Companies alarmed at Taurus option

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COMPANIES are set to fight plans for replacing the Stock Exchange's failed Taurus computerised share records scheme with any system that would make it more difficult for them to identify their shareholders and allow potential predators to build up share stakes secretly.

They are concerned that one option under review, an extension to Sepon, a large nominee account used by market- makers - which is one option under review - would reduce the visibility of their shareholders.

Taurus was designed to replace share certificates with electronic records. The system, dropped last week after the Stock Exchange admitted that millions more would have to be spent without any guarantee it would work, would have left intact company registers that list their shareholders.

Richard Grayson, company secretary of British Petroleum and long-time Taurus watcher, said: 'Companies want two things, visibility and certainty.'

He said companies had been waiting for Taurus for several years and many were ready for its launch by the time it was dropped. Ironically, BP's report and accounts, published last week, included a request for shareholders' approval for a switch to Taurus.

Companies' concern to retain the ability to identify their shareholders was one of the factors behind the enormous complexity of the Taurus regulations which retained the 'name on register' concept.

A Treasury spokesman said last week that dropping the concept had not been ruled out, but the outcome would depend on decisions made by the Bank of England committee set up to explore alternatives to Taurus.

A spokeswoman for the Confederation for British Industry said its members continued to support the 'name on register' concept.

Sepon currently appears as a nominee name on share registers. It is accepted by companies because its holding of shares is usually small and its use is limited to market-makers.

If it were used by brokers and large investors - as has been suggested in recent days - it could be used to mask predatory buying, companies fear. Supporters of extending Sepon say, however, that this argument is less relevant than it was in the Eighties as the trigger for disclosure has come down to 3 per cent.

The 'name on register' concept is one of the barriers to importing a settlement system from overseas. Mike Jones, of Capel-Cure Myers, an expert on settlement, said it was part of the way of working in the UK. 'You rush into it (change) at your peril,' he added.

The companies opposing a Sepon- style solution face a raft of other powerful interest groups ready to fight over the eventual shape of Taurus's replacement. Big institutional investors have different requirements from smaller investors, while the share registrars owned by the high street banks will seek to block any suggestion of a central, jointly-owned registry.

Last week the Stock Exchange laid much of the blame for the Taurus fiasco on the compromises made at the start of the project, which sought to satisfy all these different user groups. The result was a hopelessly complicated and expensive system that failed to work.

The hope now is that the Bank of England will be able to 'bang heads together' in a way in which the Stock Exchange was unable, or unwilling, to do.

The Bank's Securities Settlements Task Force, hastily assembled last week under its associate director, Pen Kent, to find a cheap replacement for Taurus as quickly as possible, stressed that it was open to suggestions on what the new system would look like.

But Mr Kent also pledged that the new system would endeavour to provide as good a service to users as already existed. This will encourage the company lobbyists who want to retain transparency of shareholdings.

Lobbying over the new system will start in earnest tomorrow when the Royal Bank of Scotland holds a meeting with 30 other banks and City institutions.

The Royal Bank wants a two-tier system involving a centrally-owned clearing house for big institutional share trades, and a traditional paper-based system for smaller investors.