Money Talk: Time to test whether the feeling really is mutual

Northern Rock's auspicious entree to the stock market last week - with its shares ending Friday at 473p, making a succulent windfall worth pounds 2,365 a head - marks the last of this year's run of building society conversions.

The inevitable question now is: who's next? (Next, that is, apart from the two societies that have already announced pay-outs - Birmingham Midshires, due next autumn and First National, in Ireland, probably in spring 1999.)

Last week, I came across an interesting challenge to the remaining building societies to back up their public claims of no change - and by default potentially flush out the less-than-diehard mutuals. Most societies, if asked, say they are committed to remaining mutual and not paying a windfall. But Northern Rock was not alone in waffling about the benefits of its mutual status until shortly before it announced its intention to convert. No wonder many consumers aren't convinced by the remaining societies' blandishments.

One Bristol-based financial adviser, Stephen Lansdown, whose firm Hargreaves Lansdown has been accused of recommending at least one insurer (NPI) for "carpetbagging", suggests that building society executives who really want us to believe their claimed commitment, should state in writing they would resign if their society demutualised and paid a windfall.

Mind you, such a promise wouldn't make them immune from takeover any more than those who stayed silent could be relied on to hand over the money. But it could be a start. I look forward to hearing from society executives imminently and will pass on the responses.

MORTGAGES need more regulation. Yet another report backing this view is in October's Which? magazine, published last week (try your public library). Any sensible borrower should check their mortgage statement for mistakes just as they check their bank statement, and probably with even closer scrutiny given the scale of the financial transaction. Trouble is, according to Which? many of the lenders don't provide enough information for borrowers to work out what they should be paying, despite a new code of practice that should have brought improvements.

The Independent and Independent on Sunday have produced a free Guide to Mortgages, sponsored by Barclays Mortgages, for readers. Unfortunately it will not single-handedly vanquish all your existing mortgage horrors, but, particularly for mortgage novices, it is recommended reading. Fill in the coupon (bottom right of page) or call 0800 585 691.

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