my doubts.

The retail bond market, set up by the London Stock Exchange, is generally quite a good thing. It should work for the punter, who gets a better rate of return than they might find elsewhere as long as they are willing to sit tight for five or more years and are aware of the risks they are taking. It works for companies, providing a source of capital at what could be a more competitive rate than from institutions.

But what if something goes wrong? What if Mr and Mrs Miggins lose their savings and there's a furore as a result?

I'm not saying that will happen with the Stobart security. It may work perfectly well. But am I alone in feeling slightly uncomfortable about a less than blue-chip company with questionable governance using a brand puffed up by reality tv shows, souvenir shops and gaudily daubed trucks to be touting for people's savings like this?