St James's Place turns a remarkable trick

Sometimes paying back money to shareholders really does make sense. Nobody is going to quarrel with the break-up of St James's Place Capital, which after the pounds 123m promised to shareholders in the latest deal will have handed back more than pounds 620m over the last eight years. St James's Place Capital is the discreet little double-act run by Lord Rothschild and Sir Mark Weinberg, the South African-born veteran of a series of highly successful insurance start-ups.

It took a bit of concentration yesterday to follow their latest wheeze: the break up returns cash to shareholders by stripping out St James's Place Capital's investment business from the rest of the group, and placing it in a quoted investment trust with pounds 123m of assets and a fixed life of three years.

Essentially, this is a delayed hand-over of cash to shareholders - done through an investment trust because it both saves tax and allows time to sell some of the less liquid investments.

With such a short life, shareholders can also be sure that the discount to the value of the assets will be small. What's left will be a life insurance company run by Sir Mark, still under the St James's Place name, with Lord Rothschild bowing out to concentrate on his other investments and his charity and Lottery fund work.

During their partnership, Sir Mark has stuck to his role as insurance entrepreneur, while Lord Rothschild has been the investment guru, so the deal is a neat way of disentangling their interests. They will be further distanced by the end of St James's Place's role as manager of Lord Rothschild's other investment company, RITCP. St James's Place in effect becomes an insurance company. The transaction will complete the process of stripping out the old investment assets and handing them back to shareholders.

What has happened is a quite remarkable thing. The pounds 620m handed to shareholders over the past eight years has come out of a company now capitalised at less than pounds 400m. No organisation has more consistently followed a policy of winding down its interests and handing back surplus capital to shareholders. It's all a long way from Jacob Rothschild's dream of empire-building in the City, but as things have turned out, it has probably served shareholders better.

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