Shares to watch as Labour gears up

Nic Cicutti looks at the likely impact of new government policies
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The Independent Online
Investors in the UK stock market will be waiting warily for news of Labour's plans. Gordon Brown, the new Chancellor, met Eddie George, the Governor of the Bank of England, yesterday. The result, a 0.25 per cent increase in base rates, will clearly have a knock-on effect on mortgage rates. Longer term, the prospect of further rate rises in the coming year makes today's fixed rates very attractive. Grab one if you can.

More significant for investors are Labour's long-awaited proposals for a windfall tax, its introduction of a minimum wage, its stated aim to regulate the bus and railway industries, and its promise to spend more on the NHS and education.

All of these aims, if implemented, will have consequences for the share prices of companies operating in these sectors.

The windfall tax is the most obvious example, where private utilities companies may well see their share price suffer, at least until the exact extent of Mr Brown's levy is known.

Money markets have already marked down share prices of water and electricity companies. A broader-based tax would have an effect on British Gas and Scottish Power - ironically, lessening the pressure in terms of the share of new taxes levied on the regional electricity and water companies.

The Social Chapter, which Labour says it will sign up to, and the introduction of a minimum wage, will affect primarily the share price of firms operating in the leisure industry, such as drinks companies, hotel and restaurant chains, which have a reputation for paying their staff low wages.

Anyone with shares in BurtonWood, Vaux, Whitbread, Greenalls, Bass, Scottish & Newcastle and JD Weatherspoon will no doubt be nervously asking bar staff how much they earn the next time they pop out for a drink. That said, maybe those on a minimum wage will spend some of it in the pubs that pay them, a nice virtuous circle. Similar questions might usefully be raised with waiters and chambermaids in hotels and restaurants owned by Allied Leisure, Wembley, Ladbroke, Groupe Chez Gerard and a few others.

Criticism over the performance of bus and train operators and their alleged failure to maintain a nationally integrated service could also lead to tight new rules being drawn up to prevent a continuing free-for-all in the market. If so, shares in Stagecoach, FirstBus and National Express could be among those heading for a bumpy ride.

Tighter regulation is also promised in the financial services sector, with a proposal to set up a new super-watchdog announced recently by Mike O'Brien, Labour's then-spokesman on the issue. Firms whose salesmen are not squeaky clean will be in the frame for heavy-duty spankings.

Plus, after the much-publicised recent debacle for Hambros where it appeared willing to back a takeover bid for the Co-op, even though stolen documents were being used to gain inside information on the CWS, prepare for new rules on hostile takeovers. Not just Hambros shares, but also Singer & Friedlander and Schroders would be hit.

Forecasts of cuts in the tax credits currently available on dividend payments may hit the entire stock market, although those most affected will be companies paying high dividends.

Suggestions that Labour will be in favour of a strong pound were belied by the money markets' reaction on Friday to the party's victory: sterling fell instead. If this continues, one positive investment choice may be companies with a substantial proportion of their earnings coming from overseas: Shell, Tate & Lyle, BAT and GEC are among them.

New hospitals and schools - even their partial refurbishment - will mean business heading the way of construction firms. Taylor Woodrow, John Laing and Wimpey are among the potential gainers, along with Rugby Group and BICC for larger infrastructure projects.

Finally, greater emphasis by Labour on environmental issues will benefit those companies involved in the removal and re-use of waste products. Among them are Wessex Water (overcoming the effect of the windfall tax, no doubt) and Waste Recycling Group.

No doubt, many of the companies named above will - as with Wessex Water - be buffeted in various directions by the conflicting influences of Labour's various manifesto commitments. It will be hard, at least initially, to see which of Labour's promises will have the greatest positive or negative effect on share prices.

But the starting point for any assessment of Labour's effect on share prices must be a cool look at what will happen in the next few years. Of course, we may be wrong in our analysis - but then we can always blame it on the politiciansn

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