Exporters take a pounding

Smaller Companies
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One factor above all has dogged smaller companies this year ... to the extent that some commentators have dubbed it, unimaginatively, the small companies effect.

In fact, when the term was first used, it meant the exact opposite.

The joy of smaller companies as an investment proposition has always been that they can offer far greater returns, other things being equal, than blue chip corporations. A big company may make mega-profits, but it can never aspire to double its sales in a year.

This year, however, investors gave small companies the cold shoulder. At first the reason is hard to discern, but the effect has been pronounced.

While the FT-SE 100 has stormed away, racking up gains of 26 per cent so far this year, the FT-SE Actuaries 350 index of companies - the top 350 companies by market capitalisation - has been marooned.

And the Hoare Govett Smaller Companies index is down 9.5 per cent, while the FT-SE Actuaries index of fledgling companies, excluding investment trusts, has managed a meagre gain of 2.04 per cent.

One possible explanation for this disparity is that much of the progress in blue chips is confined to a few sectors, with retail banks, pharmaceuticals and oil stocks leading the charge.

Small cap indices contain a disproportionate number of engineers, which nearly always have a hefty percentage of sales in exports. The pound's strength has taken its toll, and for many small companies Europe is often the first port of call for exports.

So it is appropriate that my first tip of the year for this column, Quiligotti, a terrazzo and floor-tile producer, should have been static.

Tipped at 23p, an initial flurry took the shares up to a pleasing 27p before they fizzled out and came all the way back to, yes, 23p. In June the shares were suspended at 25.25p, for a deal that would transform the business. A pounds 32.5m fund raising was used to buy Pilkington Tiles, an MBO from BTR. While the deal still looks to have potential, the market remains unimpressed. Figures earlier this month, however, suggest the business is motoring ahead. Interim sales of pounds 11.6m, including two months of business from Pilkington, were up by pounds 4.7m on the same period last year. And profits grew to pounds 1.1m from pounds 403,000. It certainly doesn't look like a sell.

Next up was Orbis, a security services firm where the directors had been buying shares at 38.5p. We tipped the shares at 38p, on the premise that the directors should be best placed to know a good thing when they see one. The shares have now reached 43p, having touched 45p, or a gain of 13 per cent.

Liverpool retailer TJ Hughes has paid off since we tipped it at 88.5p in May, with the shares now at 118.5p. At this level, it still looks a strong hold at least.

Usually we avoid making "hold" recommendations, but in one of the rare instances where we did, it was thoroughly justified.

Whittard of Chelsea, a niche retailer, has a growing following for its upmarket tea and coffee shops. The business is undeniably attractive, but the shares were trading on too high a multiple at the time. Last week, the shares were 205p, from the 215.5p they were tipped at.

Biotechnology has had an appalling year, with a shake-out across the sector prompted by some high-profile drug failures and growing unease about over-valued stocks.

The accusation of over-valuation is a perennial problem for companies still at the start-up stage with unproven products. Celsis, tipped at 107p in April, could not avoid the general trend and is now 85p.

Alizyme, a promising biotech share focused on developing anti-obesity treatments, was tipped at 37.5p. Although more resilient than many other shares in its sector, it could not avoid the general malaise and currently stands at 35p.