No pain no gain: The portfolio's hardly a transport of joy. And the cider's off, as well

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The Independent Online

Four months ago I alighted, rather hesitantly, on a quartet of investment disasters. In such difficult days, I suggested investors might find it rewarding to look at four once highly regarded companies that had fallen on hard times.

Four months ago I alighted, rather hesitantly, on a quartet of investment disasters. In such difficult days, I suggested investors might find it rewarding to look at four once highly regarded companies that had fallen on hard times.

Mind you, as we began to brace ourselves for the festive stampede, the investment atmosphere was looking more relaxed. In October, shares had scored their best one-month gain since 1997 and the Footsie index was riding in the relatively joyous uplands of 4150 points. There was even heady talk that the long, debilitating bear market was coming to an end. So I thought it would be fun – and possibly lucrative – to descend on former investment stars then on their uppers.

Well, four months on, with the growing terrorism threat, the seeming inevitable march towards war and the world's economy looking increasingly fragile, October's breathless advance is just a fond memory, yet another dead cat bounce.

Footsie veered wildy this week, hitting an eight-year low at one point. As diplomatic, economic, military and political uncertainty grows, shares look unlikely to recapture even the subdued heights of October.

Yet any investor prepared to punt in my quartet of walking wounded has not done too badly. Two have made headway; one (after a strong rally) has fallen back and one suffered a share suspension. On the high road is Stagecoach, the travel group. The shares have recovered from 15.25p to 36.5p. I first climbed aboard in August 2000, when I made the shares a member of the no pain, no gain portfolio. Unfortunately, they failed to appreciate my support. I paid 80p a share and for most of their time in the portfolio they have been in reverse. But at 15.25p (they even slumped to 10p at one time) I felt the stock market had got its travel cards confused and Stagecoach at such a lowly level provided a ticket to ride.

The subsequent results were poor, largely due to a US excursion too far. But they were much better than the dismal jimmies expected. And the group was brave enough to pay a dividend, albeit reduced. So my second Stagecoach ride has produced a short-term reward. But it will be a long, hard journey before the no pain, no gain portfolio recaptures its fare. As for the days when the shares were just short of 300p, well, hope springs eternal.

HP Bulmer, the world's biggest cider-maker, is the other failure in the money. The shares are 130p against 107.5p. Mind you, rather like Stagecoach they have seen much rosier days; they used to top 500p. The Strongbow and Woodpecker group has had a rotten time. Profits were replaced by horrendous losses, a black hole appeared in the accounts, an already declared dividend was axed and the chief executive and finance director paid for the debacle with their jobs. Over-exuberant international expansion created much of the mayhem.

The experienced beer man Miles Templeman was recruited as chief executive and has set about redeeming the group. But one of his first jobs was to offer yet more gloom. Last month, the shares slumped to 82.5p when he admitted more problems. They have since rallied on takeover hopes. The company, still controlled but not managed by the founding Bulmer family, has in effect invited interested parties to come and talk about taking it over. With its dominant share of the UK cider market Bulmer, despite its problems, would make a splendid addition to a more powerful drinks group.

Scottish & Newcastle, another no pain no gain constituent, is rumoured to be interested but Britain's biggest brewer has well-documented difficulties of its own to overcome. Without a bid Bulmer's shares are dead money. There is unlikely to be any dividend for a couple of years even if the group retains its independence, selling its Beer Sellers distribution business to pay for the privilege.

MyTravel has been a disappointment. For a time, the shares seemed intent on justifying my faith, climbing from my 16.25p buying price. But the revival was cut short; they are now a dreadful 9.5p. Deteriorating package holiday prospects, underlined this week by its rival, First Choice, and the unexpected departure of the chairman-founder David Crossland underlined the grave difficulties the heavily indebted group faces.

Number four, pubs chain SFI, faces the most difficult future of the four. Its shares are suspended as it attempts to plug a black hole in its accounts and cut its debts. Whether the shares will return to the stock market is unclear. If they do they are likely to be a pale shadow of their former selves and shareholders will probably be expected to pump in more cash through a rights issue.

So at a time of falling share prices my fallen stars have at least proved there is some life in the battered and bruised stock market. If we can assuming SFI is not a complete write-off it has been fun, and marginally rewarding.

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