Hotel share sales stir up a storm: Suspension of trading in Queens Moat dampens hope in a sector that had been expecting better times

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The Independent Online
THE sudden revelation of serious financial problems at Queens Moat Houses is set to lead to controversy in the City over the sale by Martin Marcus, the joint managing director, of more than pounds 600,000 worth of shares in Britain's third-largest hotels group.

Mr Marcus is understood to have sold a block of shares through Beeson Gregory, the company's joint brokers, to Kleinwort Benson Securities, which then sold them on to clients. Neither Kleinworts nor its clients were immediately aware that the shares on offer came from the Queens Moat executive. However, the deal would have been notified to the Stock Exchange by the company at the time.

There is no obligation on a broker selling directors' shares to reveal the vendor, though it is an issue that has been examined recently by the Stock Exchange's Equity Markets Rules Committee. Investors are often concerned when directors sell shares in their company because they believe it may indicate poor performance.

An upset over the deal now seems certain. Mr Marcus, suspended from his executive duties on Friday night together with finance director David Hersey, sold 1.1 million Queens Moat shares, half his holding, at 57p each in early February - shortly before the close season preventing directors' dealings. This was a fifth higher than the 47 1/2 p price of Queens Moat when the shares were suspended last week. Mr Marcus has said that he sold the shares to meet personal commitments.

The suspension was ordered pending 'clarification of the company's financial position', a chilling phrase often associated with calling in receivers.

Despite repeated requests, Beeson Gregory refused to comment on the allegations that it had failed to notify Kleinworts of the seller's status.

Queens Moat chairman John Bairstow has yet to explain the sudden crisis at a group with on and off-balance sheet borrowings of more than pounds 1bn.

Queens Moat's problems have spread gloom throughout the hotels sector, which had been sounding more optimistic. Fears are deepening that Forte, Britain's biggest hotels group, may cut its dividend on Thursday week.

Russell Duckworth of SG Warburg said: 'Our forecast is a post-tax profit pounds 5m below the market's consensus of pounds 70m, well below the cost of the dividend.' Despite heavy institutional pressure for a maintained dividend, it is thought that the new heavyweight non-executive directors at Forte, including Sir Anthony Tennant and Sir Paul Girolami, may urge the group to cut the dividend.

The crisis at Queens Moat will also turn attention to the spotlight on the role of the non- executive directors, who appear to know as little as the City. The non-executives include David Howell MP, the former Tory minister; Maurice Hart, former senior partner at Bird Luckin, a small accounting firm and Queens Moat's auditor; and Ted Lowe, the TV snooker commentator.

Before last week's events, City analysts were expecting profits of pounds 85m, but the fear is that this figure has also been swept away by massive property write-downs against the value of its 200 UK and Continental hotels. The company is also thought to have been changing its accounting policies on depreciation.

Queens Moat is in breach of its banking covenants and has been in urgent talks over refinancing pounds 700m worth of borrowings that fall due by the end of this year.

(Photograph omitted)