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Business Analysis & Features

The Week Ahead: Greenspan prepares traders for inexorable rise of rates

It is the worst kept secret in economics. Such is the expectation that the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates by a quarter per cent on Wednesday, any other decision would prove an enormous shock for the markets. The hike would be the first for more than four years.

Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman, is renowned for not wanting to spook the markets, and he appears to have marshalled opinions into expecting rates to be 1.25 per cent by the end of the week.

Investors will therefore be scouring the accompanying statement for clues to future policy. With consumer confidence and household finances strong, the Fed will be looking to take a measured approach to combating inflation and raising interest rates.

But it is likely to mark the start of a busy period for US rates, with some economists expecting the cost of borrowing to increase to 3.75 per cent over the next 18 months.

Commented Steven Andrew, economist at Isis Asset Management: "US interest rates are undeniably too low on a structural basis, but that doesn't mean that the journey from 1 per cent to neutral [anything from 4 per cent to 6 per cent] is going to be a straight line. In our view it will take place over a number of years and feature occasional backward steps."

Economic news back home, meanwhile, will provide further insight into the buoyancy of the housing market when the Nationwide house prices index for June is released. Housebuilders Persimmon and George Wimpey will also contribute to the debate when they issue trading updates on Tuesday and Wednesday.

On the corporate front, oil giant BP provides a second-quarter trading update on Friday. Oil prices have reached record highs this year and although they have eased over recent weeks, they still remain within spitting distance of $40 a barrel. Only last week, BP's Russian venture, TNK-BP, said profits surged 82 per cent in 2003 because of the soaring price of oil. Management views on what the next few months have in store for crude will therefore be pivotal.

Retail will be another area of interest for investors, with full-year numbers from supermarket group Somerfield and music and book chain HMV.

Somerfield is pursuing a turnaround programme, forced upon it following the disastrous acquisition of Kwik Save in the late Nineties. Last month the group announced a 1.1 per cent rise in annual underlying sales, along with news that it was closing or rebranding 51 Kwik Save stores in Scotland. Analysts are expecting full-year pre-tax profit to improve from £26m to around £43m.

So far HMV, the owner of Waterstone's, has shrugged off the challenge from supermarkets but online music retailers remain a threat. Investors will therefore be looking for an update on its e-strategy when it reports full-year earnings on Wednesday.

The group said in April that profits would be at the top end of forecasts and the City expects pre-tax profits to rise to £117m from last year's £96.5m. A change in the group's low-yielding dividend policy could also be in the offing, as could a share buyback programme.

Elsewhere, tobacco group Gallaher, manufacturer of Benson & Hedges, will be providing an update on trading. Currency issues and lower volumes across Europe remain problems for most of the industry. Gallaher does, however, have an advantage as it does not have large presences in France and Germany, two of the toughest markets.

Updating on the media sector will be magazine group United Business Media and advertising giant WPP. UBM, which publishes a range of trade magazines, held its annual general meeting earlier this month and pleased the City with an improved margin outlook. Most are hoping for more good news from the trading update.

WPP will use its AGM tomorrow to give a trading update. It has been a tough couple of years for WPP but analysts are expecting the positive trend from the first three months of this year to continue. Revenues were up 5.7 per cent in the first quarter, with double-digit growth in all markets except continental Europe.

England's football dreams may lie in tatters, but Greene King shareholders will be hoping that Rooney-mania and the team's exploits in Euro 2004 have boosted sales. The brewer and pub company reports final results on Thursday and investors will be alert to any news on current trading.

City analysts are looking for pre-tax profits to have increased to £81m from last year's £75m. The pub industry and its relationship with landlords is currently under the scrutiny of a Trade and Industry Select Committee probe, and any comments on this will be welcome.


Tomorrow 28

UK: Results: (Final) CNG Travel Group, Honeycombe Leisure, Northgate Information Solutions, Photo-Me International; (interim) Beale, Wynnstay Group, York Pharma.

Tuesday 29

UK: Results: (F) Accident Exchange Group, AorTech International, Carpetright, International Greetings; (I) Cosalt, Domino Printing, Ingenta, ML Laboratories, Parkdean Holidays, Porvair, Rensbury.

Wednesday 30

UK: Results: (F) ASOS, HMV, Somerfield, Themutual.net.

Thursday 1

UK: Results: (F) Greene King, Teather & Greenwood Holdings.

Friday 2

UK: Results: None scheduled.