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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estonia Sets Voucher-Share Swap

TALLINN, Estonia -- Private investors looking for a stake in Estonia's economy should get their first chance to buy shares next month when vouchers distributed last year gain a new lease of life.

Beginning in August, the vouchers, so far used to buy land or property, can be swapped for shares.

A brewery and a central Tallinn department store are first on the list. The state chocolate factory, Kalev, and Estonian Tobacco come next.

"We are trying to provide a good vehicle for voucher investors. This is one of the essential processes in setting up a strong, healthy stock market," said Alan Morley-Fletcher, consultant with the European Union's Phare project. Phare aids economic and democratic reform in Central and Eastern Europe.

Estonia regained its status as an independent country in 1991 after four decades as part of the Soviet Union. Economic reforms since then brought in the first fully convertible currency in the former Soviet Union. Inflation is among the lowest in the 15 countries of the former superpower and monetary and budgetary policies are tight.

But privatization has lagged behind other reforms. No firms have yet been offered for public sale and there is no stock market worth speaking of.

Vouchers -- issued to individuals at nominal prices linked to the number of years worked -- were not part of the sell-off.

Morley-Fletcher said mass privatization for vouchers was important to give companies broader ownership.

"Under the current system, where there are frequently only one or two shareholders per Estonian firm, an institutional stock-market becomes open to corruption," he said.

The government had so far resisted the idea of selling state firms for vouchers -- a model already adopted in other countries of Eastern Europe, notably Russia. Instead it sold companies by international tender or by auction.

It passed a new law at the end of June, allowing voucher holders to sell them to residents who have lived in the Baltic state for more than 15 years.

The move will open the door to the establishment of privatization funds and to the auction of shares for vouchers.

But the decision has prompted criticism from opposition deputies afraid that "dubious capital" will flow into Estonia.

"In my opinion the tradeability of vouchers will only provide opportunities for non-Estonians who want to buy land in this country," said opposition parliamentarian Liina Tonisson.

She said trading vouchers would cause inflation, which has just started to fall after a series of higher-than-expected monthly price rises earlier this year.

Many brokers are also unhappy, but for different reasons.

They argue that a huge supply of vouchers and a relatively small number of shares initially on offer will cause the price of vouchers to plummet.

Ain Tahiste, chairman of brokerage firm Estonian Exchange, said the government should have allowed vouchers to be used to privatize companies earlier.

"The lack of a secondary market in Estonia has hindered economic development and privatization," he said. "Instruments to activate a capital market are not being used enough."

Despite the few possibilities, the amount of money invested in funds, bonds and a handful of shares is rising.

Annual turnover in the securities market was 76 million kroon ($5.6 million) in 1993, but it rose to 35 million kroon in the first quarter of this year.