Investing For Income: Is Futureworld a micro economy?

IS MICRO investment the way ahead? Tony Blair seems to think so. In a speech to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations earlier this year, the Prime Minister praised the benefits of "credit unions, community loan funds, development trusts and social banks like the Triodos Bank".

Micro what? Malcolm Lynch, a solicitor who specialises in the field, explains: "This is a growing sector which offers the ethically and ecologically minded the chance to invest across a spectrum of projects. Some offer a high social [as opposed to financial] return, others compete against non-ethical alternatives."

Unlike unit trusts or bank deposit accounts, these are not standard retail investments. Most either give poorer returns or are far riskier.

"You should invest in these only when you have satisfied your other financial needs such as pension provision, or income," says Mr Lynch.

Some are provident mutual societies, which sell "shares" giving member status to their owners, including the right to vote and influence policy.

The Aston Reinvestment Trust, for example, has already raised pounds 800,000 against a target of pounds 3.5m by 2000. You can invest pounds 250 to pounds 20,000, with 90 days' notice needed to withdraw your cash. ART relends in the Aston area, providing capital for business start-ups and community projects.

The Sheffield Employment Bond aims to raise pounds 3m and requires a minimum deposit of pounds 100. The interest is invested in creating jobs in Leeds and investors are guaranteed a return of their capital after five years.

The Wind Fund, sponsored by Triodos Bank, is an ecological fund that aims to finance the development of electricity using wind-driven turbines. The fund has already paid for turbines in Scotland and Cumbria.

Simon Jenkins of Triodos Bank says: "These investments are about putting your money where your mouth is. It attracts those who want a close relationship with the firms or other enterprises they are investing in."

Elsewhere, Parry People's Movers, set up by an engineer, John Parry, to develop cheap urban transport for large Third World cities, now has shares traded on Ofex. This is an exchange for shares in small, unquoted firms seeking private venture capital.

"We have a very loyal band of investors," says Mr Parry. "They have complete and open access to our factory whenever they wish. Many also offer to help the firm in small ways, by making a visit here or gathering some information there.

"Projects of this kind need a little more thought than is normal when you make an investment. You balance narrowly defined prospects of financial gain or loss, with far broader moral considerations.

"These often come down to the simple question: what kind of world do you want to live in?"

There are also signs that a new, distinct group of ethically and ecologically minded entrepreneurs are seeking funds from like-minded investors often by offering shares in privately owned, unlisted companies.

Jamie Hartzell, a director of the Ethical Property Company, says:"We are seeking investors to finance the development of office and business centres for the voluntary and co-operative sectors.

"Our management style is transparent; we are trying to offer an ethical property investment paying dividends and offering capital growth, while at the same time charging low and flexible rents to our tenants."

Malcolm Lynch, 0113 2429600; Aston Reinvestment Trust, 0121 3592444; Sheffield Employment Bond, 0114 275 5721; Triodos Bank, 0117 973 9339

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