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Hanson profits fuel takeover speculation

A strong recovery in first quarter profits announced yesterday by Hanson added more fuel to speculation that it would not be too long before the arch corporate predator clinched another big deal.

Most speculators have been expecting Hanson to strike in the UK on either a regional electricity company, Costain, and United Biscuits as a way of tidying up its tax position because most of its earnings are made outside the UK.

However, a move in the US by Hanson cannot be ruled out. "Acquisitions are driven where the opportunity is, as opposed to the tax consideration," said Christopher Collins, director of corporate development.

What is becoming clear is that Hanson's balance sheet is set to strengthen significantly with virtually all of its businesses now moving forward.

Group pre-tax profits in the three months to 31 December powered ahead by £100m to £272m, which was towards the top of a wide spectrum of forecasts by analysts.

Group sales were £3.155bn, against £2.87bn in the comparable period.

Hanson shares bucked the general depressed tone of the stock market, and finished the day 1p higher at 243.5p.

The result, in particular, reflected a sharp recovery at Quantum on the back of a 50 per cent rise in polyethylene prices and the return to normal working in the previously strike-bound coal operations in the US.

Profits also received an unexpected fillip from the overthrowing of the proposed increase on value added tax on fuel which led Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor, to raise duty twice on cigarettes. "Imperial Tobacco had a good first quarter with retailers stocking up twice with the two Budgets," said Mr Collins.

The continuing, albeit slow, recovery in UK construction activity also lifted the performance at ARC, the aggregates business, and at Hanson Brick. More brick kilns have been brought back out of mothballs.

Despite the bullish tone of the first quarter trading statement, however, the pace of the advance will slow as the year progresses. This is mainly because, Mr Collins said, "we are comparing a recovery quarter with a recessionary one, and next time it will be recovery versus recovery".

The slowdown will also probably be accompanied by a widening of the US to UK profits ratio, which was 55:45 in the whole of the last financial year. Quantum is expected to continue to recover strongly, and will mostly account for the change in the ratio.

There appears to be plenty of scope to raise further polyethylene prices, which hit a 20-year low in the first quarter of 1993/94. "Quantum's recovery is at an early stage. Three to four years ago, the company made annual profits of $700m (£466m)," added Mr Collins.