Off the rails but back on track

Blue Chip
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How wrong can you get? Almost exactly a year ago this column recommended that investors should take profits in Railtrack.

Needless to say, the shares hit an all-time high of 1,094p earlier this month - almost double the level when we suggested investors should reduce their holdings. And that is excluding generous dividend payments.

When we made our recommendation the shares had risen from an issue price of 380p to 584.5p, so investors had already made a more than respectable return of 50 per cent.

Nevertheless, the episode illustrates all too well the failings of share tipsters. The market will often outfox us - otherwise, as the old saw has it, I would not be sitting here writing this, but be sunning myself on a Caribbean beach.

Yet the arguments used at the time for locking in some profits were perfectly sensible. There were doubts as to what a Labour government would mean for the company, while it seemed unlikely that Railtrack would continue to enjoy such a rosy relationship with its regulator.

In the event, the arrival of Labour preceded a resurgent stock market, although Railtrack shares did recently slip back to 931p - a direct consequence of tough talking from rail regulator John Swift. So we got that right, but not before the market had become ever more enamoured of further cost savings to come and additional property gains.

British Gas has frequently flummoxed this column - as indeed it has the market. The chief reason for this is because it has been at the mercy of one of the sternest of the regulators, Clare Spottiswoode.

In May we said the shares were for well-informed gamblers only. However, our view had evolved to a "weak buy" by June, after the regulator's final report was published.

That position proved the right one, as the shares have climbed from 217.5p to 280p, handsomely outperforming the market along the way.

We tipped ICI in July, after the shares had already reached 917.5p from 769p at the start of the year. To have caught the company at a time of a revival in its fortunes is all the more pleasing. Since then, the shares have risen again, to 930p.

For technology calls, we recommended Vodafone in June, and were rewarded with a rise from 290.5p to 433p.

We can also claim a moral victory on Ionica, where we urged a cautious stance. The residential telephone company which uses radio signals to transmit calls has had one of the most dreadful launches of any major new issue in recent memory, and has been a disaster for investors from the first few weeks of its flotation.

Ironically, we said that the one area where the risks seemed containable was on the technology side. Ionica uses equipment that is fairly simple and low-cost. That did not prevent the company making a massive mess out of new software systems for billing customers. Other problems and profit warnings have seen the shares not so much hit the buffers as bounce back off them. From a flotation price of 390p, the price has collapsed to 81.5p.

To round off our look back over the year, there was the raft of building society to bank and mutual society conversions, many of which went straight into the FT-SE 100.

For the record, we recommended the Halifax as a buy, and saw a positive future for shareholders of the Woolwich and Norwich Union. We also tipped Northern Rock. In the event, the Halifax is roughly where it was when it floated. The Woolwich has sagged - wrongly, in this writer's opinion - while the Norwich Union and Northern Rock have rewarded shareholders in spades.

Have a happy Christmas and prosperous investing in the New Year.