Personal Finance: Not such a mutual gain

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THE Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society goes to court this week to do battle with the Building Societies Commission over its deal with Lloyds Bank.

The outcome probably will not be known for a few weeks. But it could have a serious knock-on effect on the future of all building societies, even though this case is focused on a particular question - whether the threat of the Lloyds money cascading into C&G members' pockets passes the labyrinthine tests imposed by a creaking Building Societies Act.

This is the second proposed conversion of a building society, and the second visit to the courts for an interpretation of the Act.

The pioneering Abbey National seems to have lost none of its charms for borrowers and savers since it changed its status and is now owned by its shareholders.

So what exactly is the Treasury supposed to be so afraid of that makes it consider - so we are told - cranking up the legislative machinery to stop any other building societies greasing their escape from the mutual pen with outside cash?

If the courts decide that there are obstacles to the Lloyds-C&G deal, so that outside money cannot reward the 'owners' of a society for a change to shareholder power, then the fever may abate of its own accord.

But City deal makers are getting excited about the possible marriages that could unlock the hidden charms of building societies, and so are building society members.

A minority retain an affection for the principles of co-operative ownership. The biggest cheer on this front seems to come from those within building societies who have to most to lose from radical change.

Increasingly, adherence to 'mutuality' for its own sake seems quaint at best. And it appears self-serving when it comes from those who run societies without any effective controls from the members they are supposed to be serving.

THE INVESTMENT OMBUDSMAN, Richard Youard, who deals with complaints involving larger fund managers seems to have got the balance about right. He has little time for investors who do not believe they have any duty to read documents before they sign away their fortunes, while sympathising with those who try to understand impenetrable, jargon-riddled explanations.

His advice bears repeating: 'If you don't understand what you have been told or what you have read, go on asking until you do understand. If you still don't understand, don't invest.'

PEOPLE HAVE liked a bit of swank with their credit cards ever since someone had the bright idea of colouring them gold.

Now the upstart US bank, MBNA, which has started a credit-card operation based in Chester, has given the whole business another twist with the offer of personalised cards that carry your own family crest.

You can only indulge in this petty vanity if your name happens to be Brown, Davis, Evans, Taylor, Thomas, Smith Williams, or the like.

If you are lucky enough to have a common name (frequently occurring, rather than vulgar, of course) then you stand a good chance of being offered a credit card with one of the lowest rates in the market - 17.9 per cent APR for buying goods, 13.9 per cent for cash and no pounds 10 annual fee for an introductory period.

Offering a pseudo-personal service might seem a bit naff. But MBNA, based in Newark, Delaware, is the second largest credit-card issuer in the US and has set its sights on 'the quality' over here - it's first card was for Burberry, the classy manufacturer of rain macs.

So those of us with more unusual names not on the standard list should think about lobbying for our own coat of arms to be given the plastic treatment.