Private Investor: I'm not cashing in on bird flu - I'm saving lives

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We haven't heard a great deal about bird flu lately. It must be out there somewhere, in Vietnam or China or Turkey perhaps. Soon there will be newspaper features entitled "Whatever happened to bird flu?". Maybe then we'll find out when it's actually going to arrive (if ever).

I suppose we ought to be grateful. After all, every day that passes before it hits these shores is another day when the authorities can perfect their preparations (ahem) and another day for the pharmaceutical companies to improve their anti-bird-flu medicines.

Not least among those pioneers is GlaxoSmithKline, or GSK. This has been one of my favourite stocks for some time, and was actually an Independent official tip for 2005. Reading what my colleagues wrote in the newspaper then, I decided to add to my holdings (I was originally a Smith Kline Beecham shareholder in the days before the merger with Glaxo). Some excellent new drugs in the pipeline were the main engine for growth, as well as the solid long-term trends in Western societies towards an ageing and more prosperous population, thus spending more on drugs.

Now we've got bird flu too. I know it's slightly ghoulish to want to make money out of such a nasty disease, but I prefer to look at it as an exercise in helping the company fund its investment in the new treatments, without which many more will die from the outbreak, if and when it comes.

GSK announced last week more progress on its anti-bird-flu treatment. While the market was its usual ungrateful self, marking the shares slightly lower, they're still solid performers over the past 12 months, up from about £13 to £15, in turn a decent improvement on the £11 or so they stood at when this newspaper first alighted on them.

Who knows? Maybe further consolidation in what is already a sector characterised by some very large players may help boost GSK's share price further. Even the more pessimistic brokers have a "target" share price on GSK of £23. Certainly one to hold and cautiously add to over the next few months.

As is Tesco, although you might wonder how much longer every little can help its share price. Every little increase in its share of the grocery market that is. Those who know about these things tell me that Tesco is not overfond of the supermarket share numbers because they underline how powerful its position is, and thus might lead to yet more unkind comment and official scrutiny.

I can see what it's afraid of, but it remains a source of comfort to shareholders such as me. Every time I pop into Tesco, I am gratified by what I find there. (Mostly) helpful staff, shortish queues and, most of all, lots and lots of customers, not as wealthy as Waitrose's lot, but monied enough nonetheless.

Anyway, Tesco is attracting a few more, proportionately. According to a survey by TNS, Tesco's share of the market stretched to 31.5 per cent for the 12 weeks to July, compared with 31.4 per cent four weeks earlier and 30.3 per cent a year ago. Asda remained second, with a share of 16.6 percent in the latest period, up from 16.5 per cent four weeks earlier, and up on 16.5 per cent a year ago.

I had always wanted to hedge my Tesco shares with a bit of Asda magic. But nowadays that means buying shares in Wal-Mart, which has owned Asda for some years now, and that does make me wonder. After all, Wal-Mart is routinely condemned as one of the great corporate villains of our time.

Normally I regard that as an excellent motive to buy into shares, because it's usually just a gesture of frustration on the part of much less successful businesses. In Wal-Mart's case, however, I would like to know a little more about the firm before I took the plunge.

I doubt such a large, well-ordered concern is likely to disappoint shareholders, but if its ethics don't come up to scratch, in the long term its image will suffer and so will its sales. In a different way, that's broadly what happened to fast food, and it will happen in retail too.

So, for now, my main retail holding remains Tesco. But for how long can it keep increasing its market share?

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