The Week Ahead: BP needs to shake off propane inquiry worries

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The Independent Online

Wednesday's trading update from BP will once again be overshadowed by non-financial matters. In the last 18 months, the company has had to face up to the spillage at Prudhoe Bay and the fatal explosion at the Texas City refinery. Now it finds itself embroiled in an investigation into rigging the US propane market.

For a company that prides itself on ethical and environmentally sound practices, things are beginning to look decidedly ugly.

The price of oil is still above $70 a barrel and while tensions in the Middle East continue, the company will go on making eye-watering profits. However, the prospect of being heavily fined if the propane investigation ends with a successful prosecution could be the tip of the iceberg - the longer-term damage to the company's reputation could be much more costly. Less than a week after the allegations of price-rigging surfaced, BP is already facing a number of class action lawsuits.

First-quarter results in late April showed a 15 per cent decline in net profits, still a staggering $5.6bn, mainly due to the Texas City refinery being offline and an active hurricane season. With comment on the ongoing propane inquiry unlikely, analysts will be looking for a marked improvement in performance and a reassuring trading statement.

TODAY: Results: Full year - Waterline Group.

TOMORROW: Investors in HMV Group have certainly had plenty to get their teeth stuck into so far this year. The group has already rejected two takeover offers from the private equity group Permira, the last valuing the shares at 210p, on top of reportedly getting a £280m offer for the Waterstone bookshop chain from its founder, Tim Waterstone.

More recently, the group has agreed to pay £62.9m for the rival bookseller Ottakar's. The flurry of corporate activity has left some investors wondering why they weren't given a chance to accept the Permira offer, and with the shares slumping to close at 168p on Friday, results will need to be encouraging if shareholder dissent is to be avoided. With the sale of CDs in terminal decline because of digital downloading, according to some industry watchers, it is perhaps not unreasonable to assume that some investors would rather have accepted the Permira offer.

Results: Full year - ASOS; DTZ Holdings; Greene King; HMV Group; La Tasca Group; Northgate. First half - Alphameric; Porvair; Terrace Hill Group.

WEDNESDAY: As at BP, events away from the day-to-day business have preoccupied British Airways in the last couple of weeks, as the company has become the lead player in a cartel investigation by US authorities. Unless traffic figures can deliver a knockout blow to the competition, expect ongoing concerns over the investigation to overshadow anything else the company does until the situation is resolved.

Recently, traders have been speculating about a bid for the former state airline operator from Emirates, but a move is very unlikely with such serious allegations hanging over BA. Budget rival Ryanair is also due to report traffic numbers.

Rightmove, the property advertising group majority-owned by a group of estate agents, reports debut full-year figures. Some traders believe the group is wildly overvalued, and results will need to be good if that view is not to become more widespread. However, with very few analysts providing full-year forecasts, there is little to go on. House broker UBS expects the group to report full-year pre-tax profits of £16.4m.

The human resources and public services information technology group Northgate Information Solutions announces full-year numbers. The group has had a difficult few months after the head office was destroyed by the Buncefield oil depot fire in December last year, although the disaster is not expected to hurt the company's performance.

Traders expect to see good growth in the group's education division and overall revenue improvement of approximately 68 per cent on 2005 numbers, with consensus forecasts looking for £38m in pre-tax profits.

Results: Full year - Northgate Information Solutions. First half - Rightmove.

THURSDAY: A trading statement from the computer game retailer Game Group should give the market some more definite guidance on the arrival of Sony's PlayStation 3 after several production delays. If the console is available in the UK in time for Christmas, Game can expect the cash registers to ring, as massive demand is expected for the console despite a reported £499 price tag. The word in the market is that the PS3 will be available in the UK before Christmas, and if Game reassures the market enough expect to see the shares rally significantly from the current 80p level.

Results: Full year - Cohort; Samuel Heath.

FRIDAY: Results: None expected.

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