Blue chips' results set to provide a distraction from world market thrills

WEEK AHEAD

After last week's roller-coaster, as debate still rages whether it was merely a correction or the start of a bear run, the stock market can, if it wishes, concentrate on a string of company results this week.

The past few weeks have provided few profit figures. So the market has had little to distract it from the gyrations around the world. A heavy reporting schedule would, of course, not have reduced last week's succession of thrills and spills but at least it would have given dealers something else to think about and, just perhaps, stopped some absorbing the wilder rumours which swept the market and created such pandemonium.

The most popular guess is that Footsie will experience an indecisive time until the year end; then the scenario is strong progress with the index ending 1998 at 5,800 points or even 6,000.

Footsie, driven largely by financials, has, despite its recent fall from grace, enjoyed a spectacular year. It started at 4,118.5 with estimates it would reach 4,600 regarded as highly optimistic. So last week's close, 4,842.3, should brighten the lives of many investors. It is true supporting shares have not fared nearly as well. Even so, most have made headway.

This week's crop of figures includes some of the blue chips which would inevitably feature in any quality list for times of stress and strain.

They may on occasions look exceedingly dull against the (often short- lived) high flyers but they deserve a place in any portfolio.

A dozen Footsie constituents have, so far, indicated their intention of producing profits; they range from British Petroleum to Marks & Spencer.

Associated British Foods, Garfield Weston's cash rich and sprawling food empire is expected to get the week off to a low-key start today with year's profits off pounds 9m to pounds 420m; sterling's strength and the BSE crisis have taken their toll. Still, after selling its Irish supermarkets, ABF is sitting on more than pounds 1.5bn and it is Mr Weston's spending plans which, says Alan Erksine at NatWest Securities, is the "biggest single issue for the stock".

Tomorrow its the turn of BP, M&S and Thames Water. BP offers third-quarter figures. John Toalster at Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull looks for net income, on a replacement-cost basis, of pounds 674m compared with pounds 740m in the second quarter. In the third quarter last year BP produced pounds 650m.

Interim figures from M&S are expected to be up some 8 per cent at pounds 465m with currency movements retarding overseas earnings. Full-year's profits may nudge pounds 1.2bn.

Thames Water keeps the water profits season flowing and should manage an interim increase of 19 per cent to pounds 210m. It should also show the scars of the windfall tax.

On Wednesday Whitbread has the distinction of kicking off the brewery results season. Interim profits should not be far short of pounds 200m against pounds 178m.

Whitbread has invested more heavily in restaurants than its rivals which, in the main, seem more keen on trendy theme bars. But there is a feeling it will have to increase its retail estate beyond Cafe Rouge, Pizzaland and Beefeater to keep up its momentum. Another retail concept could be a matter of urgency. Although it ranks as the nation's fourth-largest brewer, beer represents a relatively minor part of its profits, around 13 per cent.

British Airways flies in on Wednesday. Its interim results will be distorted by industrial unrest and sterling. BA has indicated that July's cabin crew strike cost pounds 125m. A 40 per cent dive to pounds 270m is a possible result.

ScottishPower, taking in Southern Water, also reports on Wednesday and should manage interim profits of around pounds 250m compared with pounds 188.3m Another giant of the high street, Boots, checks in on Thursday. It should have enjoyed another good run but the group is still finding do-it-yourself a struggle. Its Do-it-All chain probably lost money, say pounds 1.5m, in the six months to end September. Profits of around pounds 255m against pounds 239.1m are likely.

Royal & Sun Alliance and Mercury Asset Management are others with a reporting task on Thursday. The insurance group's first nine-month figures since the Royal/Sun merger could be around pounds 730m with a share buy-back possibly on the agenda. MAMs interim is seen as emerging at pounds 88m against pounds 81.8m.

Shell is due to report on Thursday. Third-quarter net income should roll out pounds 1.17bn against pounds 1.11bn. And on Friday it is the turn of another Anglo- Dutch giant, Unilever. It, too, has third-quarter results to announce; around pounds 825m, a modest advance, is expected.

Most of the blue-chip groups should underline their safe-haven appeal by increasing their dividends. BP could be an exception; Shell does not reward shareholders at the third-quarter stage.

Some of the smaller fry in this week's spotlight are unlikely to lift dividends. But Wyndeham Press, on Friday, should manage an 11 per cent lift to 2.1p.

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