The Week Ahead: Laughing all the way to our banks?

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The Independent Online

It has been building up for some weeks now but in the next few days the banks' earnings round will really take off.

The season kicked off last month with solid figures from Northern Rock, and the market has seen similarly strong results from Barclays too. Last week, the UK's third-largest bank revealed that 2003 pre-tax profits were up 20 per cent at £3.84bn and its dividend was to be increased by 12 per cent.

This week it is the turn of Bradford & Bingley, Standard Chartered, Royal Bank of Scotland and Alliance & Leicester to step up, and the City will be hoping for similarly strong performances from all four.

At Bradford & Bingley, both profits and the dividend are expected to be up, boosted in the main by strong mortgage volume growth. With interest rates on the rise, however, investors will be interested to hear the bank's thoughts on how the housing market will perform in the current financial year. A similar performance is likely to emerge at Alliance & Leicester. The bank confirmed late last year that full-year profits would be up by around 10 per cent on the back of cost cutting and increased personal lending, but the future of the mortgage market remains an issue.

Over at Standard Chartered, market eyes will be fixed on more exotic matters, namely the Asia specialist's performance in Hong Kong, its plans to incorporate there and its ambitions for the mammoth Chinese market.

Royal Bank of Scotland disappointed the market six months ago with a weaker-than-forecast set of interim results. But income is still expected to be up, around 9 per cent year on year, while profits are likely to be well over £6bn. The group has long been vocal in its plans to "crack America", and earlier this month agreed to buy the credit card unit from the US People's Bank. Investors will be hoping for further details on the deal and RBS's Stateside plans.

Moving on to sweeter fare, chocolate and fizzy drinks manufacturer Cadbury Schweppes is due to report full-year figures on Wednesday. The group stunned the City last year when it revealed that health-conscious punters were spurning sugary drinks, a message echoed by Coca-Cola last week (the US giant has seen sales fall in North America over recent months). Cadbury Schweppes is seeking to reverse that trend as well as cut costs, so the City will be hoping for more details on how it is faring. Fund manager Gerrard is predicting pre-tax profits, which have also suffered from the weak dollar, will slip from around £935m last year to £880m.

The day after Cadbury's update, spirits and brewing giant Diageo is set to post interim figures. Most are expecting solid underlying results from the owner of Smirnoff, Baileys and Guinness - evidently the health-conscious consumers blighting Cadburys are not that health-conscious after all. Sales are likely to be down, but only because of Burger King's sell-off at the end of 2002.

Staying with consumer goods, B&Q owner Kingfisher, which recently warned of a slowdown in its final quarter, will give a trading update on Wednes- day. The warning was in part driven by weakened consumer spending, although comparisons to the strong previous year have also played a part. It should also be noted that the fourth quarter is the weakest for DIY specialists. Regardless, underlying UK sales are still expected to rise, and the focus is likely to continue to be on its French business, Castorama, which has suffered from far weaker consumer demand than the UK arm.

Other stocks to watch out for include news and information group Reuters and mining giant BHP Billiton. What Reuters has to say will be of particular interest: its shares have soared since the start of this year on hopes that the worst for the troubled group is now behind it. Over at BHP Billiton, the company is on course to benefit from surging commodity prices for oil and base metals - but also to suffer from US dollar weakness. JP Morgan is currently estimating a $200m (£106m) impact.

The news flow does not dry up outside the UK, however. On mainland Europe, results are expected from cosmetics giant L'Oréal, German pharmaceutical firm Merck, Danish brewer Carlsberg and French oil group Total. Sanofi-Synthelabo, the drugs firm fighting for control of rival Aventis, announces fourth-quarter earnings.

Finally, squeezed in among those results, the City's plate will be brimming with some crucial economic updates, including the RICS house price survey, inflation data, minutes from the Monetary Policy Committee and retail sales.

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