My eye was caught by a passage of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement last week that other pundits, intent on analysing tax impacts, largely skipped past. As part of ‘progressing further capital market reforms to boost the attractiveness of our markets and the UK as one of the most attractive places to start, grow and list a company’, said Jeremy Hunt, ‘I will explore options for a Natwest retail share offer… It’s time to get Sid investing again.’
Leaving aside the non sequitur that battered NatWest, formerly RBS, still 39 per cent owned by the taxpayer 15 years after its bailout, hardly counts as a start-up with growth prospects, how many of Hunt’s wider audience got the reference to Sid, who he was and why he stopped investing? The answer is that he was a brilliant invention of the advertising agency Young & Rubicam, whose slogan ‘Tell Sid’ helped attract 4.5 million retail applicants for the 1986 privatisation sale of shares in British Gas. Sid was the herald of the Thatcherite dream of citizen capitalism, in which savers who were also homeowners would accumulate share portfolios to provide independence in old age and nest-eggs to pass on.
For the record, a minimum £135 stake in British Gas in 1986 would have grown over 25 years to £1,686 worth of shares in the successor companies Centrica, BG and National Grid. But few first shareholders hung on and even fewer sustained a share-buying habit – though their offspring may gamble on hot tips spread by social media. Today’s capital markets are wholly oriented
towards institutional rather than retail investors, who are generally underserved by a plethora of opaque, fee-laden collective investment products.
It’s a sad comment on all that has happened in the financial world since the 1980s that Sid’s grandchildren regard the stock market with suspicion and the institutions behind it as hives of mis-selling and greed.