Footsie tipped to shrug off Wall Street jitters and break new ground

STOCK MARKET WEEK
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Five Footsie companies report this week, heralding the end of the stock market's more leisurely summer season.

Mind you, for shares it has not been the poor holiday time many expected. Although exuberance faded towards the end of last week Footsie powered to a peak and the second-line index managed a remarkable 20-day winning streak.

Trading volumes, as befits the period when many players are away from their screens, were often woefully thin. But there is no doubt the market suddenly acquired a touch of confidence, managing to perform the difficult trick of ignoring uncomfortable developments and dwelling on the more favourable aspects of life.

Will the August advance continue, or has the market had its final fling before subsiding anxiously in the increasingly ominous shadow of the election?

Company results and dividends in the autumn reporting season are generally expected to be good. And there is growing evidence the nation is moving into a more prosperous period.

But such developments will not in themselves do much for shares. Interest rates and New York loom higher on the influence scale.

The latest Ken and Eddie show occurs on Wednesday. Although the market expects the Chancellor to reduce base rates, possibly to 5 per cent before next year's election, the general consensus is that he will leave them unchanged this time round.

New York no longer has the power over London it once enjoyed. But it is the world's biggest market and naturally when it reacts the rest sit up and take notice. As one dealer, reported in the daily newsletter from stockbroker Killik & Co, observed: "Of all major markets the UK market provides the best combination of values but it can't withstand a sustained US decline."

America is currently besotted by interest rates. US investors have passed the stage when they can expect reductions - they are fretting about an increase that will come sooner or later.

Dearer US money will make the Chancellor's task to get rates down ahead of the election much more difficult. But Mr Clarke has been helped by the German rate cut and there is talk of more Bundesbank reductions.

New York's performance this week could be volatile ahead of Friday's payroll figures. They have in recent months established a maverick reputation, coming in well astray from forecasts and prompting a violent Wall Street reaction with the predictable impact in London and elsewhere.

Despite the uncertainties some are willing to put their heads on the block and forecast Footsie still has further to go. Merrill Lynch, the US-owned investment house, is one. It is looking for the index to test the 4,100-point barrier, although it is holding its year-end target at 3,900.

Arjo Wiggins Appleton, the packaging and paper group, is likely to be the Cinderella of this week's Footsie heavyweights reporting figures.

Paper groups around the world have struggled. But AWA has some spectacular difficulties of its own. It has issued two summertime profit warnings, the second last month. So the market is well prepared for another disappointment. An interim figure of pounds 35m, against pounds 135m, is the guess.

Chairman Cob Stenham has indicated that things are improving, prompting hopes of, say, pounds 125m for the year. Two years ago the Anglo-French group achieved pounds 217.1m.

Burmah Castrol, reporting interim figures today, is likely to achieve modest progress - around pounds 127m against pounds 117.1m. And Blue Circle Industries, the country's largest cement group, should tomorrow manage six-month results of pounds 117m against pounds 104.1m.

Cadbury Schweppes, half-time figures on Wednesday, has caused some uncertainty by pulling out of its UK soft drinks operation with Coca-Cola. It is developing in soft drinks elsewhere, particularly in the US through Dr. Pepper. Profits are forecast to emerge at pounds 228m, up from pounds 206m.

Royal & Sun Alliance, the recently merged insurance group, rounds off the Footsie contribution. Interim results on Thursday should not contain any surprises - with operating profit down around 30 per cent to pounds 340m.

Cookson, ousted from Footsie last month to accommodate the Thorn EMI split, is another offering profit figures. Interim results are due on Thursday and the industrial materials group should achieve a small advance, say 5 per cent to pounds 85.5m.

Its Footsie removal followed a sad share run with the price crashing from 327p in April to 256.5p last week. There are hopes the worst is over. Bruce MacDonald and David Allchurch at NatWest Securities say: "Given the market expects flat earnings and poor cash flow, much will depend upon the outlook statement. Essentially the shares will only recover lost ground if management convinces investors that the weakness is a short- term correction and long-term growth prospects remain intact."

They do not, however, believe Cookson will offer evidence happier days lie ahead and reckon the shares are a sell.

Hillsdown Holdings, the food group, has not enjoyed the best of luck with its acquisition of Hobsons, the canning group which promised so much and failed to deliver.

Over the years the group has strayed into furniture and housebuilding, two areas which should increase contributions as the economy picks up. The various food interests are thought to have experienced mixed fortunes with the meat side a BSE victim. Interim profits on Thursday may be down, say pounds 52.5m from pounds 57.6m.

Two other food groups report interim results this week - Iceland, the frozen food supermarket chain, and Nurdin & Peacock, the cash and carry group. Both are likely to suffer profits dips, Iceland from pounds 33.6m to pounds 30m and N&P, with its corner shop customers disappearing in the face of the superstores expansion, from pounds 7.8m to pounds 6.5m. But takeover worries should encourage higher dividend payments.

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