Leisure interests dominate the latest battle of the beerage

STOCK MARKET WEEK

The beerage makes a strong bid to dominate this week's profit proceedings. Scottish & Newcastle and Bass, respectively numbers one and two in the pecking order, and three regional groups are on the reporting schedule; so, for good measure, is former brewer Grand Metropolitan.

The brewing pack has been led by Scottish since the Government controversially approved its takeover of Courage, lifting its market share to more than 30 per cent and dislodging Bass in the process.

Bass is attempting to recapture its lead by buying Carlsberg-Tetley, struggling in third place. Scottish and a host of other interested parties are protesting and the bid could face a lengthy Monopolies and Mergers Commission inquiry.

But today Scottish will concentrate on its interim results. With Courage in the barrel for the full six months, as opposed to three months last year, profits should flow and Graeme Eadie and Michelle Proud at NatWest Securities are looking for a 22 per cent gain to pounds 193m and earnings per share 15 per cent higher at 23.6p.

For once, however, leisure rather than beer could create the major interest. The Scottish holiday operations, Center Parcs, with 14 holiday villages, and Pontin's, with 19 sites, are thought to have had a disappointing time, reviving speculation that it could well abandon the chore of catering for holidaymakers.

The group has in the past demonstrated its willingness to indulge in large disposals. It sold its Thistle Hotels chain to the then Mount Charlotte Investments, which recently returned to the stock market as Thistle Hotels.

It was a spectacular, totally surprising deal. Scottish had created Thistle with loving care and had given the impression it would stick with it through thick and thin. But at the top of the hotel market, before the recession ravaged the industry, it unloaded for a then breathtaking pounds 645m.

So is Center Parcs for the chop? There is a growing belief in the City that Scottish feels leisure camps are not what they were and would welcome a chance to sell. However, if it did sell it is unlikely to repeat its remarkable Thistle success.

The guess is that leisure profits have fallen by a disappointing 9 per cent in the half year. Center Parcs, with most of its outlets on the Continent, is facing fierce competition and appears to be going nowhere. Pontin's has 19 holiday centres and chalet hotels.

Bass, where year's figures of pounds 665m (pounds 599m) are expected on Wednesday, could also face leisure problems. Its bingo halls have been hit by the National Lottery and the Coral bookmaking side must have felt the Frankie Dettori impact. The Holiday Inn hotels off-shoot has had a buoyant time but there are now fears growth will slow down.

Grand Met exchanged its breweries for pubs - a move it probably regretted, given the bitterness and controversy which has haunted its Inntrepreneur pubs chain. The food and wine and spirits giant has sought to distance itself from the pubs estate, where there is even now confusion about the ownership of large chunks of the Inntrepreneur portfolio.

Merrill Lynch expects year's profits on Thursday to come out at pounds 964m, up from pounds 912m. It believes it will at last top the pounds 1bn mark this year - an achievement it has, with Guinness, been threatening to accomplish since 1992.

Both drink groups have run into a variety of problems - and costs - since they bordered on the brink of membership of the billionaires' club. In Grand Met's case it has been a seemingly never-ending round of restructuring and such setbacks as poor harvests in the US.

Other brewers reporting this week are Marston Thompson & Evershed, remembered for paying a fancy price for a small chain of bars, which should manage pounds 14.5m (pounds 13.5m); Wolverhampton & Dudley pounds 42.6m (pounds 40.2m) and newcomer Belhaven Brewery.

Two groups with recent takeover bids under their belts are also on this week's reporting schedule.

Carlton Communications surprised the media industry when it scooped Westcountry Television, an unquoted business, from under the nose of United News & Media.

It could be argued the Carlton pounds 85m splash was in a sense defensive, intended to prevent United gaining an uninterrupted broadcasting sweep of the south of England. United responded by lifting its stake in HTV to 29.9 per cent, a company Carlton turned its back on.

Year's profits are likely to be pounds 298m, up 18 per cent.

Great Universal Stores had been expected to venture forth once Lord Wolfson of Sunningdale had got his feet under the chairman's desk. But its acquisition caught most observers on the hop - with a flourish it paid pounds 1bn for Experian, one of the leading US suppliers of consumer credit. It was an audacious shot, in one hit throwing off GUS' reputation for being solid but unexciting.

More deals are likely. Lord Wolfson must address mail order and could opt to extend its operations (Sears' mail order side is rumoured to be for sale). There is, too, the group's relationship with Next where Lord Wolfson is also chairman. A merger seems inevitable.

Interim figures, however, could be disappointing. Perhaps a few million pounds down to pounds 235m. Still, the dividend should be lifted to, say, 5.4p.

Cash-rich General Electric Co is another likely to offer unexciting interim results. But it should score an increase - from pounds 402m to, perhaps, pounds 415m. The occasion should, however, allow the new driving force, George Simpson (the ex-Lucas Industries man who took over from the redoubtable Lord Weinstock), a chance to explain his strategy.

Another reporting in what is a crowded week is Hanson. Suffering demerger scares, its year's figures are likely to be 11 per cent down at pounds 1.17bn.

There are two important interim results - Siebe (pounds 188.5m expected against pounds 144.2m) and Racal Electronics (pounds 36m against pounds 31.9m).

Another clutch of utilities features ScottishPower (half-time profits of pounds 176m against pounds 127.7m) and Wessex Water (pounds 77m up from pounds 68.4m).

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