The Investment Column: Hold Kelda for dividend potential

Helphire needs a brilliant second half - Greetings set for sparkling Christmas
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The big news for the water sector this year was the regulator's five-yearly price determination, which was announced last week. The outcome for Kelda was the closest to the company's request of any of the players in the sector.

The big news for the water sector this year was the regulator's five-yearly price determination, which was announced last week. The outcome for Kelda was the closest to the company's request of any of the players in the sector.

That does not mean that the regulator was the most generous to Kelda. Just perhaps that the company was the one trying it on the least. While others may appeal against their determinations - which fixes the price rises allowed over the next five years - Kelda said yesterday it was satisfied with its outcome.

The interim results were solid enough, apart from at the US business, Aquarion. Underlying group pre-tax profit was 8 per cent higher at £107.9m - the reported figures are distorted by the recent disposal of its stake in Waste Recycling.

Kelda started off as the privatised Yorkshire Water. It has since added other parts to the business, including the smallish US operation, a services business, a call centre venture and a property arm.

Yorkshire Water continues to progress, with underlying profit here 7 per cent higher at £137m. The regulator's final price determination means that it will add £45 (before inflation) to the £288 average bill for Yorkshire households. The regulatory outcome will allow it to meet its investment plans.

The services business has doubled in size, as a result of a Ministry of Defence contract. It has the potential to double again once it ties up a deal to provide waste water services in Wales - it is the preferred bidder.

The US business has been through its own regulatory review and here the outcome was disappointing. Nevertheless, the result means there is plenty of room for improvement in the returns it has been achieving.

Attention will turn next to Kelda's dividend policy, and its relatively low gearing means there is potential for a rise in the payout. At 564.5p, it's a hold.

Helphire needs a brilliant second half

Unfortunately for most of us, this is the season during which we are most likely to have a car crash, as a result of the dark winter nights. But for Helphire, it is the best time of year. November was the busiest month the company has ever had and it is not expecting a slowdown in December.

Helphire aids victims of road traffic accidents that are not their fault, by hiring a replacement vehicle, while their own is repaired or a new car bought. The costs for this service are charged to the insurance company of the at-fault driver. About 20 per cent of the 5.5 million road accidents in the UK each year are deemed to be "non-fault" for one of the parties involved.

Perhaps first-half results yesterday flattered to deceive - a pre-tax profit increase of 131 per cent to £3m reflects just how bad the first half of last year was. As the company is expected to generate full-year profits of £14.5m, the second half of this year needs to be substantially better than the first. Thankfully for Helphire, it usually is, and the company is comfortable with forecasts.

The purchase of the competitor Albany looks like an excellent strategic fit for the business, cementing Helphire's place as the largest player in what is an industry that still has plenty of growth left in it.

Shareholders who have held on to the stock since the dark days in 2000, when the price fell to below 50p, have been rewarded. The shares closed at 214.5p yesterday. But most of the good news is in the price - the shares aren't exactly cheap and the company still needs to deliver an outstanding second half. Hold.

Greetings set for sparkling Christmas

This really is the most wonderful time of the year for International Greetings, which supplies most of the UK's major retailers with its own-brand cards and gift accessories.

Christmas accounts for as much as 75 per cent of sales and the success of The Incredibles, the latest animated blockbuster, will add an extra sparkle to this year's figures. The company makes stationery and cards under licence from Disney and others, and the timing of The Incredibles release should provide bankable Christmas sales.

But International Greetings is not just reliant on the latest box office hit. It has the rights to characters such as The Simpsons, Barbie and Winnie the Pooh - long-standing favourites that deliver sales every year. It said yesterday that turnover for the six months to the end of September rose 16 per cent, with pre-tax profits up 17 per cent, so it does produce growth in the off-season too.

Run by the same management for the past 24 years, International is trying to boost its presence in the US and Europe. At 327.5p, it's a buy.

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