The Week Ahead: What now for Morrisons and its hard-won prize?

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The Independent Online

While most of this week's attention is going to be on a Scotsman bearing a red brief- case, it does not mean the Budget is the only show in town.

The corporate news flow eases off compared to recent weeks, but just enough heavyweights are reporting, including retailers Kingfisher and Wm Morrison, to keep the City occupied.

Kingfisher, the owner of B&Q, cheered the City last month when its fourth-quarter trading statement showed a robust end to the year, a particularly impressive performance seeing that the festive season is traditionally one of the DIY sector's weakest. For the whole year, underlying sales were up 5.1 per cent, which beat market expectations.

Yet despite this good news, the shares have come off highs in recent weeks as fears of a consumer slowdown weigh on the stock. Much attention will therefore be given to the management's outlook for the current year this Wednesday, when it issues its full results for 2003, although an update on current trading is unlikely. Pre-tax profits are predicted to rise from around £521m to £610m.

Over at Wm Morrison, and a sigh of relief is likely to be the biggest news. Sir Ken Morrison's grocer posts final figures the day after Kingfisher and well over a year since it first decided that buying Safeway wouldn't be a bad idea. Most of the retail sector has, at one point or another, announced some form of interest in Safeway but Morrisons has seen them off and is now the proud owner. It has only just taken control, however, so these figures will just cover Morrisons as its year finished before the merger.

Despite the mammoth takeover wrangles, Morrisons has maintained trading, and analysts are pencilling in a rise in pre-tax profits, from around £275m to £318m, helped by a solid trading environment and the extra publicity the deal has generated. Underlying sales are expected to rise around 9.3 per cent and the City will want to know what happens next, especially for Morrisons' hard-won prize.

From retailers to the products that they sell: Geest, the chilled convenience food group, produces full-year results on Thursday. In the last financial year, Geest's top-line growth lagged behind the market but the City is now more optimistic. New product launches for Tesco will have helped, and Geest is set to benefit from the supermarket's Express format as well as Marks & Spencer's stand-alone Simply Food stores.

Elsewhere, Anglo-American cruise line Carnival will be updating the market. Like most in the leisure sector, cruise operators have had a tough few years as their two biggest markets, the US and Germany, cut back on holidays. However, Carnival - created when Miami-based Carnival acquired P&O Princess and listed in both the US and UK - has raised expectations after indications of strong bookings at the start of the year, the main cruise booking season.

An update from the media sector comes in the form of a trading statement from The Mail on Sunday owner Daily Mail & General Trust and final figures from regional newspaper group Johnston Press. Last year, DMGT enjoyed an increase in revenues from its regional newspapers arm Northcliffe, business-to-business advertising operations and broadcasting activities but, as with most of its rivals, a decline in turnover from national newspapers and exhibitions.

The main focus of this latest update will be two-fold: the ongoing advertising recovery and the group's intentions regarding the Telegraph titles. Analysts are generally agreed that the group's shares are likely to rise should the signs be that it will not enter the bidding process.

Overall, however, economics will be entirely unavoidable. A busy week includes the Federal Reserve's decision on interest rates in the US (no change is predicted) while back home, the Monetary Policy Committee publishes the minutes from its March meeting. Other key data announcements include the Rics house price survey and updates on inflation, unemployment and retail sales.

Over at the House of Commons, the Chancellor is expected to predict another bumper year of growth for 2004, though radical policy measures are likely to be sparse on the ground as the political cycle starts drawing to a close.

What is not known, however, is how well the spread betters will do out of the Budget. City folk, forced to sit through Gordon Brown's speech, can bet this year how many times he mentions "Patrick", it being St Patrick's Day, and how long he goes on for.

CALENDAR

Tomorrow 8

UK: Results: (final) Alea, Headlam, Medical Solutions, ROK property solutions, Roxboro, Spirax-Sarco Engineering; (interim) Primary Health Properties, Profile Therapeutics.

Tuesday 9

UK: Results: (F) Abbot, Benfield, BPP, Celltech, Computacenter, Delta, Edinburgh Oil & Gas, Gowrings, Highway Insurance, iTouch, John Menzies, Mersey Docks & Harbour Company, Spectris, Spring, Staffware, Weir, Wyevale Garden Centres; (I) Interior Services.

Wednesday 10

UK: Results: (F) Costain, JKX Oil & Gas, Johnston Press, Kingfisher, Pixology, Restaurant Group, RPS, Slough Estates, Tikit, Xaar; (I) Canary Wharf.

Thursday 11

UK: Results: (F) Cobham, Corus, Derwent Valley, Geest, IP2IPO, Wm Morrison, Portmeirion Group, Premier Farnell, Premier Oil, Secure Trust Banking, Trafficmaster; (I) FW Thorpe.

Friday 12

UK: Results: (F) Aga Foodservices, Empire Interactive, Parkwood, Toad; (I) Gladstone.

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