Bottom Line: Little excitement in BICC's figures

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The Independent Online
A LOT of effort is put by BICC into casting its finances in the best possible light, so it is not surprising that yesterday's figures were less impressive than at first sight.

The pounds 39m retrospective write- off in 1992's figures, to mark the end of the policy of capitalising interest on property developments, is prudent given the slim chance that many of the sites will be built on in the near future.

But it is convenient in a year of flat profits, and investors should watch carefully to see if the policy is reinstated once the property market picks up again.

Another significant change yesterday was the belated admission that classing capital bonds as debt on tax returns and equity in presentations to the City is a logically unsustainable case of having your cake and eating it.

The decision to call the bonds preference shares will cost the company pounds 2.5m in extra taxation, which is an indication of BICC's unwillingness to admit to gearing of well over 50 per cent.

Delving behind the presentation of the results to their content, there is little to excite from markets that remain depressed. Certainly there is little to justify a third year of uncovered dividend despite the claim that cash flow, not earnings, is the key measure.

The brightest spot was Balfour Beatty, which continues to outperform the rest of a still beleaguered construction industry. Australian cables also bounced back impressively to become the only division with a half decent return on sales or capital employed.

The slump in Europe continues to dog BICC Cables and the North American operations cause real concern.

An expected return to the black in the US this year will account for half of an expected 35 per cent increase in pre-tax profits from pounds 104m to pounds 140m. Yesterday's 16p fall to 438p suggests that, on a prospective p/e of 21, the rise is already in the price.