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BLUE CHIP: BAT set to catch light

THERE is a renewed sense of optimism surrounding BAT Industries, a company dogged by the uncertainty of tobacco litigation for the last two years, writes Richard Phillips.

All that is set to change. For a start, the litigation process seems to have reached some sort of completion, even if a resolution could be some time away. At present, the US tobacco operations of BAT are valued by the market at virtually nil - which must be a far cry from the truth.

The current settlement offers a payout of $368.5bn (pounds 226bn). Cigarette prices will almost certainly rise as a result - the US government has also set targets to reduce consumption in the US.

Meanwhile, the demerger of the financial side is proceeding apace. BAT shareholders will end up with a 43 per cent stake in the Zurich Financial Services group, a pounds 22bn giant formed out of BAT's Eagle Star and Allied Dunbar, Threadneedle Asset Management and Farmers, the US-based insurer with Swiss-based Zurich Insurance.

Once the deal passes all the regulatory hurdles the tobacco arm will revert to the name British American Tobacco, which will have pro forma earnings of about pounds 4bn after the demerger. ZFS will manage pounds 207bn in funds. It will also be one of the world's largest insurance companies, with gross premiums of pounds 24.5bn.

Whatever one might say about smoking, there seems like growth aplenty left outside the health-conscious markets of the US and western Europe.

Latin America, and Brazil in particular, have been identified as strong areas of growth, while Indonesia and Malaysia are also showing promise.

If tobacco has an assured future, the extra excitement of the demerger has been virtually ignored by the shares. In April or May, the group will be releasing more detailed information about the demerger, which should cast further positive light on the deal The shares are a long-term buy.