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Business Comment

Jim Armitage: Too many miss out on chance to climb aboard Royal Mail gravy train

Outlook The underpricing of the Royal Mail flotation would be less infuriating if more members of the public were able to access the shares.

Not only was the minimum investment (£750) unaffordable to most people, but only a third of the share offer was set aside for the so-called "retail" punter, meaning those who did apply will mostly end up with far fewer shares than they'd hoped for.

It's a pity, because one good thing that could have come out of the float had the retail portion of the offer been more generous was a wider taste for share ownership in the country

A lower proportion of British shares are owned by private investors than in any other developed economy bar France, Holland and Portugal.

Little more than 10 per cent of stock market quoted shares here are owned by private households, according to the Federation of European Securities Exchanges, compared with 25 per cent in the US and between 20 per cent and 26 per cent in Spain, Italy and Belgium. Not only that, but the percentage of shares owned by individuals has fallen over the decades, from nearly 30 per cent in 1981 to 10.7 per cent today.

OK, the Royal Mail float is the most generous for retail punters for years, but the bar is extremely low. So low, in fact, that Direct Line won many a glowing headline last year for offering 15 per cent of its IPO to the public.

Ask brokers why we have such low share ownership here and they will point to stamp duty putting retail punters off. This may be partly true, although stamp duty on shares would seem one of our fairer levies, given that, inherently, those able to buy shares tend to be the better off.

But a more likely reason0 few people have an urge to invest is because they do not trust the City. They feel instinctively that, not only is the stock market a casino, but one where the tables are rigged against the punter by the pin-striped brigade in the Square Mile. Given how widespread insider trading clearly is ahead of takeovers and mergers, who can blame them? Let alone the unpunished scandals of the financial crisis.

But there are profits to be had in share ownership, and there are clear benefits for society, and industry, in encouraging citizens to invest in their economy through shares.

The likely riches to be garnered for those who do get to jump on board the Royal Mail gravy van could have been a catalyst to expand that. And a chance for the City to prove to the public that it can serve them well.

Instead, it seems an opportunity lost.