The week ahead: Safeway isn't easy to swallow but it's not beyond our Ken

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The Independent Online

Justin King's J Sainsbury is not the only supermarket chain in the spotlight this week. Just days after he seeks to convince the City of his turnaround strategy, rival boss Sir Ken Morrison will be unveiling interim numbers.

It will be a mixed presentation. The integration of Safeway, which Morrisons acquired earlier this year, is proving to be a tough slog, with sales suffering as the stores are converted.

The northern chain has already warned that this, and a raft of price cuts, means half-year profits, after interest and exceptional costs, are likely to come in between £120m and £125m.

However, it is not expected to be an entirely bleak update. Long-term, most are convinced Morrisons will successfully incorporate Safeway and then prove a formidable challenger to Sainsbury's number three slot.

It is also expected to announce a deal to sell 120 of the smaller Safeway stores. The likely purchaser is Somerfield, which is expected to pay between £400m and £600m.

Away from retail, and one of the market's biggest stocks is reporting. Drugs giant AstraZeneca has, however, had a rough ride of late, hit in particular by a decision from the US authorities not to back its potential blockbuster Exanta, a blood thinner. The move sent the shares down to lows not seen for more than a year, so these third-quarter results will be scrutinised closely by jittery investors.

The main focus will be on the performance of the company's cholesterol drug, Crestor, in the US, and on the reportedly successful anti-schizophrenia product Seroquel. Pre-tax profits are expected to rise from $1.12bn (£621m) to $1.27bn.

A calm voice from management about AstraZeneca's performance going forward, however, will also be sought.

Drugs companies will also figure prominently in the States, where the third-quarter earnings season is fully under way, with Pfizer, the world's largest drugs maker,Wyeth, Merck and Eli Lilly all reporting.

Back home, and another market stalwart, Reckitt Benckiser, publishes numbers on Tuesday. It is known for regularly reporting solid growth levels, and third-quarter sales are expected to come in around 7 per cent higher, with net income growth of 18 per cent.

Yet Reckitt Benckiser's share price has suffered recently. Concerns have been centred on a slowdown in consumer spending and, more specifically, the surging price of oil. A vast chunk of the company's costs are oil related because of the amount of plastic packaging it uses, so the more expensive the raw materials, the more profits are in danger of being eaten into.

Drinks companies will also be in focus, with full-year numbers from Allied Domecq and a trading update at the annual general meeting of larger rival Diageo.

At Allied Domecq, home to Mumm champagne, Malibu rum, Tia Maria and Baskin Robbins ice cream, pre-tax profits are expected to have grown by around 4 per cent, to £515m, after a significant chunk of income was eaten up by dollar weakness. Top line growth, however, is likely to be strong, with the core spirits brands achieving 6 per cent growth in response to an improved marketing campaign.

Diageo - owner of Smirnoff vodka, Guinness and Baileys - is expected to show a strong performance in the US, helped by a recovery in Smirnoff. Organic sales growth is likely to be confirmed at around 6 per cent but, as at Allied Domecq, currency fluctuations will dent bottom-line profits.

Not all shareholders will be in a positive frame of mind, either, with outspoken investor group Pirc advising its members to abstain on the remuneration report and the re-election of the auditors. It is concerned primarily about the proposed size of director incentives.

Other shareholder meetings include British Energy. Another chapter in its history is expected to close on Friday when the nuclear generator holds an extraordinary general meeting.

Investors will be voting to delist the company's shares and agree a huge debt-for-equity swap. The proposals are unlikely to be voted down after rebel shareholders Polygon and Brandes last month dropped their challenge to the plans.

Marks & Spencer also holds an EGM, to seek shareholder approval for its £2.3bn tender offer. The 332p to 380p price range, announced a month ago, was lower than most had been expecting but investors are not expected to veto it. The strike price and results of the offer will not be announced until the following week.

Elsewhere, and news and information group Reuters posts third-quarter numbers. Its recovery is expected to be moving steadily along, so the market will be more interested in detailed guidance for the full year, as well as a review of new product launches and an update on the cost-saving programme.


Tomorrow 18

UK: Results: (interim) Bizspace.

Tuesday 19

UK: Results: (final) Bellway, Mouchel Parkman, Premier Direct; (I) European Motor Holdings, N Brown, Sportingbet; (third quarter) ARM Holdings, Reckitt Benckiser.

Wednesday 20

UK: Results: (Q3) Autonomy Corp, Colt Telecom, Egg.

Thursday 21

UK: Results: (F) Allied Domecq, Freeport; (I) Jennings Brothers, Wm Morrison; (Q3) AstraZeneca, Plusnet.

Friday 22

UK: Results: none scheduled.