Private Investor: The boys with the black stuff are doing well

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The Independent Online

Anyone fancy a Guinness? I'm always up for a pint or two, though I have to say I prefer the original room-temperature variety to the extra-cold stuff they try to foist on you nowadays. It's one of the great mysteries of modern life why the British insist on drinking ice-cold beer in the middle of the winter.

A lesser mystery of modern life is why the Irish - the ones who still live there, I mean - seem to be giving up on the black stuff. Year after year Diageo comes along with its results, as it did last week, and breaks the bad news that one of the abiding stereotypes of Ireland is losing its froth.

Refreshingly, the Diageo bosses now own up to the fact instead of trying to lay some absurd statistical spin on the numbers. Yes the Irish are drinking less of it, and it's a demographic phenomenon. The young in Ireland prefer that strange cider with ice stuff (an unfeasibly cold drink, I might add), or they're turing to lager and vodka. Luckily, of course, Diageo also churns out plenty of the latter, so they're not losing all their Irish boozing clientele.

Anyway, Diageo's doing pretty well overall. Such is the breadth of its operations - Smirnoff. Baileys, Johnnie Walker, Bell's, J&B and Captain Morgan among its famous names - that it seems well able to cope with the ups and downs of individual drinks in individual markets. It seems happy about the trend from pub to home consumption, as well it might. Only a worldwide trend to abstention can stop its unstoppable progress. The richer we become, the more we drink - and the "better" we drink, moving towards more upmarket brands, an area where perhaps Diageo could improve its standing.

So even though the shares are close to a 17-year high, I was happy to add to my existing holding last week. I've been in and out of the shares over the years, and never really had the courage of my convictions with them.

How much growth, I often wondered, can you expect from a drinks company, especially one as mature as Diageo? But still the company continues to make excellent progress, routinely meeting its profit forecasts and almost as regularly raising them, as it did again last week. Operating profits last year (for the first half) rose above an earlier prediction of 7 per cent.

What's more, Diageo is sensibly looking beyond traditional markets in the US, Europe and Africa. The company created an Asia-Pacific unit last month and it says it will build a new malt whisky distillery and expand existing sites in Scotland to meet rising demand for Scotch in China, Brazil and Mexico.

How about that for a vote of confidence in Scotch, just when the British seem to be losing interest in it? Profits from China are due to start rolling in in two years' time. Maybe the Chinese will develop a taste for Guinness stout as well.

I've also found the strength to follow my own tip of last week and have bought into Scottish & Southern on a slight weakness. A weakness, that is, after a 50 per cent sprint in the share price over the last year or so.

As I wrote last week, the group has attractive long-term strategic strengths and there's the possibility that it might be the next British utility company to be snapped up by foreign and/or private equity interests. Of course, a good deal of that is already in the price, but, even if a bid never materialises, I like the idea of buying into the renewable energy boom. I'm pleased to say that the Scottish & Southern plan for one of Europe's largest onshore wind farms on the Isle of Lewis is expected to be approved by the Western Isles Council and the Sottish Executive, an excellent boost to the local economy and a welcome step away from fossil fuels.

For those who are still looking for a little excitement, may I suggest once again the JP Morgan Indian Investment Trust. I never tire of writing about it in this column simply because it has done so well and I want to spread the word. It's not far off recent highs right now.

I've seen a good deal of press comment about India overheating. But you'll avoid any serious losses if you stick to a regular monthly savings scheme. My guess is that £50 a month, if you're young enough, might pay for your retirement - but please don't take that as serious investment advice. Just take a look,if you're looking for a little spice for your portfolio.

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