The Investment column: Virgin Mobile is proving to be a volatile but lucrative investment

But if anyone was going to get hurt among the stock market-listed mobile phone groups, so the theory went, it would be Virgin Mobile.

We urged readers to buy the company's shares when they came to the market in September at 200p. But a successful campaign fought on price by easyMobile and Fresh threatened that recommendation.

With a similar "cheap and cheerful" image, the Virgin brand might well have been dented by another Stelios-inspired no-frills service. Egged on by Mr Dunstone's price-cutting tactics with Fresh, easyMobile cut its tariffs to 6p a minute for calls and 2p per text. These levels certainly appeared low enough to attract bargain-hunting pre-pay customers who might otherwise have been tempted by the Virgin service.

Happily for Virgin Mobile, easyMobile and Fresh have now put up their tariffs, having spent three months slugging it out with special promotions. They are now back at 15p a minute for calls and 5p per text. Still good value but not quite such a screaming buy.

The Virgin Mobile share price, at 262.75p, looks rather more secure as a result and it is proving a lucrative investment for those who followed our advice. It has been up to 280p this year and back down to its float price in May, but we warned in September it would be a volatile stock.

But it's not all about capital appreciation with Virgin Mobile - it also has a healthy dividend policy and announced a 4.88p-a-share payout at its annual results.

Analysts at Cazenove were surprised yesterday easyMobile did not extend its promotional period into July, another plus point for Virgin Mobile which said recently the launch of easyMobile had not had any effect in the market. But easyMobile's chief commercial officer, Sandy Monroe, said yesterday he was happy with the way the launch had gone.

Kier can comfortably overcome the downturn in housebuilding

A mountain of government money for new, large social projects has fuelled Kier Group, the construction company specialising in private finance initiatives for schools and hospitals.

One of the country's most respected construction firms, it reported a record level of new contract wins yesterday for the year to the end of June.

Kier operates as a commercial and residential builder. Its strategy of using cash generated by the commercial side to support the cash-hungry housing operations may raise some eyebrows but it has paid off. But Kier is not immune from the housing market slowdown, which has hit some housebuilders hard.

House sales slowed in the second half of its financial year and reservations are running below last year's levels. But because of a strong first half, houses completed for the year were still up 5 per cent from the previous year, to stand at 1,215. Despite the difficult housing outlook, recent land deals such as the purchases of Tudor Homes and Ashwood Homes stand the group in good stead.

The strength of the commercial and facility management operations should offset the weakness in housing. The group predicts annual profits well ahead of last year and at the top end of analysts' expectations, at £51.5m. Trading at 8.4 times 2006 earnings estimates, the stock remains a buy.

Britannic's back with a vengeance and is a buy

Shares in Britannic Group, the financial services company, made their stock market comeback yesterday after being suspended on 9 June when the company confirmed it intended to merge with Resolution Life.

And what a comeback it was. Analysts at Fox-Pitt Kelton said in an early-morning note they expected Britannic to re-list at a premium to its closing price of 509p before suspension.

The shares did not disappoint, rising 101.5p yesterday and adding 20 per cent to the company's value, reflecting the market's delight with the merger.

When the deal was announced the merged entity was valued at £1.8bn. That rose to £2.2bn yesterday. What makes the deal so attractive is that it brings together two companies involved in the dull-sounding closed life fund business.

The two have been busy taking over life funds that insurers no longer wish to operate and which have been closed to new business. Difficult stock market conditions and more onerous regulation have persuaded a number of sub-scale insurers to give up the ghost.

The likes of Britannic and Resolution can see a good, cash-generative business looking after these orphan policyholders and using the database to sell them other policies. The closed life funds are still receiving premiums from policyholders and an efficient, well-run organisation can make good money looking after them.

The merger, to be put to Britannic shareholders this month, will create the leading closed fund consolidator. It immediately creates £30m-a-year of pre-tax savings but there should be lots more to go for. Buy.

REX/Eye Candy
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