Norwich Union starts a new era with a reminder of the good old days

STOCK MARKET WEEK

Norwich Union, the stock market's latest blue chip, has struck a blow for shareholders who still like to receive paper share certificates.

In an age when most certificates are as dull as ditchwater the insurance giant, which floated two weeks ago, has taken the trouble to produce a rather tastefully designed, picturesque document which is reminiscent of the more collectable bits of paper issued in years gone by.

Against a shades-of-beige background the certificate offers a thumb- print portrait of the founder, one Thomas Bignold, a selection of the group's trademarks, bits of an old script and a picture of a London-Norwich horse-drawn stage coach.

Norwich is not, however, striking a blow for paper settlement and it is unlikely that its artistic inclinations will result in the certificate acquiring a value of its own in the foreseeable future. The company took the view that the joint commemoration of its flotation and 200th anniversary deserved something more distinguished than a bog-standard black and white piece of paper with the name Norwich Union stamped on it.

Said a spokesman: "There is clearly a little sentimentality behind it; the cost of producing it was marginal."

And Norwich is destined to fall in line with the bland, unappealing certificates which most companies accept in these hi-tech days. Once its 200th celebrations are complete a more standard form of certificate is likely to be introduced.

Even so, at a time when the stock market is straining to encourage paperless, computerised share settlement with private shareholders being coerced into becoming institutionalised in nominee accounts, the Norwich effort is welcome.

But it was anxious to point out it was not making a point against the Crest computerised settlement system. "You can't stop the tide," said the spokesman.

Geoff Metzger, an expert on old certificates, welcomes the Norwich initiative. He feels, however, too many certificates have been produced for them to achieve an underlying value.

He said: "The Norwich certificate is not a patch on many of those produced in the past although it is certainly the best for a long while."

Old certificates, besides being more colourful, were generally much larger than the pitiful offerings produced today. They were often given a special depth by being engraved and even gold-backed.

A stockbroker with the big private client firm of Walker Crips Weddle Beck, Mr Metzger spends much of his time trading in old certificates, or "busted bonds" as they are known.

At one time, of course, the more elaborate the certificate the greater the risk an investor was likely to take. Selling a dodgy investment was often facilitated by an impressive document. Many an unstable country or tinpot company has, if inadvertently, left a legacy of a valuable document which can be traded among the international army of enthusiastic collectors.

Mr Metzger says there is a "steady demand" for good quality Chinese bonds; he cited the example of one Chinese railway bond, the Canton and Kowloon, trading at around pounds 150. And European issues of US railway bonds, where faint hopes of a payback linger, are also much sought after.

There is every chance that, until Gordon Brown sits down on Wednesday, the "busted bonds" business could be more lively than the stock market.

The market has got itself into something of a tizzy over Mr Brown's first budgetary effort. In the last two weeks shares have lost ground and stock market historian David Schwartz has pointed out that in the run-up to interim Budgets the market is invariably deflated.

Most strategists are still looking for Footsie to climb to 5,000 points over the next year although few offer much hope for supporting shares; the FTSE SmallCap index is now sitting roughly in the middle of its year's range.

Although the Budget date was not known until recently, companies seem to have anticipated the Chancellor's inclination and few are reporting profits this week.

Scottish & Newcastle, which remains the nation's biggest brewer after the Government's strange decision to block the Bass take over of Carlsberg Tetley, is one which failed to dodge the Budget and rolls out year's figures today.

A strong performance is expected with a full year's Courage contribution (37 weeks last time) making a powerful impact. Normalised profits should emerge at around pounds 380m, against pounds 308m.

Courage cost savings will be significant but it is felt Scottish has continued to increase its underlying beer sales.

Center Parcs, the holiday centres chain, is likely to have been a drag, with profits down by more than 10 per cent.

Some in the City feel Scottish will eventually sell Center Parcs, which has suffered cruelly from exchange rate movements. The group has found the holiday market exceedingly difficult and would no doubt welcome an opportunity to concentrate on its breweries and pubs if a suitable offer materialised.

Gibbs Mew, a much smaller brewer, also reports this week - on Budget Day. Its timing could be significant. One market truism is that it is always wise to expect a poor display when a company picks such days as Christmas Eve - or Budget Day - to produced figures.

The group reported flat interim profits, largely due to problems in its tenanted pubs estate. Colin Humphrys at Panmure Gordon is looking for year's profits of pounds 3m; Martin Hawkins at Greig Middleton is on pounds 2.5m. Last year Gibbs made pounds 5.1m.

MFI, the furniture group, should manage a 20 per cent year's gain to pounds 70m tomorrow. But much attention will be paid to trading since the current year got under way in April.

It astonished the market in March by reporting sales running well below expectations. Since then MFI has had to contend with a summery Easter (not conducive to furniture sales) and the election uncertainty. It could, however, be a significant beneficiary of the demutualisation windfall.

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