Lights are still on at the National Grid

SHARES CITY TALK
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The Independent Online
National Grid has suffered as much as any of the utility stocks from regulatory uncertainties. But now, on a yield of 7.5 per cent - one of the highest in the sector - the shares look reasonably well supported. A tough recent regulatory review by Offer wants initial price cuts for the transmission business of 20 per cent to 26 per cent, followed by price increases restricted to the RPI minus 4 per cent.

However, the final proposal will only emerge in September, pending the outcome of further talks. The chances of this being any worse are remote, however. The shares are a strong hold at present levels.

ONE high-tech AIM company that seems to be making a success out of its business is IOC. It produces a range of components for use in fibre-optic networks - the building blocks of information superhighways - which allow for transmission of significantly greater volumes of data over much longer distances than from existing systems.

After their AIM debut in February at 80p, the shares are now standing at 165p, further boosted by a strong first set of results. Before tax, the company made pounds 300,000, compared with pounds 85,000 at the same stage in September. With a lead in technology of up to a year and a half over its rivals, the shares remain a buy.

In contrast, for some other AIM stocks it has been a woeful week. First Information Group, which floated its shares on AIM in March at 165p, warned that sales would be significantly lower than forecast at the flotation. FIG, a producer of educational CD-Roms, however, also said it was in talks with a number of potential buyers.

The root of the problem seems to be overcapacity in the CD-Rom market. House broker Charterhouse Tilney says a takeover is on the cards for September. The shares collapsed to 90p, off 50p.

Meanwhile, Firecrest, one-time Internet aspirant and marketing group, will have its shares suspended as of Monday, after its failure to find a new financial adviser following the resignation of Singer & Friedlander and broker Collins Stewart. The news emphasises the danger - if it needs highlighting - of investing in small, start-up style ventures in what are often volatile and extremely challenging markets.

The days when Hillsdown Holdings (184.5p), the foods to furniture group, was a stock market darling are long gone. But the shares have been slowly recovering from a low of 78p in 1992, and there are convincing reasons why they may make a sensible long-term purchase.

Analyst Tim Potter, of Merrill Lynch, sees the group turning in a respectable set of interim figures. Although margins are lower than for its peers, they should improve, as the group continues to focus on its core businesses. He notes that a measured acquisition programme will help - boosted by the recent purchase of Allied Domecq's Continental European bakeries.

The butchers' business has been hurt by BSE, but that has been offset by increased household expenditure on poultry. If the group can prove it has improved its underlying cash flow over a period of time, it will justify a re-rating. Worth looking at.

INSPEC, the speciality and bulk chemicals business, currently has a one-for-two rights issue on the table, to raise pounds 101.5m. The money will be used to help fund its pounds 201m purchase of Shell's fine chemicals division.

Its last acquisition, BP's Antwerp glycol business, which was bought for pounds 78m in 1995 with another rights issue for pounds 53m, however, has not proved a complete success. Although Inspec can recover its focus on speciality chemicals with the Shell deal, its shares are out of favour, having fallen from a high of 354p to 205p.

Its ENB business is also under pressure, and margins are likely to suffer in this area. Ignore the rights.

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