The Week Ahead: East or West, HSBC hopes to be best

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The Independent Online

Another busy week in the City kicks off tomorrow with final results from HSBC, one of the last banks to report in this earnings season.

It is likely to be a complex set of figures because of HSBC's acquisition last year of US group Household International. Analysts are looking for a 37 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to $13.2bn (£7.1bn) including the purchase, and a 22 per cent rise stripping it out. The dividend is also likely to be up, probably by around 13 per cent, which will please investors. But for the rest of the City, the management's outlook will be of most interest. The bank tends to take a conservative line but too much caution, particularly in relation to the US consumer and the Asian recovery, will not go down well.

Others reporting in the financial services sector include insurers Friends Provident and Britannic, corporate finance specialist Close Brothers and asset management firm Schroders. Yet those with a more consumer bent will also be spoilt for choice.

Gallaher, home to Silk Cut cigarettes and Hamlet cigars, reports final figures on Wednesday. The tobacco sector, despite its well-publicised exposure to litigation, has long been a favourite in the City: the companies have been building presences in emerging markets, which lack both the anti-smoking attitudes and legislation of more developed markets. At Gallaher, pre-tax profits are likely to come in around £496m, against £455m last time. Yet the group does suffer from an exposure to the weak US dollar, mainly because of its strong presence in East European countries such as Poland and Russia where the greenback still rules.

Sticking with the unhealthy, Belgian giant Interbrew and UK pub chain JD Wetherspoon are both scheduled to report. The owner of Stella Artois said in December that 2003's underlying earnings would be "modestly lower" than 2002's, hit in the main by the excuse du jour, negative currency trends.

JD Wetherspoon's interim results - out on Friday - mark the return of its founder, major shareholder and chairman, Tim Martin, from a six-month sabbatical. His comeback is keenly awaited: Williams de Broë currently has a "hold" recommendation on the stock and comments: "What he says will influence whether or not we return the stock to the 'buy' list." As to the figures, the January trading update revealed underlying sales up 4.9 per cent year on year, although there was no mention of margin. Pre-tax profits are likely to rise from £25.6m to £27.3m.

The media sector will be represented by ITV, the broadcasting giant formed by the merger of Granada and Carlton. It started trading on 2 February and since both partners have already announced results for the year to September 2003, surprises are unlikely. The outlook, though, will be of interest, particularly with recovery in the air for 2004 and advertising revenues likely to receive a boost from the summer Olympics and European football championships.

Other companies catching the City's eye will be transport group Arriva, where the focus is likely to be on the prospects for winning rail franchises, computer services firm LogicaCMG and bookie William Hill. There, everyone is hoping for solid results, largely because of the hugely popular fixed-odds betting terminals and - on top of the Cheltenham Festival and the rest of the racing season - the explosion of betting opportunities offered by those quadrennial sporting events.

Overseas, French traders will enjoy a busy week with figures from retailer Carrefour, luxury goods group LVMH (home to Moët & Chandon champagne and Louis Vuitton luggage) and construction firm Vinci.

On the economic front, it is that time of the month again: both the Bank of England and the European Central Bank will meet to decide their next move on interest rates, which currently stand at 4 and 2 per cent respectively. The Monetary Policy Committee raised the cost of borrowing at the beginning of the month but few are expecting a similar move this time round. Economists agree rates will rise again but only gradually, making March far too soon.

In euroland, the calls are going the other way, with many, particularly Germany and France, hoping for a cut to ease currency pressures as the euro continues to go from strength to strength. Politics, rather than economics, will probably be the driving force here, however: the ECB is unlikely to have appreciated member intervention and most are expecting rates to stay put.