Private Investor: A&L is fast food but is it French or Spanish?

So where's the bid, then? Having reinvested in Alliance & Leicester in the hope of a quick buck or two - nothing. Not a sausage. Where is Banco Santander? What is Crédit Agricole up to? There's plenty of titbits in the papers about them running after A&L. Figures of £13 or £15 a share are mentioned.

The British banking market must be one of the most open to foreign takeovers in the world, if not the most open. It may be that, before long, many more of the venerable pillars of our financial services industry will end up under new ownership, with ultimate management control domiciled somewhere away from London or Edinburgh.

Anyone with ambitions in this direction would seem well advised to start off with one of the many easily digestible units quoted on the stock market, such as Alliance & Leicester or Northern Rock or Bradford & Bingley, simply to get the exposure to the UK market and learn more about the environment.

After all, it worked well for all those French and German companies that bought up pretty much all of our water and electricity companies.

Now that we no longer seem prepared to cordon off the financial sector as "special" and subject to "national interest" considerations, why shouldn't banking go the same way? Abbey National's takeover by Banco Santander ought to be the harbinger of a much larger trend.

Yet it hasn't materialised, notwithstanding the slightly fevered atmosphere last week. Part of the fall in the A&L share price is just down to them going ex-dividend. I suspect, however, that A&L just won't be able to hang around as an independent for that much longer. This was fairly clear even when the former building society decided to demutualise a few years ago, and it's only been a matter of time, really.

What is relatively new is that its range of predators has suddenly been increased by this raft of European and other bidders. Even if they don't gobble it up this time, they will do so eventually. I'd be surprised if I still had shares in Alliance & Leicester in a year's time, say. And if it does go for £15 or so, it'll easily have been worth the short wait.

I'm delighted that Urban Dining, which had been a disappointing investment for me, is being taken over by Clapham House. Urban Dining did posh burgers in the Tootsies chain, but that doesn't really seem to have gone as well as it might. Clapham House is behind the Real Greek, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Bombay Bicycle Club chains, and I think it has a better grip on the middle market of the restaurant trade.

I've taken the opportunity to add some shares in Clapham House to the portfolio. Thus, it joins La Tasca as my other tasty titbit (it runs very pleasant tapas bars, in case you haven't tried one yet).

There are lots of reasons not to invest in catering - the competition is intense, and getting more so as every high street turns into a mall of eateries rather than shops. Customers are also fickle, and you are always exposed to any downturn that means people trimming their budgets for going out. And yet, if you can get the formula right, in the long term there are few other ways of making the most of increasing prosperity and the well-observed trend for leisure spending to rise over time.

Otherwise, I have only to note my astonishment at the rise and rise of Rio Tinto. I bought this about 10 years ago as a little bit of boring stability in the mix. I don't think I was banking on it going up by 500 per cent, and yet that is what has transpired. I managed to buy a few shares at about 650p or so, and the last time I looked they had crested £31 each. Like my other holdings in Rolls-Royce and BAA, this wasn't in the plot, but for one reason or another these big, steady firms have been showing some remarkable gains recently.

BAA has been helped along by the takeover talk, Rio Tinto by the boom (or bubble?) in commodities and Rolls-Royce by the recovery in air travel, but it just shows you can make good returns from big businesses. Except Vodafone - but that's another tale.

s.ogrady@independent.co.uk

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