Market Report: Hillsdown hits all-time low on profit fears

SHARES of Hillsdown Holdings, the food and furniture group, hit an all-time low yesterday.

In brisk, rather than heavy, trading they fell 13p to 94p as worries about profit and dividend prospects multiplied.

Since the group came to the stock market in 1985 the shares have been as high as 344.5p. But Hillsdown has undertaken a breathtaking acquisition spree with many of its captures paid for in shares. Last year it embarked on a pounds 280m rights issue at 210p a share. It flopped with more than half the shares left with the underwriters.

The Hillsdown acquisition spree coincided with share sales by its founder, David Thompson. Today the Thompson family, which has pumped cash into property and professional football (Queens Park Rangers), has at the most a token investment.

The group has, like most food manufacturers, been the subject of profit downgradings. The City believes the industry has lost its inflation edge and margins will be squeezed by the big supermarket customers.

Hillsdown forecasts have been cut from pounds 210m to about pounds 190m, which compares with last year's pounds 186.8m and pounds 195.6m in the 1989 year. Despite the profit decline it had been widely assumed that the dividend would be increased, from 8.8p to around 9.3p. There is now talk of a cut. The breakdown of its planned Canadian merger, although insignificant in profit terms, was another unsettling influence.

There was talk that Sir Harry Solomon, chairman, was so dismayed by the wave of stock market speculation that he planned a reassuring statement. But Hillsdown, with interim figures due next month, feels it is in the so-called close season and is unable to comment.

The close season, however, merely relates to director trading and there is nothing to prevent a statement about its position. A Hillsdown spokesman said he was 'mystified' by the share price fall.

The food and furniture group was only one of the perceived vulnerable stocks to come in for a bearish run. Another was Ladbroke Group, the betting, do-it-yourself, hotel and property group, The shares plunged 10p to 139p, closing at 141p.

It is also due to report interim results next month and feels it is inhibited by the close season. In the meantime the bears feast on the group's property exposure and a variety of stories about poor trading.

Trafalgar House was another in the doldrums. The shares found another low, down 3.5p at 48.5p. Rumours the construction group, where the dividend is clearly under pressure, plans to repeat the successful trick of floating off part of the business - this time the leisure operation - have had little impact. In the past Trafalgar House hived off its newspaper and oil interests.

The rest of the market failed to hold on to early gains. The FT-SE share index, at one time sporting a 13 points gain, ended 4.1 down at 2,359.4 with sterling's weakness causing much of the damage. Trading was again subdued.

Vaux Group, the brewer and hotelier, had a difficult session, falling 6p to 168p. Smith New Court has cut its profit estimate, reflecting the group's big hotel exposure. It has switched its recommendation from buy to trading sell.

Dalgety ended unchanged at 368p. County NatWest rates the shares a buy and says they have fallen victim to the 'downgrade frenzy' that has gripped the food sector.

Racal Electronics had an active session, with Seaq putting turnover at 26 million shares. About 50 million have been traded since SNC suggested Chubb, due to be floated, could command a 46p share price.

First Leisure Corporation improved 6p to 261p following an analysts visit to its Blackpool operations and hard-pressed Queens Moat Houses recovered 2p to 50p.

Spring Ram, the bathroom and kitchen group, fell 2p to 119p. Another large line of stock was placed. Tarmac, as rumours of a Minorco bid continued to go the rounds, edged ahead 3p to 71p.

Insurance brokers had another difficult session. Willis Corroon's results underlined the depth of the depression in the industry. Willis fell 16p to 170p.

Inchcape advanced 9p to 386p as SG Warburg made positive noises. Dawsongroup jumped 17p to 109p on its results.

But Alfred McAlpine reinforced the building gloom when it announced interim losses and cut its dividend. Its shares fell 22p to 101p.

Hartstone, the leisure and hosiery group, continued to recover, up 14p at 139p. CMW, the troubled architect, rose 4.5p to 13p on director buying.

Shares had another uneventful session yesterday with the FT-SE share index failing to hold a 13-point gain and ending 4.1 down at 2,359.4. The FT 30 share index ended 8.1 down at 1,757.5. Turnover managed to cross the 400 million line, reaching 425.9 million with 19,692 bargains struck.

Next week's interim figures from Storm Group, unchanged at 10p, could show profits of around pounds 400,000 and there are indications it is continuing to make progress. A cartoon and publishing group, Storm is feeling the benefits of its pounds 1.7m acquisition of FilmFair and has fixed up a number of TV deals. It embraces such characters as The Shoe People and Paddington Bear.

Expect the Wellcome share support operation, the so-called 'green shoe', to end today. The price rose 10p to 802p yesterday. As a result of the flotation and following support the Wellcome Trust has sold 290 million shares and is left with a 40 per cent stake in the drugs group. The shares have traded above the 780p support level for more than a week.