The Week Ahead: Upbeat brokers breathe life into Marks & Sparks

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The Independent Online

That is not too risky a bet. In the past months, five Marks & Spencerdirectors have spent more than £1m topping up their shareholdings. Clearly they feel there are good things to come at the retailer.

Meanwhile, a host of brokers across the City have become more positive aboutMarks & Spencer. Among them is Deutsche Bank. It believes the pricing and desirability of Marks & Spencer's clothing is improving, and predicts the group's second-quarter clothing sales will be down only 2 per cent compared with a 10 per cent decline in the first quarter.

Goldman Sachs also believes Marks & Spencer is doing well, especially given the difficult trading conditions on the high street. The US broker said last week: "The UK consumer environment remains difficult, and Marks & Spencer faces continuing pressures from supermarkets. However, through tight cost control we believe Marks & Spencer is buying itself time to improve its product offering while industry conditions remain difficult."

TODAY: Northern Foods is due to update the market on first-half trading. The food producer has suffered several years of poor results, and analysts predict its forthcoming statement is unlikely to herald much of a renaissance. Northern Foods facesintense competition and rising raw material prices. Analysts fear that such conditions are likely to eat into the £10m of cost savings the group predicted in June.

Goldman Sachs argues that Northern Foods will have done well if it has managed to achieve underlying sales growth of about 3 per cent for the first half. But given the environment the company is operating in, the broker suggests there is a risk the company could issue a profits warning.

Meanwhile, Empire Online's trading statement will be carefully analysed by all those with exposure to the online-gaming sector.

When PartyGaming issued a profits warning last month, shares across the sector, including Empire Online, one of the industry's smaller players, took a pasting. It seems investors can expect a similar response if Empire disappoints. Its third-quarter trading statement is forecast to show a 30 per cent quarter-on-quarter rise in operating profits. Anything less than this will prompt another wave of selling across the turbulent sector.

Results: Full year - NeuTec Pharma; YouGov. Interims - None. Trading statements - Northern Foods; Empire Online.

TOMORROW: Results: Full year - Air Partner; Manganese Bronze; St Ives. Interims - N Brown; Intermediate Capital; Rugby Estates. Trading statements - Marks & Spencer; Burberry Group.

WEDNESDAY: Sales of replica sports clothing plummeted in May and June, therefore investors should not be surprised when JJB Sports reports a slump in first-half profits. Investec Securities forecasts profits at the retailer will fall to about £15.5m from £28m. How do we know that the replica-clothing market is in a poor state? Well, in July, JJB's rival Sports & Soccer launched a so-called closing down sale. It slashed prices, which is bound to have taken customers from JJB. Then, just last month, Allsports, JJB's next biggest rival, collapsed into administration.

While things are going badly for JJB as far as its retail operations are concerned, the group is pushing ahead with the expansion of its chain of health clubs. This part of the business is growing rapidly. By the end of this year, it is forecast to contribute about£9m to earnings, and analysts expect this figure to doubleby the end of next year. By this time, the health clubs business will account for one-third of JJB's earnings.

GUS is protected from the dire trading conditions on the UK high street, thanks to the value retailer Argos, and Experian, a financial services business which has been enjoying solid growth. But the group's trading statement will almost certainly contain downbeat comments about the performance of Homebase.

Analysts know that life is tough for the DIY business because its nearest rival, B&Q, owned by Kingfisher, released a dismal set of results last month.

Results: Full year - Sportingbet. Interims - JJB Sports; Moss Bros. Trading statements - Peacock Group; GUS; Carphone Warehouse.

THURSDAY: Results: Full year - WH Smith. Interims - The Body Shop. Trading statements - Mothercare.

FRIDAY: Results: Full year - None expected.