Derek Pain: Surviving the great sell-off - with three stars in the portfolio


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The Independent Online

Did private investors flee from the stock market as last year edged towards its close? It seems panic selling could have set in, as shares endured bouts of turbulence between September and November.

In October the benchmark Footsie index slumped to around 6,200 points. It recovered some ground the next month, but crashed even lower at one point in December – a month not covered by a report from Capita, which acts as registrars to a host of companies.

Capita clearly indicates that private shareholders rushed for the exit in the quarter. The sheer scale of the reported sell-off has surprised some observers. Yet Capita is in a unique position to judge dealing patterns.

With the Santa rally failing to make much impression during the festive season, and considering the share gyrations that occurred, I wonder whether the nervous sales by small shareholders continued into December.

After all, many investors had to raise Christmas cash and the more astute were, no doubt, thinking of building a kitty for the pensioner bonds that are now on sale.

Foreign investors remain the dominant influence, with the perceived private contingent now accounting for around 11 per cent of the stock market, down from 11.5 per cent at the end of August. In the quarter under the Capita microscope, small shareholders unloaded shares worth £9.1bn, ending with a £224.2bn holding. It was the largest quarterly selling wave since Capita started compiling records in 2006.

The No Pain, No Gain portfolio, which has a small shareholder mentality, did not suffer too much damage during the alleged upheaval. I am not, like some in the City, questioning the extent of the sell-off. After all, Capita should be able to measure it.

Three portfolio constituents have made noises in recent times, including the star of my little share exercise, the Booker cash-and-carry chain.

The group says sales in the 16 weeks to 2 January rose by 1.4 per cent. Makro, the rival chain it acquired, continues to distort the figures. Charles Wilson, Booker's chief executive, points out that Makro's turnaround is "on track", but its non-tobacco sales fell by 6.5 per cent as Booker carried on removing certain products from the shelves. Like-for-like Booker sales were actually up 2.5 per cent, indicating it was one chain that enjoyed the festive season.

Essenden, another profitable investment, was also in fine form. It had a good Christmas and said it expected last year's adjusted pre-tax profits, with sales up 6.6 per cent, to emerge at £3.2m against £2m. Nick Basing, chief executive of the tenpin bowling chain, predicts it will achieve "a further material improvement" in the current year.

Finally Mears, the support services group – it, too, has provided a rewarding presence in the portfolio.

Towards the end of last year, it rather dampened sentiment when it complained that delays on the social housing front "have been frustrating". But last week the group, which also embraces home care, was in better form.

David Miles, the chief executive, said results, due in March, would meet expectations and mentioned that Mears had produced "a solid trading performance". He also seemed quite encouraged by prospects for the current year.

As I write, this trio have scored good gains since enlistment. Booker, recruited at 24.5p, is around 158p; Essenden has risen from 24p to 67p; and Mears is up from 272p to more than 410p.

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