Investment: Time to buy another round of Wetherspoon

THIS YEAR has been something of an "annus horribilis" for JD Wetherspoon, the pub operator which until recently was regarded as one of the market's wonder stocks.

Profit forecasts were scaled back from pounds 26m to less than pounds 21m over the year as the company faced a series of margin squeezes. It gave staff a pay rise, introduced larger glasses and found that its newer sites were taking longer than expected to achieve their full potential. Then Wetherspoon's no-nonsense pubs suffered from their decision not to provide television coverage of the World Cup. The profits warning from rival Regent Inns in late June added to the woes.

The result is that Wetherspoon shares have lost more than half their value since the start of the year and have underperformed the market by more than 50 per cent.

So, with the shares down to their lowest point for more than two years, is it time to start buying back in?

Prospects certainly look encouraging. Full-year profits were 15 per cent higher at pounds 20.2m, and Wetherspoon says its pubs are showing no sign of any downturn. Anyway, the management argues, Wetherspoon's lower prices and no-frills approach make its format more resilient in tougher times. The business has grown in downturns before.

Whitbread may be slowing its investment in high-street pubs but Wetherspoon, which picked up some bargain sites in central London during the last slump, is carrying on. It opened 68 new pubs last year and has licensing permission for a further 91. Capital expenditure is increasing from last year's pounds 67m to pounds 114m.

Like-for-like sales growth has reversed from a 2.2 per cent increase last year to a 1 per cent fall in current trading, although the trend is improving. On current-year forecasts of pounds 24.5m the shares - down 7p to 160.5p yesterday - trade on a forward rating of 14. That looks decent value.

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