London — The share flotation of British Telecom, described in world financial circles as ''the sale of the century,'' is bringing heavy criticism onto the heads of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her ministers.
Opposition politicians are accusing the government of underpricing the 1 billion BT shares initially offered to the general public this week and allowing investors to cream off huge profits when open trading began on the London Stock Exchange. The way the huge issue was handled may force the Thatcher government to rethink its strategy of encouraging ''people's capitalism'' by selling off state-owned assets.
BT shares were offered to the public at (STR)1.30 (about $1.57) under arrangements enabling investors to pay for them in three stages. The first payment was 50 pence a share. When trading opened on the London exchange the market value of the initial part-payment shot up to 95p and stabilized at 93p, enabling sellers to secure almost a 100 percent profit.
In New York, the price of BT American Depositary Receipts (each equal to 10 of the partly paid British shares) also soared on extraordinarily high volume.
British financial analysts quickly concluded that the potential loss to the British Exchequer on the opening price was a staggering (STR)1.4 billion ($1.69 billion). They argued that a much higher initial price to investors would have been justified. Their point was reinforced by the fact that the share issue was five times oversubscribed. That (STR)1.4 billion is almost exactly equal to projected government overspending this year.
Even before City (Britain's Wall Street) interests bore home to Mrs. Thatcher and her ministers that BT shares were worth a great deal more than they had thought, the public flotation had become highly controversial.
For weeks, a massive advertising campaign (a ''media hype,'' according to opposition critics) extolled BT and its future. The campaign omitted to note that the telephone side of BT is notoriously inefficient and expensive, with much out-of-date equipment still being used to serve homes and offices.
The ad campaign cost (STR)7.6 million. As an additional boost, the government offered telephone charge vouchers to private investors as well as cut-price shares to BT's 241,000 employees.
In deciding these generous terms, Mrs. Thatcher wanted to ensure that the BT issue would not flop, as had happened with a flotation of British North Sea oil interests earlier in the year.
The prime minister wants to create a share-owning democracy. In the government pipeline are other major issues, including a sale of 51 percent of state-owned British Airways, expected in February. As with BT, the run-up to the BA sale is being marked by strong attempts to make the shares sound attractive, particularly in the international market. This week BA unveiled a new look for its aircraft and began stressing the airline's steady movement into profit after years of huge losses.
One of the criticisms being leveled at the Thatcher government over the BT issue is that it encouraged a ''get-rich-quick'' attitude to share trading. Mrs. Thatcher's officials hoped the public could be persuaded to invest in long-term ventures.
But it is the potential loss to the taxpayer because of misjudged initial pricing that the government will be under pressure to avoid in future. Every extra penny over the offer price represents (STR)30 million of lost government revenue.
Thatcher supporters argue that the explosion of interest in BT shares when they went public was partly due to tight market conditions. They say things will settle down and that in time the (STR)1.30 price will have proved sound.
The Labour opposition, besides charging the issue was bungled, is threatening to renationalize BT if it should return to power.