Small Talk: Easier's cash still nowhere to be found

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The Independent Online

Small Talk readers with decent memories may recall the sorry tale surrounding Easier, an online estate agent that listed at 150p during the tech boom of the late 1990s. To recap, this online estate agency business lasted about as long as the boom, and before long Easier was a shell with nothing to show for itself - except £5.4m in cash.

Luckless shareholders thought that their plight was at an end in May 2005 following a cash offer valuing the company at 22p per share, the same value as its listed cash reserves. The bid came from Fulton Partners, an offshore investment company based in Mayfair.

The offer cancelled an Emergency General Meeting called by a major shareholder - Tarsus Group chairman Neville Buch - who was demanding the resignation of two directors, then-chairman David Gough and Andrew Milne.

At the time, Small Talk believed that the chances of Fulton actually coming up with the cash were slim, and we were right. Over two years since investors accepted the offer and Easier shares were delisted, punters are still waiting for their share of what is left. At the time of the bid, Brian Copsey, another Fulton executive, evaded questions regarding who was advising Fulton, when the company would file its accounts (its accounts for 2003 and 2004 were still to be filed) and the whereabouts of the £5.4m cash pile.

The Serious Fraud Office launched an investigation into Easier, but so far the results have been disappointing. Three men were arrested in early January last year, while a fourth man was also arrested later that month. All were subsequently released on bail without charge, but the investigation has not yet been closed.

It is now more than a year since Easier promised to pay out its remaining cash in order to prevent a trip to the High Court, and investors must be wondering if they will ever see their cash. Easier shareholders, like Small Talk, must be hoping that the Serious Fraud Office can gather enough evidence to prosecute those responsible for what looks like shocking abuse of investors and the public markets.

Corpora's new clothes

Last week's Small Talk highlighted the cynicism some professional traders greet company name changes - the belief is that most of the time it is done to attempt to hide a less than glorious past. So little wonder that news of a name change at the Aim-listed information technology group Corpora was greeted with underwhelming enthusiasm from the market.

As of today the company begins a new life under the name Infonic, and will trade under the ticker IFNC. Shareholders can be forgiven for hoping that the name change will give the company a new lease of life - the shares peaked at 48p in early 2004 soon after listing and have been heading south ever since. During that time, the company has issued new stock at least 15 times, while claiming each time that the new issue of stock will have no dilutive effect on the share price.

The announcement came with a brief but bullish statement on the company's prospects - but given its less than illustrious past, investors should perhaps take their lead from the professionals and give this one a wide berth for the time being, in spite of the fancy new name.

GW Pharma still pinning hopes on cannabis-based MS treatment

Right now, investors in GW Pharma, the cannabis-based drug discovery group, must feel like schoolboys (or cabinet ministers) who spent their pocket money on an eighth of Morocco's finest only to discover it's a lump of brown plasticine.

Friday's news that the company has withdrawn its application for regulatory approval in Europe for Savitex, an oral spray used to treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, is the latest in a long line of decidedly mixed newsflow, and knocked 30 per cent off the value of the company.

However, all is not lost. Despite this latest setback, the drug is probably closer to gaining European regulatory approval than before. The reason for the delay is that the MRHA (the UK regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) wants further tests on Savitex's efficacy against multiple sclerosis spasticity. Friday's statement indicated that the MRHA has no problems with the drug's safety and quality.

The potential for cannabanoids to create a rich stream of new drugs remains intact. There is still plenty of cash left on the books at GW, the new MRHA trials should be a formality, and the pressure is mounting from the medical industry to give Savitex the green light.

For shareholders who have held on this long, there seems little point in getting out at this stage. The house broker, Investec Securities, reacted to the news by reiterating its 237p price target, and even if approval is not given until 2009 there looks to be a decent chance of GW Pharma shares making a substantial recovery.

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