Dealers braced for an action-packed week

Stock Market Week
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The Independent Online
DEALING ROOMS will on their toes this week as domestic corporate news and a US interest-rate decision make for an action-packed four days.

On the home front, four blue-chip big hitters - Marks & Spencer, Bass, BT and Compass - will parade their results for the market's consideration. The FTSE 100 stars will do their best to hog the limelight, but they could be relegated to a walk-on role tomorrow when the US Federal Reserve's members gather for their monetary policy meeting. The outcome is on a knife edge, but after Friday's tumble the markets are painfully aware that an increase in rates could lead to sharp falls on both sides of the pond.

If the US central bankers hold their fire, there are no prizes for guessing what will be the event of the week. Marks & Spencer's final results, due tomorrow, will monopolise the Square Mile's attention. The presentation - moved from the Baker Street headquarters to the City after years of time-wasting complaints from analysts and press - will be lively.

The premier UK retailer has had a horrible time of late, with both internal and external affairs going pear-shaped. On the home front, last year's bloody battle to succeed Sir Richard Greenbury at the helm stained M&S's reputation and damaged its strategy. The winner of that tussle, Peter Salsbury, has had to contend with appalling trading results, which forced the group into the humiliation of a profits warning in January.

That statement said final profits would be between pounds 625m and pounds 675m, almost half last's year pounds 1.17bn. But several questions remain unanswered. For a start, many analysts believe the numbers will come in at the low end of the range - say pounds 630m - making it one of the worst results in M&S's history.

The main culprit is the group's awful trading performance. The lumbering giant lost ground to its rivals in its traditional stronghold of middle- of-the-road clothes, and is believed to have posted a double-digit comparable sales decline. Clothing is expected to have fared particularly badly, with a poor spring following a disastrous Christmas. Food profitability is also on the slide. The trading statement should confirm this gloom and could even contain a shock first-half profits warning.

The weak operating performance has raised the prospect of the first cut in the dividend in living memory. On a purely financial basis, the case for a reduction is compelling. Poor trading and large capital expenditure have squeezed cash flow. Net debt is set to have risen to more than pounds 1.3bn from about pounds 320m last year.

On these numbers the 1998 payout of 14.3p is barely covered and many experts argue for a cut. However, the M&S board might let their hearts rule their heads and hold the dividend in an effort to appease their army of small shareholders.

Retail investors in M&S have had a lot of disappointments of late. The share price has shed 30 per cent in the past 12 months, sparking rumours of a merger with Sainsbury or Tesco. Mr Salsbury has moved swiftly to cut jobs among head office and store management staff - another rarity in the retailer's history - but a lot more needs to be done to prune costs and boost competitiveness.

More redundancies are probable, although industry watchers argue that the new chief executive has to perform a difficult balancing act. He must save money in the back office but cannot afford to cut back on investment in the all-important customer services department. Moreover, he needs to pitch prices at competitive levels without devaluing the strong M&S brand.

BT is expected to report a bumper 40 per cent rise in 1998 profits to about pounds 4.3bn on Wednesday. The figure will be boosted by a pounds 1.1bn exceptional gain from the sale of BT's stake in US group MCI after its merger with Worldcom.

The increase in domestic calls in the last quarter will attract a lot of interest. Three months ago BT said that soaring Internet use had caused an explosion in inland call volumes. Growth in the last quarter should have been boosted by the launch of dozens of free Internet services.

The future of mobile phone operator Cellnet, in which BT has a 60 per cent stake, will be the another hot topic. Many believe BT will buy out its partner Securicor for up to pounds 5bn and use Cellnet to bid for the next generation of mobile phone licences.

Compass Group's interims could halt the recent slide in its share price. Despite being favoured by many experts, the highly rated catering group has been hit by the switch from growth stocks into cyclicals. Tomorrow's figures could alter sentiment towards the owner of Upper Crust baguette bars.

Pre-tax profits should almost double to pounds 80m, boosted by an acquisition spree. Management will be grilled on plans for future acquisitions after rumours that Compass could bid for the Swiss group Selecta, Europe's largest vending machine business, in which it has a large stake.

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