Investment: ABP plans pounds 70m share buyback

ASSOCIATED BRITISH Ports, the UK's largest port operator, yesterday moved to boost its ailing share price with plans for a pounds 70m share buyback.

The company, which owns 23 ports across Britain, pledged to increase its planned pounds 20m equity repurchase programme by an extra pounds 50m in 1999. Last year, ABP bought back around pounds 80m worth of shares in an attempt to sharpen up its capital structure.

The chairman, Sir Keith Stuart, said the company would fund the buyback through the sale of a number of its properties, especially in non-port locations. He did not rule out further returns of capital to shareholders.

He said that the business's healthy cash flow was more than enough to fund capital expenditure, enabling the board to distribute surplus capital to investors.

Sir Keith's pledge came after ABP reported a 4.6 per cent increase in 1998 pre-tax profit to pounds 110.2m on turnover up 18 per cent to pounds 339m.

Profits in the core ports division took a pounds 2.4m hit from a slump in steel exports from its South Wales harbours. Container traffic was also reduced by the global economic turmoil.

The shortfall in steel and containers was offset by higher volumes of cars and petroleum products. Sir Keith said the results showed the resilience of the group's operations.

However, ABP's shares closed down 3p at 262p, well below their 387.5p 12-month peak.

Alastair Gunn, transport analyst at Credit Lyonnais Securities, said the shares - on just 10 times 1999 earnings forecasts of around pounds 120m - were a buy. "I can't see why they should go down further. They are standing on a whacking great discount to the market rating and ABP is a very solid business."