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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2006, 23:43 GMT
The rush for orphan assets
By Jonathan Fry
Independent financial adviser

Jonathan Fry
Independent financial adviser Jonathan Fry

It is an orphan for whom there will be no shortage of people queuing up to offer a home.

For this offspring comes with savings of more than 3bn, and already the custody battle has begun.

On one side are the shareholders of Aviva, which owns Norwich Union.

On the other side are the 1.1 million with-profits policyholders of CGNU Life and the Commercial Union Life Assurance Company (CULAC).

The subject of their competing affections is the fund of "orphan assets" built up over the past century which Aviva wishes to reattribute - or share out - ensuring that as much as possible goes to shareholders to further grow its business.

As in any custody dispute, however, the final agreement over entitlement will be the subject of fierce negotiation.

Disputed ownership

Aviva, which has lovingly protected and nurtured its orphan, can claim, with some justification, that it has proved a responsible parent.

It believes that it is the rightful and most appropriate custodian to oversee its further development.

It would happily take ownership of the orphan's estate, built up from early surrender penalties and funds that have been abandoned or forgotten about over the years, and put it to a use of its own determination.

What prevents such action is the question that hangs over the parentage, or ownership, of the orphan assets.

Do they belong to the company or to the with-profits policyholders, whose succour enabled the estate to grow so handsomely?

More precisely - for as in many custody battles, the issues are not clearly defined - to what extent do the interested factions have rights in the matter?

It is the value to be placed upon the shared responsibility for this extremely wealthy orphan that will be so closely followed in the year ahead.

This will culminate in a decision over its future next autumn, with a hopefully "happy ending" being achieved early in 2008.

'Latter-day Boadicea'?

The rules of engagement demand that the interests of all involved are properly represented.

So policyholders should welcome the appointment of Clare Spottiswoode as the independent policyholder advocate to negotiate with Aviva on their behalf.

A Cambridge graduate, mother of four, and former Director General of Gas Supply, Ms Spottiswoode was once described as "King Herod" by the boss of Transco and "a latter-day Boadicea" by another gas executive.

These monikers were earned as a result of her penchant for successfully challenging corporate giants such as British Gas and BT, several regulators, and various departments of the government.

The Observer was once moved to credit her with the talent of "infuriating executives".

Ms Spottiswoode and the eligible policyholders of CGNU Life and CULAC will be looking to Aviva to make a realistic offer in exchange for forfeiting ownership of the orphan assets and any right to future payouts.

Payments for policyholders

Windfalls averaging a few hundred pounds have been suggested.

This is a level of payout not dissimilar to that with which the French insurance giant Axa secured agreement in 2000 for distribution of its 1.7bn orphan assets.

This falls well short of the 90% policyholder share demanded by the Consumer Association, which fought Axa in the courts over distribution offers it described as "organised theft".

But investors in with-profits funds would be wise not to raise their expectations too eagerly.

A settlement can only be achieved with the agreement of both the shareholders and policyholders, and with the approval of the Financial Services Authority and the High Court.

Aviva has made it clear that it will only proceed if it can strike a deal with Ms Spottiswoode.

My advice would be that if Boadicea recommends acceptance, take it.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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