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Hammerson looks stronger

The transformation at Hammerson in the two years since Ron Spinney took over as chief executive of Britain's fourth largest property company, while impressive, has largely passed shareholders by.

Yesterday the market reacted coolly to full-year figures which showed net assets at the bottom of expectations, despite a surge in pre-tax profits from £39.8m to £107.5m. The shares closed 3p lower at 316p, more than a quarter lower than a year ago.

The City's disappointment reflected frustration that the radical overhaul of Hammerson's geographic and sectoral spread had not yet translated into a significantly higher portfolio value. At the year-end assets per share were worth 375p compared with last year's 343p, a 9 per cent improvement.

There was little surprise that the full-year dividend was pegged at 10p a share, after a 40 per cent rise in underlying earnings per share to 14.3p, but the prospect of anaemic income growth for some time to come also did little for the shares.

Hammerson is doing all the right things but it is naturally struggling to buck the market's disillusion with the property sector as a whole, which was bid up to unsustainably high levels in 1993 on subsequently disappointed hopes for rising rents.

Despite that poor background, Hammerson has made great strides towards creating a more focused group, both geographically and by sector, than the sprawling empire put together by the late Sydney Mason.

Mr Spinney thinks the days of inflation bailing out the property market are over and has put in place a strategy that relies on watching cash flow and adding value to existing assets.

If he is right, the market is also not being unduly cautious to attach a 25 per cent discount to what are highly illiquid assets. But it may have underestimated the extent and speed with which the value of those assets will rise. After the last 12 months' weakness the shares are beginning to look attractive again.