Investment: Odds lengthen for Ladbrokes

ECONOMIC UNCERTAINTY is lengthening the odds on Ladbroke's being a winner. The hotels and betting business is feeling the strain of the slowdown in the UK and of the global economic meltdown. Yesterday's third quarter trading update provided a glimpse of the troubles ahead.

True, profits were around 20 per cent ahead of last year, driven by the World Cup betting bonanza and solid growth in the Hilton European hotels. But Ladbroke's devil is in the detail. On the hotels side, which provides around 60 per cent of group revenue, the terrorist threat in Kenya and the Middle East has scared-off tourists, while the financial turmoil has savaged Asian reservations. In the UK, which contributes half of the division's profits, growth is slowing, especially in London where big corporate customers have slashed travel costs.

The betting division has traditionally been more recession-proof than hotels and underlying growth remains good. However, you can expect a short- term downturn as the World Cup effect wears off, while the forced sale of Coral will deprive Ladbroke of valuable critical mass.

The flop of the new football lottery game "Easy Play", with sales sharply below Ladbroke's expectations, will result in a pounds 9m exceptional loss at the year-end. Looking ahead, much will depend on which way the UK economy goes. If it is a soft landing, Ladbroke should be able to cushion the blow to the hotels business with the steadyish earnings of the betting shops. Anything worse than that and 1999's figures could look bleak .