City File: Bibby accused over sell-off

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The Independent Online
A MINORITY shareholder is threatening to sue J Bibby, the conglomerate which is 79 per cent owned by the South African company Barlow Rand, on the grounds that the company has misled its shareholders. At the end of last year Bibby announced that it was floating off its paper, agricultural and science businesses.

Since then the shares have fallen from 92p to 61p because Bibby changed tack and instead sold its agricultural feeds business for pounds 35m. This prompted a pounds 15m exceptional charge because the sale price was below net asset value and Lazard, its adviser, had clocked up more than pounds 2m in fees for the proposed flotation. The way things are going, the minority shareholders may be grateful to be bought out by Barlow Rand for even less than the present price. Steer clear.

WHAT with political uncertainty and the threat of increased interest rates, now is the time to dive into the shelter of oversold blue chips. That is the case for buying BAT Industries, says Nigel Utley of Nomura. The shares, at 430p, well below their 570p peak for the year, have also crashed relative to the market. Yet the effects of excise increases, fears of price wars, brand weakening and health scares on US cigarette consumption have been fully absorbed in the forecasts.

The integration of American Tobacco should yield useful gains, and demand in the developing world is soaring. In the insurance business California-based Farmer's remains a jewel while Eagle Star is perking up, thanks to the elimination of losses in domestic mortgage indemnities.

LORRY operator NFC has had a miserable half year, but the shares, down from 291p to 214p, could rebound after this week's quarterly figures. Mark McVicar of NatWest Securities is a strong bull even though, as he points out, earnings growth is being held back by last December's pounds 270m rights issue. NFC will naturally benefit from the strength of the US and UK economies and is focusing on its core transport businesses and infilling acquisitions in what remains a fragmented sector. A real recovery stock.

PRINTING shares are out of fashion. The flotation of British Printing Company had to be pulled, and Hunterprint continues to struggle. By contrast the shares in Leeds-based Hunters Armley have gone from 80p to 192p, the price of a recent rights issue, since they were floated in October 1992. First results of increased order books (and greater capacity) will be seen in profit figures this month and justify a prospective p/e of more than 20 for the year to September. Hunters could use some cash from the rights issue to bid for its beleaguered near-namesake. In which case Hunterprint's shares, down to 25p from 150p two years ago, could be fun - but risky.

MYSTERY surrounds Northumbrian Water, with the price bouncing back 12p to 570p on Friday despite disappointing profit figures. Non-core activities wiped nearly a quarter of group profits and, as Daniel Martin of BZW points out, the pounds 11.6m losses were flattered by pounds 6.7m in one-off profits on leasing deals. Unlike other water companies, Northumbrian has given no indication of how it is going to cope with the regulator's future efficiency target. Switch, says Martin, to Anglian, North West, Severn Trent Welsh or Yorkshire.

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