The Week Ahead: All hands to the pumps: Opec is set to end crude guesswork

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The Independent Online

It is not much to ask for - and this week, the City may finally get its answer. Confusion has reigned in the oil market of late and the hope is that Opec's meeting to discuss production quotas on Wednesday will finally bring some clarity.

It is not much to ask for - and this week, the City may finally get its answer. Confusion has reigned in the oil market of late and the hope is that Opec's meeting to discuss production quotas on Wednesday will finally bring some clarity.

The price of crude has soared this year, recently touching 13-year highs, largely on the back of the oil cartel's announcement in February that it would reduce supply from 1 April. Yet Opec has also been sending out conflicting signals: it appeared last week that the cuts would be postponed before the cartel's president went on to claim that production would, in fact, be increased.

According to Kevin Norrish, an oil analyst at investment bank Barclays Capital: "Opec needs to reassure people that there is plenty of oil around, but at the same time manage production down. The announcement will therefore be particularly important because of uncertainty over what Opec is going to do."

BP, one of the companies that has benefited from the high price of oil, is meeting analysts tomorrow to discuss its plans for 2004. The group is likely to face some hard questions over its reserves, an issue over which rival Shell recently came unstuck. Shell's revised estimates now state that 20 per cent of its reserves are proven - BP is sticking by its figure of a hefty 80 per cent.

Away from the oil markets, corporate announcements are generally thin on this ground, yet a handful of key updates are due, including one from electricals retailer Kesa. The owner of Comet and Darty in France, which was spun out of Kingfisher last July, will be making its first full-year results presentation on Wednesday. Earlier this year, the group unveiled weak fourth-quarter sales although analysts are hopeful that management's stringent control of costs will maintain profits. The focus now will be on the outlook for the coming months, especially in light of the sluggish recovery in France and predictions of a slowdown in consumer spending in the UK.

Baltimore Technologies, once a doyen of the dot-com world, also announces full-year results on Wednesday. The figures, however, will not be the main focus: its recent tangles with activist shareholder Acquisitor will be. Baltimore has seen its market value slashed from a high of £5bn to £22m since the tech boom, and with the disposal of several businesses, it is now little more than a cash shell. Estimates of the amount of money sitting in Baltimore's bank account sit at over £20m. Cue Acquisitor. This activist shareholder recently bought a 10 per cent stake and called an extraordinary general meeting aimed at ousting the current management and taking control of the cash. The City is hoping for details of how management plans to deal with Acquisitor at the results.

Like Baltimore, shenanigans off the balance sheet are going to be the order of the day at Manchester United, which posts interim numbers. In particular, the City would like any update on US sports entrepreneur Malcolm Glazer's potential offer for the club and developments with Cubic Expression. The investment vehicle of racing millionaires John Magnier and JP McManus, the club's largest shareholder with 29.9 per cent, has accused Man U of slack corporate governance, and is thought to be after seats on the board.

The biggest name reporting next week, however, is on the other side of the Atlantic. Entertainment giant Walt Disney will publish second-quarter numbers, and while analysts expect these to be an improvement on last year, a number of issues remain.

Chief among these will be any news on Comcast's $54bn (£30bn) hostile takeover bid, and further news of chief executive Michael Eisner's precarious position. Investor disquiet about the company's performance, including the collapse of a crucial distribution agreement with Finding Nemo creator Pixar Animation, meant he was recently stripped of the chairmanship of the company, but many were less than sated. Chief among those is former director Roy Disney.

Economic news will be dominated by the latest decision on interest rates from the European Central Bank. Several members have adopted a more dovish line in recent days, and there is a chance the bank will cut. Yet so far the ECB has held firm on rates, despite calls recently to intervene over the euro's strength.

Other economic data includes an update on the UK housing market through mortgage lending data from the Bank of England and the latest Nationwide house price survey. Economists are expecting a more modest rise against February's hefty 3.1 per cent increase, but no signs of cooling for the red-hot market just yet.

CALENDAR

Tomorrow 29

UK: Results: (Final) 4imprint, Alexon Group, AG Barr, Chepstow Racecourse, Melrose Resources, Metal Bulletin, MSB International, Wellington Holdings; (Interim) James Halstead, Paramount.

Tuesday 30

UK: Results: (F) Advanced Medical, Faroe Petroleum, Gyrus, Maiden Group, Mears Group, TT Electronics, Whatman Group; (I) ADVFN, Manchester United.

Wednesday 31

UK: Results: (F) Baltimore Technology, Bristol & London, Clinton Cards, Dana Petroleum, Kesa Electricals, Moss Bross, Watermark, Wireless, Yoomedia; (I) Ultimate Finance Group, Envesta Telecom.

Thursday 1

UK: Results: (F) Alizyme, UCM.

Friday 2

UK: Results: (F) Cluff Mining; Goshawk Insurance.

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