The Times, 17 February 2009


When small shareholders get a mention on the news, they mean, amongst others, me. I don't have the emotional disposition required to play the markets: when small print declares that stocks can go down as well as up, and that the principle is not guaranteed, I feel the kind of stomach-shrinking horror that I imagine problem gamblers must experience as they watch the last of their winnings, and any hope of retaining two unbroken kneecaps, disintegrate on the back of a three-legged greyhound.

But I own shares in what was once Halifax, which then became HBOS, and is now lurking within the belly of the limping black horse. I didn’t buy them - when I was eight, I opened a savings account at the Leeds Permanent Building Society, mainly because such a transaction was accompanied by a blue tube with an eminently chewable white lid, into which I could feed ten or fifty pence pieces. When this building society was devoured by the Halifax and then converted into a bank, the shares just turned up in the post. I had then, and have now, no idea how to turn them into money, so I should probably have got myself a job in a bank. Well, look how much money they give you if you tank ten billion quid. Imagine how much they'd give someone who's never even cost them a tenner.

I skipped the banking career, and shoved the share-certificate into a drawer. I declared the shares to the Inland Revenue each year, and received annual dividends of about £40. So the almost total collapse of their value, which was at one point up in the £2500 area, and is now about 11p, bothers me less than it might - I didn't buy them, I never understood them, and although I would have liked £2500 very much, I didn't feel I'd done anything to deserve it. For someone who grew up irreligious, I have a surprisingly hard-line Protestant attitude to unearned money.

These demutualised building societies turned bank-robbing banks have literally millions of small shareholders. Most of whom, like me, have had the shares since the banks were created. As such, they haven't lost any real money. I guess some of them probably needed the dividend payment, paltry as it was. But even if the odd £40 was a small treat rather than a necessity, it was still allowing millions of people to feel, briefly, good about their finances. I certainly squandered mine on dinner out, or a jumper - precisely the kind of thing it turns out was keeping the economy running. So while our attention is rightly focussed on rising unemployment, the economy hasn't ground to a halt because of job losses. It's stagnating because the majority aren't spending small sums of money on nothing very much. If we're to regain confidence in ourselves and our economy, we need the occasional buzz of an unexpected boon, so we can blow it on frivolity.