Investment column: The outlook is stormy for TI's main markets

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The Independent Online
TI GROUP, whose most familiar product is the concertina passageways which link train carriages is at a turning point. Since the promotion of American Bill Laule to chief executive at the beginning of 1998, TI has spent pounds 1.5bn on acquisitions, culminating with a pounds 275m purchase yesterday. Mr Laule says TI has no need for further deals; growth will come from concentrating on the current portfolio. Does the evidence to hand suggest TI shares will continue to recover from their December low of 306p?

The shares nosedived last year with other mid-cap engineers amid fears of global recession. TI suffered more than most as the market questioned its purchase of some poor performing, low-margin businesses. The recovery has been based on preconceptions of a pick-up in some of TI's key markets, notably the oil, gas and paper industries.

Despite the shares' performance, they sit on a paltry - though perhaps not for the sector - historic price-earnings ratio of 12. The bull case says investors buying now may have missed out on the bottom, but in recompense have more certainty in the strength of TI's markets, and there's more to go for because the shares are on a discount. In reality, this is a tenuous position.

On the evidence from the interims, Forsheda, the speciality seals business, had flat sales and profits; TI says its changed the management to address the situation.

John Crane, which provides services to the oil and gas industry, saw profits fall 6 per cent and margins fall following the integration of poorer performing acquired businesses. TI reckons there's scope for doubling the margins in the acquired business from their present 5 per cent, but this will take some time - if it is indeed possible.

Aerospace profits rose a healthy 41 per cent, but only 10 per cent stripping out acquisitions. Autos saw underlying profits climb 14 per cent. But the outlook for process industries like oil and gas is benign, in aerospace and autos there are stormclouds lingering. It is doubtful whether the recent pick-up in automobile sales can be sustained; it is more widely expected the civil aviation industry is on the verge of downturn.

The purchase of Germany's Busak-Samban yesterday will generate opportunities for cross-selling with Forsheda, and, given its pounds 400m of annual sales, TI has hardly overpaid. But that cross-fertilisation will not be enough to drive the shares forward. Analysts expect pre-tax profits of around pounds 245m this year and earnings of 34.1p per share, putting TI on a forward p/e of 15. TI's main markets are as unpredictable as ever and the shares are overvalued.