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Until recently in Britain, building societies (the equivalent of the US savings and loans) were almost the only source of mortgages and played a key role in personal savings. These were always mutual societies, owned by and run for the benefit of their members, with no shareholders taking profits. Fundamental changes in financial systems in the 1990s have led many of them to turn themselves into banks — so ceasing to be mutual societies — because there are fewer restrictions on the way banks do business and it is thought to be easier to raise finance (fashion probably has something to do with it, too). This shift is furthest advanced in Britain and South Africa, but is also taking place in Australia and elsewhere. The process is called demutualisation and has been controversial, not least because members have been given cash settlements to encourage them to agree to the change in status. This has led to people opening accounts solely in hope of a windfall profit, a technique which has been dubbed carpetbagging in the British press. The process has now extended to some British insurance companies which are also mutual in structure. The verb is demutualise (in the US, demutualize).

Page created 1 Mar. 1997

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 1 March 1997.