Bottom Line: British Sugar is the breadwinner at ABF

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The Independent Online
SUPERMARKET price wars are nothing new to Associated British Foods, but that hasn't made it any better able to cope. Its baking and milling business broke even last year, before pounds 8m of exceptional charges, but it is likely that concealed a painful loss from baking.

ABF and Ranks Hovis McDougall, which control about 70 per cent of the bread market between them, have only themselves to blame. Over-capacity could be as high as 20 per cent, and a reluctance to be the first to blink has made it easy for the supermarkets to play them, and the smaller bakeries, off against each other.

The takeover of RHM by Tomkins, profit maximiser extraordinary, was supposed to end all that. So far, however, it seems to have had little effect. It has taken out about 7 per cent capacity, but that still leaves a lot of empty ovens, and industry watchers say there are worrying signs that it is becoming attached to market share.

Thank goodness, then, for the tightly controlled market that is British Sugar, the ABF subsidiary. Even allowing for the pounds 15m benefit from devaluation of the green pound, profits were usefully ahead and the strong cash generation is one of the reasons for the rise in investment income.

At about 12 per cent, the group's return on investments is beaten only by British Sugar's 20 per cent margin, so it is understandable that ABF has had difficulty finding a decent acquisition for its pounds 500m cash pile. Judging by last year's abortive discussions over a Californian sugar business, it would not be silly enough to throw the money away on a commodity food business such as bread or biscuits, but would prefer to stick to a rigged market like sugar. The problem is that opportunities are few and far between.

ABF's treasury team clearly knows what it is doing, given its success in bucking the trend of falling interest rates so far. But the green pound benefit is likely to go into reverse this year, and competition in the rest of its markets means profits will probably come in about pounds 20m below last year's level. Acquisitions apart, the gloomy prognosis is reflected in the 10.3 times multiple.