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Bear market scares equity investors

The total number of shareholders in Switzerland has fallen by 25 per cent since 2000

(Keystone Archive)

Swiss investors have lost confidence in shares, with 400,000 shareholders pulling out of the stock market over the past two years.

Since 2000, the total number of shareholders in Switzerland has fallen by 25 per cent to 1.3 million.

About one in four Swiss residents between the ages of 18 and 74 now own equities, according to a study by the Swiss Banking Institute.

However, the Institute, which is part of Zurich University, said it would be wrong to interpret the latest figures as a "mass exodus" from the equity markets.

"We think that the decrease in equity holding or share ownership is not as dramatic as it could be," director Professor Rudolf Volkart told swissinfo.

"We show in our study that the decrease is induced primarily by relatively small shareholders," he said.

Raging bull

The last survey, conducted in 2000, coincided with a raging bull market.

Share prices were recording new highs and investor behaviour at the time resembled a "speculative bubble".

The ensuing two-year bear market has had a "significant impact" on the previous mood, attitude and conduct of investors, the study found.

Among the 2,000 people polled in an exhaustive 56-question survey, the proportion of individuals who put their money in investment funds fell from 38 per cent to 32 per cent.

Derivative financial instruments are used by 2.3 per cent of the people surveyed (compared with 2.9 per cent in 2000).

Half report making losses

The bear market has also had a negative impact on the yields achieved by investors, with half reporting they had made losses on their stock investments in 2001.

The study shows that the Swiss tend to "stay at home" when it comes to their shareholdings.

The equity portfolio of the average private investor is mainly comprised of Swiss blue chips, usually with shares in three different companies.

But various shifts have been identified as regards investment and information habits.

Although the primary source of information on investment and economic matters remains the print media, the Internet has started to play a major role.

The study found that more than half of all investors now rely on the Internet for economic information, with the figure rising to 80 per cent in the age group 18 to 29.

Information gathering

However, the time spent on gathering information related to personal investments fell by roughly a quarter to 34 minutes per week.

Weak share prices are the likely reason for the waning interest, according to the study.

The survey also points out that investor knowledge has improved since 2000, with a strong increase in the number of people who read annual reports (+70 per cent).

"I'm relatively positively surprised about the increase in knowledge and understanding of how firms should be evaluated and looked at," commented Professor Volkart, one of the authors of the study.

"At the university, we are happy that people realise they should look into the figures of firms, look in an annual report, and look at management and board quality," he added.

In light of new directives from the Swiss bourse, the SWX Swiss Exchange, a number of questions were also asked about corporate governance in this year's poll.

The study finds that it is evident that a fundamental premise of corporate governance - the co-determination right of shareholders - is not without problems.

No interest

A clear majority of shareholders have no interest in having a say in the companies they hold but prefer to rely instead on market forces.

Professor Volkart told swissinfo he was disappointed rather than surprised by the finding.

"If you want to improve corporate governance, shareholders should think more about what they could do to influence decisions," he said.

"I think we need new ways of holding annual shareholders' meetings, with perhaps voting by Internet or other channels... but there has to be a change," he added.

The study was commissioned by the SWX Swiss Exchange, the Escoscentia Foundation and the Association of Swiss Commercial and Administrative Banks.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes

Key facts

Over the past two years, 400,000 shareholders have pulled out of the stock market in Switzerland.
One in four Swiss residents own equities.
Shareholders say they have no interest in having a say in the companies they hold but prefer to rely instead on market forces.

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