The Week In Review: Tough fixtures list ahead for JJB Sports

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The Independent Online

Dave Whelan's chairmanship of Wigan has taken the football team into the Premiership, but the sports retailer he chaired until July is fighting to avoid being relegated from investors' portfolios. At half-time in JJB Sports's financial year, pre-tax profits are down by a third to £18m.

Rivals are slashing prices on sportswear in an attempt to stay afloat. Allsports went bust last week. And JJB itself warns margins will be lower in the second half as it slashes its prices.

The group has established a useful sideline in health clubs, which it is opening in tandem with new out-of-town stores. The new clubs should provide a useful future earnings stream in due course. But weak consumer spending threatens gym-membership numbers in the short term.

We tipped this company last time it lost its way in 2003 and it surged over the following year. Now things look dark again, and Whelan's 39 per cent stake could be sold to fund his Premiership hobby. With the dividend barely covered by earnings and the outlook grim, it's time to sell.

VASTOX

Vastox is the second company set up by Stephen Davies, professor of organic chemistry at Oxford University. He sold the first, Oxford Asymmetry, for £316m in 2003. The company helps big pharma in its search for new drugs, and is showing early promise. But much rests on a handful of drugs it plans to develop of its own. Hold off until it is more established.

C&C GROUP

The Irish drinks group C&C has launched its Magners brand across the UK with startling success. In the six months to 31 August, C&C's cider sales rose by 28 per cent. We scoffed when C&C floated last May, and advised shunning the stock. But we would do no favours by U-turning now. It is too early to be sure cider can really be cool in the UK. Also, the valuation has risen to the upper limit of the drinks sector and a yield below 4 per cent isn't tempting. Time please.

INTERMEDIATE CAPITAL

Intermediate Capital backs buyout vehicles with mezzanine finance, a mixture of debt and equity. Given the acquisition boom, it is trading at record levels - core profit was up 28 per cent in the six months to 31 July, to £44m. There is still more steam in the M&A engine, and private-equity deals still stack up at current low interest rates. Keep holding.

FIBERNET

Fibernet, the telecoms tiddler, claims it should be thought of in a different light to brutes such as BT and Cable & Wireless. It offers large companies private networks for high-speed data transfer using its fibre-optic cables. Last year, the company missed its targets but still increased sales 13.5 per cent to £47.9m, and cut losses to £4.4m. But telecoms services can be volatile and although Fibernet is doing many things right, it is hard to warm to its competitive position. Avoid.

PETER HAMBRO MINING

Shares in Peter Hambro Mining have hit a high after an analyst trip to the company's main operation, at Pokrovskiy in eastern Russia. Pokrovskiy produced 84,600 ounces of gold in the first half, up 41 per cent on 2004, and the company is on course to meet its targets. The shares are worth holding for the long term, but, at the current price, new investors should wait.

SSL

Reckitt Benckiser's decision to pay £1.93bn for the consumer-products division of Boots had resonance for investors in SSL International. They're all betting on a takeover of SSL, whose two brands are Durex (condoms), and Scholl (footcare). But now Reckitt is out of the running as a buyer, the business looks overvalued. We said sell at 299p in April. Keep selling.

SYNERGY HEALTHCARE

Synergy could clean up as the Government encourages more private-sector involvement in the NHS. The company has long done the laundry for hospitals, but its recent stellar growth is down to its surgical decontamination business, basically sterile cleaning of surgical instruments. But ministers are trying to prevent Synergy getting a monopoly position in this area, and while the company's management is smart, the risks to the share price look high. Hold.

DS SMITH

Each results statement or trading update at DS Smith, the paper manufacturer, seems to bring fresh bad news. The latest setback is that the company's sideline in stationery has missed its profit targets this year. But despite the gloom, the near-6 per cent dividend is not threatened, and management has a good track record in restructuring. Hold.

MOTHERCARE

Bringing Mothercare to life has been a long, hard labour for its current management team under Ben Gordon, but it is now making profits of £20m. A revamp of stores and a radical improvement in product quality has done the trick, with a further boost from better distribution. Add in good news on international expansion and this is one to keep cradling.

GOOCH & HOUSEGO

A little manufacturing business based in a converted court house in the pretty Somerset town of Ilminster is making millions shipping some of the world's most sophisticated laser components to China. Gooch & Housego makes the components that turn lasers into tools - the shares have quadrupled since 2002 and there is more efficiency to come. Buy.

It's well worth putting your money on Sportingbet

Followers of PartyGaming, the FTSE 100 online gambling business that issued a profits warning within weeks of flotation, might be forgiven for thinking that the internet poker phenomenon is collapsing as fast as it emerged. It is not.

Results from its rival Sportingbet (owner of Paradise Poker) show that growth in new players remains strong, and the amounts gambled by players is holding up.

Sportingbet was able to reassure the City that, unlike PartyGaming, it was not having to spend a fortune on marketing to attract new business. It has kept the average cost of acquisition to $132 a new customer, compared with over $200 for the market leader.

It will take time for the online poker market to settle, and it is likely that growth will become more measured, but gambling is as old as money.

Robust, established and flexible companies, with a broad range of gambling offerings and a spread of geographical markets, are going to be the least volatile investments for those wanting to speculate on this phenomenon.

Sportingbet is just such a business. The company announced its first dividend this week and is profitable enough to become quite a generous payer. Buy.

The above are recommendations from the daily Investment Column

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