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Investment: Media trapped by the advertising slowdown

Investment Column
BEAR MARKETS are great levellers. When markets start falling all stocks, with the exception of a few traditionally defensive plays, tend to suffer.

Take the media sector. This traditionally highly-rated sector has been hit hard by the recent shakeout. Even some of the largest companies have seen their share prices fall as much as 50 per cent. The culprit is concerns about advertising. Although forecasts are for a slowdown - rather than a fall - in spending over the next few years, the market believes the actual figures will prove gloomier.

Investors have a point. During the last recession, advertising fell 18 per cent from its peak in 1989 to its trough in 1992. Most media companies have high fixed costs, so the effect on profits was even more dramatic. However, not all firms are heavily exposed to the cycle. Most vulnerable are radio and outdoor advertisers, while regional newspapers depend on highly volatile recruitment advertising. National newspapers and TV companies will also suffer, although to a lesser extent.

In this context the hammering handed out to United News & Media, the Express to ITV group, makes superficial sense. However, Lord Hollick's company also derives a large chunk of its revenues from exhibitions, which are more stable. With the shares down 45 per cent in the past four months and the demerger of its Garban moneybroking division imminent, United - at 519p yesterday - is worth a look.

British Sky Broadcasting also continues to offer value. Digital satellite has been launched and BSkyB looks well-placed to build up a decent subscriber base. Provided the acquisition of Manchester United is cleared, the shares - at 471p after a strong run - should continue to outperform.

The market's harshest treatment has been reserved for Reed Elsevier, which owes its recent derating to nothing but worries about management succession. The market will probably steer clear until a new chief executive is found. But with its unique clutch of must-have business and legal information, Reed is the closest the media sector comes to being recession-proof. At 476p, buy the shares.