More than 1 million Australians became the owners of shares - many for the first time - in the 1990s when the government off-loaded institutions such as the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas, and mutuals such as the NRMA and AMP were privatised. The shares were often free or heavily discounted.
These new, accidental shareholders have held on to their shares in the belief that blue chips will outperform the market over the long term.
But analysis by Lincoln Indicators of the performance of some of the most widely held shares shows the price of many is well down on 10 years ago.
The chief executive of Lincoln Indicators, Elio D'Amato, says inertia can be costly.
"At the end of the day, it [investing in shares] is about picking good companies rather than thinking that every demutualisation is going to be a winner," he says.
As the table shows, AMP, Qantas and Telstra have lost varying amounts of their share value. The best performers include biopharmaceutical company CSL and the Commonwealth Bank.
While the table shows only share-price changes, many of the companies have paid good dividends over the years. The total return (share price appreciation plus dividends) can be much higher than the change in share prices alone suggest.
The Commonwealth Bank is by far the best performer. The first tranche of shares was listed in 1991 at $5.40. CBA shares are now trading at about $50 and, on that price, have a cash yield of 6.4 per cent, fully franked. D'Amato says the bank's shares are in the "buy" zone. "CBA is definitely the preferred bank for us at the moment," he says.
Telstra, with its 1.4 million shareholders, is likely to have the largest number of small shareholders of any listed Australian company. The first tranche of Telstra shares was floated in 1997 at $3.30, which is close to today's share price. But when its dividends are taken into account, shareholders will be ahead.
The same cannot be said of those who bought Telstra in subsequent floats. Those who bought shares in "T2" in 1999 paid $7.40, while "T3" shares in 2006 cost $3.60.
Still, many analysts think that with a dividend yield of about 8.7 per cent, fully franked, the telco is still worth holding and perhaps even adding to.
Apart from CBA, the other good performer has been CSL. D'Amato says CSL is a "great company" with a "global brand that is growing". The dividends are relatively small, with a yield on current prices of 2.5 per cent and franking levels of just 4 per cent. But shareholders won't be too fussed about that, given that the CSL share price has doubled from $16 to $32 over the past decade.
AMP has been one of the real under-performers among big, widely held, stocks. It has a share price of about $4, compared with about $12 a decade ago. However, many analysts are positive on the stock, saying the company will improve its market share and make cost savings with its recent acquisition of AXA Asia Pacific.
But AMP is not on the list of stocks that Austock Securities' senior client adviser and strategist Michael Heffernan believes long-term investors should hold.
His preferred picks include Telstra, CBA, BHP Billiton, Woolworths and Wesfarmers. "In my book, they are all good companies, with a good spread of industry sectors," he says.
For those with only a handful of shares, the obvious industry sector most likely missing from their portfolios is resources. Those looking to diversify their portfolio could add BHP Billiton, D'Amato says.
"If you believe most growth in the world is going to come from Asia in the next three decades, BHP is a must have," he says.
How to sell shares you no longer want
The easiest and cheapest way to dispose of small parcels of shares is through company buybacks. These are usually "off market", with the price paid being the average share price during a fixed period. Usually, no brokerage is charged.
However, small shareholders tend to miss out on buybacks, either because they don't pay attention to company information or don't act on the offers. Elio D'Amato says some companies have frequent small-parcel buybacks and shareholders should contact companies directly to find out about them.
"If you have got a holding of under $500, it really does not end up being that economical holding a small parcel and having to account for it, and the time that should be spent monitoring it," he says.
The cheapest way to sell shares "on market" is through an online broker. Online trades start about $15 for casual users; it's a little less for those who trade regularly. Selling shares through a broker over the phone costs a bit more and full-service brokers typically charge $60 a trade.
The worst option is to take up the deals of dubious operators who offer to buy the shares for far less than their market value. D'Amato says many holders of small parcels of shares are vulnerable to such offers because they don't know how the market works or where the shares can be sold. "It only takes a little bit of research to check what the shares are really worth," he says.
The share price can be checked at the ASX website (asx.com.au) by entering the company name or three-letter ticker code, or by phoning the company directly. "When it comes to direct offers to buy shares, the only ones you can really trust are those that come from the companies themselves," D'Amato says.