What will the government sell next – and can you profit?

The government looks likely to sell off more assets ahead of the next election. Ed Bowsher looks at what’s on the list, and whether you should buy in.

Privatisations are normally good opportunities for private investors to make a quick buck.

That was true back in the 80s when the likes of BT (LSE: BT.A) and British Gas were sold. And it's certainly been true this year with the sale of Royal Mail (LSE: RMG).

So you may be pleased to learn that the government is contemplating three further privatisations during the next two to three years, hoping to keep the feel-good' factor going.

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Which companies look set to fall under the hammer? And will they make private investors the sorts of quick profits we've seen from Royal Mail?

A piece of family silver you may not have heard of

This company enriches uranium for use in nuclear power plants. It's the second-biggest uranium enrichment business in the world with a 30% global market share.

What's more, the company made a post-tax profit of €402m last year, up 12% on the year before, and has been investing in new capacity.

On the downside, the Fukushima accident delivered a massive blow to the nuclear power industries in Japan and Germany, so Urenco won't get any growth from those markets.

However, there's a good chance that some of the emerging market economies such as China and India will want to keep building new power stations, and so become Urenco customers.

The British and Dutch governments each own a third of the company, while the final third is split between the German utilities, E.On and RWE. If the government does sell our share, it could deliver a £3bn windfall.

Ordinary investors might be frozen out of this privatisation. A trade sale is possible. Aveva, the French nuclear services group, is one potential buyer.

But if we see a conventional IPO (initial public offering), there could be plenty of demand. Of course, that would depend on the IPO price, but the government will probably price the business at an attractive level. After all, that's what normally happens!

(My colleague Merryn Somerset Webb wrote last week about just how poor governments have been at pricing these privatisationsover the years Royal Mail is far from unique).

The return of the banks

Lloyds Banking Group (LSE: LLOY)

Indeed the government sold a 6% stake in Lloyds last month to institutional investors while retaining a 32% holding.

Next year, the government will almost certainly sell some shares to private investors via a retail offer'.

However, this is one occasion when making a quick buck from the sell-off might not be quite such a sure thing. You see, because Lloyds shares are already traded on the stock market, it should be relatively easy for the government's advisers to value the bank.

That means it could be hard for the government to get away with selling shares at a heavily discounted price. That's bad news for anyone who hopes to make a quick short-term profit from the offer, but it's good news for taxpayers. We won't get a poor price for the asset.

Looking beyond the short term, you can make a plausible case for Lloyds as an attractive investment. Chancellor George Osborne is determined to stoke a pre-election boom. As a UK-focused business, Lloyds should benefit from that.

So the more optimistic you are about the UK economy (even if in the short term), the more attractive Lloyds becomes.

But I have to admit, I very much doubt I'll apply for shares myself. The financial crisis scarred me - I'm painfully aware how hard it is to judge the quality of a bank's loan book. So, regardless of any pick-up in the UK economy, I'd rather take my chances elsewhere.

Don't expect this one to limp back to market before the election

Royal Bank of Scotland (LSE: RBS)

Osborne recently confirmed that RBS will be split into a bad bank' with all of the poor quality loans, and a good bank' that would be left in a position to prosper.

There won't be any share sale before the election here. It's just not ready. And I certainly wouldn't be tempted to buy shares in RBS at the current price. As with Lloyds, I worry about unknown nasties' lurking around, and it looks likely that the banks will have to increase their provisions for mis-selling interest rate swap' products to businesses.

So of the three potential share sales, Urenco is the most likely to offer an opportunity for a quick profit, assuming it's not sold to a trade buyer.

However, overall I'm close to certain that Royal Mail will prove to have been the most attractive privatisation of this decade. And even then, I'm not convinced it's a great long-term bet. If you still have Royal Mail shares now, my view is still that you should think about selling them.

And just before I go, speaking of making quick profits, I've been reading up on an interesting idea from one of our newsletter writers. We'll be sending you an email about it at the weekend it's a high-risk, high-reward opportunity, so if that's the kind of thing that interests you, keep an eye out for it.

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Ed has been a private investor since the mid-90s and has worked as a financial journalist since 2000. He's been employed by several investment websites including Citywire, breakingviews and The Motley Fool, where he was UK editor.


Ed mainly invests in technology shares, pharmaceuticals and smaller companies. He's also a big fan of investment trusts.


Away from work, Ed is a keen theatre goer and loves all things Canadian.


Follow Ed on Twitter or Google+.