BLUECHIP : Bass bitter - but buoyant

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The Independent Online
Men propose, women dispose, as the old saw has it. Margaret Beckett certainly met the bill when she blocked the merger between Bass and Carlsberg- Tetley.

With that, an ambitious plan by Bass to leapfrog its rival, Scottish & Newcastle, and become Britain's largest brewer was in ashes. The company will not appeal against the decision.

While the brewer may regret that its expansion has been short-circuited, the market took a more upbeat view. Shares rose 20p at one point before closing at 735.5p, up 2p on the day. Since Bass bought into Carlsberg- Tetley last August, as a platform to a takeover, the issue has been weighing on the shares. Many believe the removal of regulatory uncertainty more than offsets the gains to be reaped.

Either way, it raises the question of whether Bass's future as a stock market investment has improved or not. While it has pulled away from its roots in the beerage, it is still number two to Scottish & Newcastle, with 23 pints out of every 100 served in this country coming from its barrels, against S&N's 29 per cent.

While the Monopolies and Mergers Commission move may be a blow, hotels are the key. Holiday Inn is, Bass claims, the largest hotel brand. Most are operated by franchisees, and it now has 2,200. Holiday Inn profits rose 18.9 per cent to pounds 195m in 1996, which compares favourably with Bass Taverns, which produced profits of pounds 282m. It is difficult to know how much of the improvement in pubs reflects a drive to fatten up the division ahead of any sales of pubs in its tied estate to satisfy the MMC.

Even so, the growth in chains like All Bar One, O'Neill's, Fork and Pitcher, and Harvester augurs a promising future, and Bass could emerge as a buyer of pubs. Holiday Inn, however, looks superbly placed to build on growth in intercontinental tourism.

Elsewhere, prospects are less rosy - performance at Gala, its bingo outlets, and Coral, the bookmaker, has been weak. And beer brands like the eponymous draught; Tennent's; Carling; Grolsch, and Worthingtons are woven into the fabric of pub life. However, wholesale prices have been declining since the beer orders of 1989, while consumption is diminishing. Beer will remain a commodity product, although Bass will be able to capitalise on niche products such as Staropramen when it can. The shares offer a reasonable return.