M&S makes our share tips shine, but we go south with Leeds Utd

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The Independent Online

Summer is here, and it's time for the half-term report on our share portfolio. At the beginning of the year, The Independent on Sunday business team selected six stocks they believed were worth taking a punt on in 2004. And at this six-month junction, it's a case of must try harder.

Summer is here, and it's time for the half-term report on our share portfolio. At the beginning of the year, The Independent on Sunday business team selected six stocks they believed were worth taking a punt on in 2004. And at this six-month junction, it's a case of must try harder.

Markets worldwide have stabilised and confidence in equities is returning. Over the past 18 months, the FTSE All-Share has gained 18 per cent.

Yet in the past six months that rate of growth has eased and the index has traded within a 122-point range, gaining just 1.4 per cent. If you had invested £100 net in a fund tracking the All-Share, you would have barely broken even.

But that would be some achievement next to the Sindy portfolio. Thanks to a couple of rogue stocks, you would have actually lost money - your £100 would now be worth £80.82 - despite some solid performances elsewhere.

Marks & Spencer

The sterling performance of M&S is mainly down to billionaire Philip Green. Prior to the announcement at the end of May that he was mulling a bid, the share price had been trundling along. Take out the impact of Mr Green and it would be up around 6 per cent, as opposed to 23 per cent, on the beginning of the year. It closed on Friday at 356p.

What happens next is up for debate. New boss Stuart Rose has cheered the City with his recovery plans while Mr Green, even with two rejections against his name, seems reluctant to give up on his dream of securing control. Either way, it is a stock to watch this year.

Scottish & Newcastle

Take away M&S, and the brewer has been the star performer, recording a 17 per cent improvement as it closed the week at 442.5p. Cost savings are understood to be well on track, demand in Western Europe has improved, and the group has said it expects to meet all its financial and commercial objectives for 2004. Bid speculation does play a part, however, as many believe S&N, now devoid of its retail estate, remains a takeover target.

Woolworths

The retailer knows what it's like to be out of favour. After its demerger from Kingfisher in 2001, it stumbled from one disappointing update to the next and the shares suffered. This year did not get off to a good start either, as the City heard that festive sales growth had been just 0.8 per cent.

Yet the mood has since changed, with the stock up 3 per cent after closing on Friday at 45.5p. Chief executive Trevor Bish-Jones is refocusing on core markets, while first-quarter figures showed the estate refit was pulling in the customers. Analysts feel recovery may be slow but is at least on track.

Unilever

Dr Atkins has a lot to answer for. The late diet guru's low-carb lifestyle has hit Unilever and its Slim Fast range hard.

The company is fighting back with its own range of low-carb food and an aggressive marketing push on Slim Fast. The unit's management has also been shaken up. Yet shareholder confidence has not been fully restored and another set of disappointing quarterly figures did not help. Well-regarded chairman Niall Fitzgerald is retiring and in the past six months the shares have gone up just 2 per cent. They closed on Friday at 533.5p.

Jarvis

The support services group was always a risky pick, with the memory of the Potters Bar derailment, in particular, holding it back. Hopes that Steven Norris - who lost out in his bid to become London's Mayor - would turn the group round have so far proved misplaced. The stock is 60 per cent down on its starting mark, closing the week at 83p.

Leeds United

Jonas Nissé, son of the business editor, may only be two, but already it appears a career as a stock picker is not the best way forward. The massively indebted football club had its shares suspended at 2.75p before it was taken over - and investors did not receive a penny.

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