Market Report: Shine comes off the Wetherspoon wonderstock

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The Independent Online
Investors called time on JD Wetherspoon shares yesterday, amid whispers of disappointing trading, rising debts slowing expansion plans and higher than expected maintenance costs. The stock ended down a further 7.25p at 265.5p, pushing it 6 per cent below where it started the week.

Investors called time on JD Wetherspoon shares yesterday, amid whispers of disappointing trading, rising debts slowing expansion plans and higher than expected maintenance costs. The stock ended down a further 7.25p at 265.5p, pushing it 6 per cent below where it started the week.

Wetherspoon has lost its status as a wonderstock, built on its formula of cheap booze, quality grub and a ban on background noise. Analysts are sharpening their pencils to write negatively on the shares now that its July financial year-end is near.

Updates from Luminar, the nightclubs group, and Urbium, the City bars business, have highlighted this week just how tough trading was in June, even allowing for the draw of Euro 2004, which Wetherspoon is less well placed to benefit from. Wetherspoon said at the time of its third-quarter figures that meeting full-year profit forecasts would depend on trading over the football period.

There are also concerns that Wetherspoon's shares have been propped up by share buy-backs that ceased a few weeks ago, and that debt is now creeping up. In addition, some investors were yesterday fretting that the company will have to spend more on the upkeep of its estate if it is to justify the valuation of the property leases on its books. Those that have been sold have often fetched less than their book value.

Urbium shares were flat yesterday at 569p, with Luminar continuing its rebound despite more profit downgrades, up 2.75p at 422p.

The weekend clearly began early for many in the City, because trading activity was muted. The FTSE 100 managed just a 12.1 point climb to 4,393.2, meaning it has moved just 14 points south this week.

With gold, copper and oil all trading at or close to new highs, it was the mining and oil companies that enjoyed the most robust demand for their shares. Of the miners, Anglo American rose 16p to 1,120p, and the Chilean copper company Antofagasta was 12p better at 996p. And of the oil and gas majors, BP gushed 10p higher to 497p, and BG Group came out top with a 10p rise to 347.5p.

Shire Pharmaceuticals suffered a double whammy of negative broker comment, which sent its shares to their lowest since last November. An uncompromising investment note from WestLB says sales of its existing drugs will be hit over the next five years because of copycat competition, the pipeline of new products contains none with significant commercial potential, and time is running out to find a decent acquisition to spend its £1.4bn cash pile on. Ouch. Shire shares were down 6.5p to 467.5p as investors digested the WestLB note and another from the respected pharma team at Lehman Brothers, which said Shire could lose much of its royalty income in the next year, as a new rival in the HIV drugs market is launched.

Shares in Emap, the radio and publishing conglomerate, dipped a further 8.5p to 710p after this week's news of poor magazine sales in France. Gossip swirled that Clear Channel, the US media giant, is running the slide rule over the group.

There was a two-way pull on shares in SABMiller, the former South African Breweries. Lehman Brothers, in a bullish note on the brewing sector, warned that SABMiller shares were likely to underperform their peers after their recent strong run. UBS, however, was tipping the stock on the basis of its exposure to emerging markets, where it can push up beer prices and switch drinkers into premium brands. UBS won. SABMiller shares closed up 3.5p at 704.5p.

Private punters are already stuffed with Regal Petroleum shares, which have tripled in value so far this year. Yesterday they were up 2.5p to 397.5p on hopes of positive news from its Greek or Romanian assets.

The housebuilders took a pasting, after a presentation from Berkeley on its plans to return cash to shareholders and concentrate efforts on urban regeneration rather than traditional homes. Investors came away convinced this is the top of the cycle for the sector, and sold off sectormates such as Bellway, down 14p at 731p, and McCarthy & Stone, the retirement homes builder, which fell 15p to 562p. Deutsche Bank abandoned its "buy" recommendation on Persimmon, the biggest builder by market value, off 3p at 612p. Berkeley itself was up 9p at 1,208p.

Shares of Marchpole, which makes Yves Saint Laurent clothing, were in fashion thanks to a magazine tip. With further brand acquisitions and improving dividends, the stock was chased up 0.25p to 19.5p. William Ransom, the over-the-counter medicines and plant extracts group, rose a penny to 53p after positive comment on the disposal of non-core businesses this week.

Avanti Screenmedia, which organises TV screens for bars showing music and ads, made its AIM debut, having raised £3m in a placing of shares at 130p. They closed at 133.5p.

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