The Week Ahead: Rates shall not be moved but builders are on shaky ground

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The Independent Online

As the building industry swings into action this week with a series of result announcements, investors will also be looking to the Bank of England for some clarity on monetary policy.

Few believe the cost of borrowing will move from its current 4.5 per cent at the Bank's rate-setting meeting this week. "Overall, it would take some very weak data to trigger another cut," says Investec economist Philip Shaw. "While this is not impossible, especially if consumption trends are weak, the balance of risks has turned and we now believe that base rates will remain on hold at 4.5 per cent for the rest of the year."

The strength of consumer demand will certainly interest the Bank. However, the British Retail Consortium's February sales monitor is likely to show another weak month on the high street. HSBC expects a slight rebound from January's slump, but says 0.8 per cent growth in like-for-like sales will be considered "disappointing".

One interest rate-sensitive sector is construction. Share prices in the sector have been soaring thanks to bid speculation - fanned by Persimmon's purchase of Westbury and Carillion's takeover of Mowlem - and encouraging signs for 2006.

However, this week's round of results is unlikely to be impressive. At Bovis Homes, analysts at Williams de Broë predict a 21 per cent fall in full-year pre-tax profits to £115m. The builder's previously successful strategy of betting on surging house values fell apart last year as price rises moderated.

Bovis's rumoured merger partner, Redrow, is also forecast to produce a fall in interim profit - to around £55m. Margins are likely to be under pressure due to a decline in average unit prices and the rising cost of land.

Carillion's full-year results announcement will probably be overshadowed by an update on the Mowlem purchase. As one analyst says: "While the valuation is pretty compelling, we want to know about the integration and what drove the deal." Analysts at Charles Stanley are forecasting a full-year pre-tax profit of £57m.

The losing bidder for Mowlem, Balfour Beatty, is likely to post a full-year pre-tax profit of around £135m. Analysts are keen to hear a commentary on Mansell, the social housing division, and an update on the burgeoning market for public-private partnerships, where Balfour Beatty has a strong presence. However, margins remain under pressure. Tom Gidley-Kitchin, an analyst at Charles Stanley, says: "Given top-line growth, the issue, to state the obvious, is whether Balfour can turn this into profits growth."

Market consensus for full-year pre-tax profits at builders' merchant Travis Perkins has settled at around £207m following November's trading update. But investors are still nervous after last year's profit warning. This was largely caused by Travis Perkins' poorly timed entry into the DIY market and the price it paid for high-street chain Wickes. Darren Shaw of Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein believes that the builders' merchant sector stabilised in January and February, but that the home improvement market remains soft given rival B&Q's poor trading update.

There is action in other sectors. HSBC rounds off the bank reporting season with tomorrow's full-year's numbers. Market consensus is for around 9 per cent pre-tax profit growth to $20.6bn (£11.8bn). With its announcement coming at the end of a generally strong set of results, the banking giant has a hard act to follow. Investors nominate two key areas of particular interest: the growth of impaired loans in its UK and US personal lending business; and any signs of sustainable growth in the revamped corporate, investment banking and markets division.

Staying in the financial arena, insurer Royal & SunAlliance comes to the City with its full-year result. Analysts at William de Broë are predicting an operating pre-tax profit of £660m, versus £258m last year.

However, while the percentage change is large, much of the increase comes from management action taken in the past two years to make cost savings and pull out of the US.

Another group facing the market is transport operator National Express. While the headline pre-tax profit may be muddied by asset sales, analysts at Barclays Capital are forecasting a result of £127m - a 4 per cent increase on last year. Like its peers, National Express is suffering from soaring fuel prices.


Tomorrow 6

UK RESULTS: (final) Ant, Concurrent Technologies, Goals Soccer Centres, Heywood Williams, HSBC, Huveaux, IMI, Inchcape, Inion, Intertek, John Wood, Just Car Clinics, Keller, Management Consulting, Taylor Nelson Sofres, Vitec, WSP; (interim) Close Brothers, Renewable Energy Generation, Teesland,

Tuesday 7

UK RESULTS: (F) Admiral, Aegis, Axon, Brammer, Corporate Services, Dmatek, Hydro International, International Power, Jardine Lloyd Thompson, Meggitt, Premier Foods, Spectris; (I) DX Services, ICM Computer, Interior Services, Provalis, Redrow

Wednesday 8

UK RESULTS: (F)1st Dental Laboratories, Access Intelligence, Amphion Innovations, Axis-Shield, Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Drax, Intercytex, ITV, Johnston Press, Provident Financial, Rathbone Brothers, Restaurant, Savills, Stilo International, Travis Perkins; (I) Mucklow (A&J)

Thursday 9

UK RESULTS: (F) Acambis, Agrekko, Ark Therapeutics, Benfield, Catlin, Chime Communications, Cobham, Ideal Shopping Direct, Inmarsat, John Lewis Partnership, National Express, Royal & SunAlliance, SIG, Umbro; (I) Town Centre Securities

Friday 10

UK RESULTS: (F) 4imprint, Amlin, CLS, Flying Brands, Gibbs & Dandy, Greggs, Mapeley, Marshalls; (I) Centaur