Germans get hooked on the joy of shares

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The Independent Online
The Habits of a life-time are being shattered in German homes. Mattresses are being overturned and piggy banks raided as the ubiquitous "little man" scrapes together his spare pfennigs for a rare flutter on the stock exchange. Deutsche Telekom, the state-owned telephone company, is offering shares to the public in the biggest privatisation since Volkswagen was floated 35 years ago. The pundits expect a bonanza - perhaps a doubling of the share price within weeks.

The tantalising promise of an almost-certain windfall has turned Europe's least adventurous investors into a nation of gamblers. By Friday's deadline an estimated five million people had registered for Telekom shares, their stampede jamming the company's toll-free lines. Estimated, because Deutsche Telekom was so overwhelmed by demand that it had been unable to chalk up the numbers. At one point it was receiving 70,000 inquiries an hour, and had to open additional free fax lines and increase the number of staff dealing with the paperwork.

With DM15bn (pounds 6.25bn) worth of shares for sale, the Telekom listing is the biggest ever in Europe, but its significance goes far beyond the sums involved. If Germans can be persudaded that securities are a safe investment, the very fabric of their peculiar form of capitalism could be torn to shreds by a species that has become all but extinct; private shareholders.

Since the war, the economy has been run by an exclusive club of banks and holding companies knitted together in a web of cross-ownership. It is a cosy arrangement which takes the heat out of daily competition and allows for long-term planning. But shares are rarely traded, pay small dividends and are easily outperformed by other markets.

If the gains are small, so are the risks, but try telling that to Germans. A mention of the word Borse evokes painful memories of 1929, when the nation lost its life savings within a matter of days. The stock exchange crash wiped out the middle class, ravaged the economy and ultimately swept Hitler to power. Nearly 70 years on, only about five million Germans have invested in their timid way in the stock market - less than a third of Britain's burgeoning class of shareholders. Private pension schemes linked to the stock market are non-existent, and unit trusts have vanished from the scene.

To change that, Deutsche Telekom has taken a leaf out of the British book of the 1980s. In a blitz of television and radio advertising, "Herr Ordinary" is seen or heard urging his mates to go with the smart money. What the PR men cannot change is Deutsche Telekom's appalling image. The telephone monopoly is the least customer-friendly branch of Germany's underdeveloped service sector. Lines are unreliable and cut at the slightest provocation, employees are rude and unhelpful, the technology is 10 years out of date and phone charges are among the highest in the world.

There is little affection for this behemoth, but love does not enter calculations. What matters is that there is loads of money washing about, and ever since the tax authorities took an interest in large transfers to foreign bank accounts, this cash has been homeless. Now these billions are flowing into Telekom shares, creating a new participant in Germany's stake-holder economy.

That's the theory. The conservative government expects a push for shareholder power. In reality, the millions who strike it lucky are likely to dump their shares when prices go up, selling them to the banks and institutions that run the rest of Germany.

We will have gone full circle, except for one thing: in the process, Germans will have discovered the Anglo-Saxon joys of turning a fast buck. No mattress will ever be safe again.