Derek Pain: Dividends ease the suffering in a moribund stock market


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The Independent Online

Half-time figures from Booker suggest the cash and carry chain is not after all faring too badly in the fierce price war engulfing the grocery business.

The stock market's recent fall from favour has devastated many share prices. Booker, with the added discomfort of cut-throat supermarket competition, has suffered a traumatic experience, with its shares crashing from a 176.6p peak in March to, at one time, around 115p. As I write the price is 126.5p.

But the crash has not robbed the group of the distinction of being the best performer in the No Pain, No Gain portfolio. After all, it was recruited at 24.5p in January 2009. And Booker has managed to reward shareholders with quite generous dividend distributions and, in its last financial year, the addition of a 3.5p-a-share special payment.

With a cash hoard of £107.2m at the interim stage the group is promising a "similar amount" of bonus next year. Of course when I produce the quarterly portfolio performance calculations, the dividend and any special payments (as well as dealing costs) are ignored. Sometimes I wish I had included such items from the start, as the cash handouts of many constituents would have improved the portfolio's paper gain quite dramatically.

Still, I should add that I remain a traditional investor, willing to incur the cost of collecting share certificates and dealing via the telephone.

This time around Booker is raising the interim dividend by 16 per cent to 0.52p a share. Sales, as we already knew from an earlier update, improved by 1.9 per cent. Excluding a £7m special inflow last year, pre-tax profits rose 16 per cent, but after stripping out exceptional items, profits were £67.4m compared with £65.1m.

Trading in the first four weeks of the current half year was ahead of the corresponding period and the group says: "We are on track to deliver an outcome for the financial year in line with our plans and to make progress in a challenging environment."

The plans include increased delivery capacity and opening more independently run discount shops. It now has 15 and is looking, says chairman Richard Rose, to build a 300-strong chain in the next three to four years.

Mears is another portfolio constituent to feel the market's distress. The shares topped 540p at one time but then retreated to 420p. They are now around 450p. The support services group has, however, splashed out £20m in cash for a company called Omega, which provides residential lettings and management services to the social housing market. Omega embraces 1,700 properties and has 24 local authorities and housing associations as customers.

Depending on Omega's performance, up to a further £20m in cash or shares will be handed over. David Miles, Mears' chief executive, says Omega is a "logical extension" to the group's social housing operations, which carry out repairs and maintenance.

In the past year or so Mears, which is also building a home- care division, has made a couple of other acquisitions. Its journey along the takeover trail has captured ILS, a home-care provider, for £22.5m and Morrison Facilities Services, a social housing operation, for £24m.

The takeover of another constituent, Spirit Pub Company, has edged a little closer. Greene King has topped up its proposed offer to around 109p. Talks continue but Spirit seems receptive. A counter-offer remains a possibility.

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