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Don't tell Sid but selling nationalised companies isn't always a good thing

The mysterious Sid was part of the television advertising to exhort us to become part of Mrs Thatcher's 'share-owning democracy'.

"If You See Sid..." television ad for the sell-off of British Gas in 1986
"If You See Sid..." television ad for the sell-off of British Gas in 1986

Some of us may remember that when Margaret Thatcher's government starting selling off state-owned enterprises, such as British Gas, there was a publicity campaign to encourage us to be involved in buying shares so that we could all get in on the action.

The mysterious Sid was part of the television advertising to exhort us to become part of Mrs Thatcher's 'share-owning democracy'.

It is useful to recall that when the sell-offs started in earnest, Thatcher's government was happily part of a zeitgeist which essentially suggested that the public sector was inefficient and that the only way to achieve improvement was by giving control to the private sector in which investors would seek to eradicate poor practices and implement improvement.

To be fair, there was much to suggest that the belief that the state should intervene had not produced the desired results.

Privatisation would bring choice and increased value to customers.

Any footage of the 1970s is not complete without showing the walk-outs and strikes that occurred with apparently all-too-frequent regularity in state-owned 'enterprises' such as British Leyland.

If the trains didn't run on time it was probably because of a combination of lack of investment and the unions

Getting a new telephone could take, quite literally, months.

And those who believed in the dynamism of private enterprise could point to the crass stupidity of what was going on in the Soviet Union and other countries that subscribed to the dogma of communism.

So, as those of us around in the 1980s will remember, there was a clamour to be part of the sell-off of the state-owned companies; if only to make a quick killing due to the fact that larger investors could see the long-term potential of such businesses.

The recent debate about energy prices has its basis in the fact that energy companies (largely in foreign ownership), are only interested in making profits that are considered to be 'adequate'.

Ed Milliband recognised that there is a sense of consciousness that we feel we are being 'ripped off' and that the management of these companies are immune to the influence of government or the supine threats of regulators.

And as we also know, the reality of the share-owing democracy has not proven to be the case.

Interestingly the idea that Margaret Thatcher's decision to sell off state-owned enterprise would herald increased ownership of shares was incorrect right from the outset. Private ownership of shares in this country had been declining for years before the sell-offs commenced.

According to ONS data in 1963 private investors owned 64% of shares by value. By 1975 this had declined to 38% and in 1981 to 28%. This decline continued and is now 10.7% having reached a record low in 2010.

Even more fascinatingly, data just published by the ONS shows that the ownership of shares is likely to be from investors outside of this country.

According to this data, the 'rest of the world' now owns 53.2% of the value of the UK stock market at the end of 2012 which is an increase from 1998 when the figure was 30.7%. However, given that the percentage was 43.4% in 2010 we can see that there has been a pretty dramatic increase (just under 10%) since the last election.

What has effectively happened is that the majority of share capital in this country is in the hands of the global hedge funds and equity investors who are like the Las Vega 'high rollers' whose only motivation is increasing the value of their investment.

Whilst it is easy to generalise and make weeping statements such investors will move their money (and interests) around the globe with as little long-term interest in the local consequences as a typical monopoly player would have.

It might be reasonably argued that foreign investment far from being a potential is in fact a virtue.

You only have to look at the benefit that investment by Tata in Jaguar Land Rover has produced.

However, for every Tata there are many others who care little for what happens apart from making immediate returns. If this is not possible they will simply asset strip to achieve the required profit and desert the company by selling up.

Moreover, as we know only too well, international investors will seek to minimise their tax bill by using as many loop-holes as possible. Though legal there is an increasing sense that there the morality is questionable.

Indeed, as critics point out, any dividends earned will be spirited away and will not add to improving the state of the economy.

Lest I be accused of arguing that it is possible to reverse the trend of recent years, it seems vital that individuals do participate in being more actively engaged in share ownership so that there is greater collective engagement in the decisions that will impact on their working lives.

By doing so we might become more like that European economic 'powerhouse' Germany.

In Germany workers are far more intimately involved in the strategic decisions taken by companies both large and small.

Increased private ownership is, per se, not a problem. It's just where the locus of control ends up that is the key consideration.

The latest sell-off will be the Post Office and that are many who wonder if we will see the end of another long-standing institution which is at the heart of everyone's life and can trace its lineage back almost 500 years.

Critics believe that we will end up with a lesser service as investors chase increased returns.

In November 1985 the respected Tory elder-statesman Harold Macmillan believed that the privatisation that was taking place in this country was akin to "selling off the family silver."

It seems that the process of selling off UK PLC is well under way and that we will have to get used to being subject to the vagaries and whims of the foreign investors whose decisions frequently have more effect than the ministers who at least have to seek a mandate from us every five years.

I contend that we should demand more say in what goes on in our companies.

 
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