International markets: Investors fear for profits

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The Independent Online
UK STOCKS may be mixed this week. Four of Britain's six biggest companies report earnings and investors will be looking to see if Asia's economic turmoil and the strong pound are hurting profits.

Royal Dutch/Shell Group, British Petroleum, Lloyds TSB Group and British Telecommunications are all due to release earnings by Friday. British Airways, Reuters and Unilever will also report.

"We're reasonably wary of the results. We might see some impact from the Far East - that'll result in downgrades," said Gra- ham Campbell, a fund manager at Edinburgh Fund Managers.

The FT-SE 100 closed at 5,629.70 on Friday, led by oil stocks. That was its sixth closing high this year and gave the index a 3.14 per cent gain since the preceding Friday, with drugs leading the advance. It first broke last October's record on 28 January and followed with consecutive record highs in the next four sessions.

The index's records were broken last week as the Bank of England kept interest rates un- changed on Thursday and "merger mania" dominated the market after SmithKline Beech- am and Glaxo Wellcome announced they were in merger talks last weekend.

SmithKline and Glaxo said they were discussing the creation of the world's largest drug company, a position currently held by Novartis. Drug stocks worldwide gained amid speculation the industry is in for a more consolidation. Bank shares were similarly lifted by merger speculation.

Oil stocks may extend Friday's gains as Shell, the world's largest listed oil company, and BP, Europe's second largest oil company, are both due to release earnings. "I think the results figures will be fine," said Neil Birrell, an investment manager at Framlington Investment Management. "The indications from American stocks suggest that."

Lloyds TSB Group is slated to release full-year results on Friday. Earnings per share for Britain's largest bank are expected to rise to 41.7p from 31.2p for last year. Reuters, the financial information distributor, releases full-year figures on Tuesday. Analysts expect earnings per share to fall to 29.37p from 30.4p last year.

The company's shares rose towards the end of the week as analysts began to say a grand jury investigation in the US will probably have a limited effect on its earnings. The grand jury is investigating allegations a Reuters subsidiary stole data from Bloom- berg, the parent of Bloomberg News, a competitor.

Shares in British Airways may fall after it reports third-quarter earnings on Monday. Europe's largest airline is expected to report that net profits for the three months to 31 December fell 20.2 per cent to pounds 75m from pounds 94m a year earlier, hurt by the strength of sterling. "Business travel has been quite sluggish and the pound is still strong," said Andrew Light, an analyst with Salomon Smith Barney. "BA is clearly losing some market share to continental airlines."

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