Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 00:03 UK

Between a Rock and a hard place

By Brian Milligan
Business reporter, BBC News

In his lounge in Sunderland, Denis Shannon is fingering the strings of his Spanish guitar, as if he is having difficulty remembering the notes he's supposed to be playing.

Denis Shannon
Denis Shannon had to put his retirement plans on hold

Something else that Denis is trying to forget is the fact that by now, he should have been enjoying a very comfortable retirement.

After 19 years working at Northern Rock as an IT consultant, he had amassed 11,000 shares, which he had taken instead of cash bonuses.

After selling half of them, his remaining stake in the bank was worth £60,000 at the beginning of last year. He and his wife had planned to spend the money travelling to New Zealand and Australia.

"These plans have been put on hold, if not cancelled," he laments. "But I try to be philosophical. They were just dreams, you know, that we no longer have."

Like 120,000 other small shareholders in Northern Rock, Denis has no idea whether his shares are worth anything at all. And one year after the bank collapsed, no one is even close to telling him the answer.

'Nominal' amount

But there is now a team of accountants working on it. This week, the Treasury appointed Andrew Caudwell to be the official valuer of Northern Rock.

He and his colleagues at the accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward will be paid £4.5m to provide some very thorough calculations to determine what the shareholders should receive.

But Roger Lawson, of the Northern Rock Shareholder Action Group, already knows the answer.

"Itís either going to be zero, or itís going to be a nominal sum," he says.

The reason for his pessimism is the act of Parliament which nationalised Northern Rock earlier this year. It declared that the bank was not a going concern and was in administration. In other words, shareholders would be last in the queue for compensation.

John Mays
John Mays should have left his money where it was

For that reason, the Action Group is taking the government to court in January, to challenge the terms of reference in the act.

In the meantime, shareholders are likely to have to hold on for at least another nine months before they hear the results.

Some, like John Mays, were relying on the money for retirement.

From his home in the Cleveland hills, he and his wife have a fine view of the Tees estuary. But thereís little on the horizon to cheer him up.

He thought the shares were such a good investment that he transferred his pension savings from a Northern Rock savings account, into shares. That was a serious mistake.

"I was getting quite a nice little nest egg, when suddenly the Rock started to shake," he says. "In the end, I lost my money."

Risky bet

For others, who received the shares free in the first place, the consequences are not so drastic.

Marilyn Statham, from Tyneside, received 500 shares when the company floated. She was planning to split the money between her two grandsons, to buy a car, for example.

"Just something to give them the sort of start in life that we didnít have," she says.

Marilyn Statham
Marilyn Statham got her shares when the Rock became a bank
But not everyone will sympathise with shareholders who have lost money. After all, taxpayers have had to pay billions of pounds to nationalise the bank, and they too may never get their money back.

Indeed, anyone who buys a share in a company takes on a risk. If that company fails, they should expect to lose their investment.

But Roger Lawson says better offers were on the table from the private sector, which shareholders never had the chance to consider.

"Shareholders accept many risks, but not those outside the law. It is not fair for shareholders to accept a fixed and rigged valuation."

Nevertheless, few of the 120,000 small shareholders have an expectation of seeing any of their money back. Their dreams already fell on rocky ground, exactly a year ago.




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