One man's misfortune is a blessing for others

CITY TALK
Every six months the report A View from the Boardroom comes out from SBC Warburg. It is an attempt to give the views of companies on a broad range of issues. The companies surveyed each have a value of less than pounds 350m.

The latest edition highlights pessimism among the consumer goods companies surveyed over their growth and order prospects. The report offers the proviso that this group was the smallest sample in the survey, but it may hint at some good news for the broader macroeconomic outlook. After all, weakness in consumer goods may hint at a more subdued high street, with all the beneficial impact on inflation and spending that may entail.

It also suggests that the robust anti-inflation line of the last few years still holds, despite pressure on it from windfalls and the like. Of course, the firms concerned may have suffered the Princess Diana effect as many shops closed on the day of her funeral. Exactly how much this fed through to consumer goods manufacturers is moot, but it cannot be entirely discounted. At the same time, a strong pound has capped inflationary forces.

What this may mean for the stock market is harder to discern. Inflationary omens have been broadly positive for some time, yet the current turmoil would suggest that investors believe the outlook may deteriorate. There remains a likelihood the Bank of England will raise interest rates, although it will now probably wait for the markets to calm down before raising rates in December.

Amid all the turbulence it is good to see that new equity issues did not disappear entirely. Select Appointments has decided to brave the markets, with an offering in the US, no less, of 11.5 million new shares, to raise about $104m (pounds 62m). Also coming to market through an offer for subscription is Oakburn Holdings. Oakburn is set to join Ofex, the unlisted market for start-ups and entrepreneurial companies, through the issue of 833,333 new shares at 30p a share. Oakburn hopes to raise pounds 199,000 net of expenses, and the deal would value the company at close to pounds 750,000. It will specialise in selling flooring and security lighting products for the DIY market.

As a start-up business, shareholders in Oakburn can qualify for tax relief, assuming the company qualifies for the Enterprise Investment Scheme, as it intends. It will be a high-risk investment, as there are no sales as yet. The management behind the company has experience in the sector, but whether that will be enough to convert their dream into a successful operation remains to be seen. Subscriptions close on 5 December; Austin Friars Securities is the registered sponsor.

Investors in smaller companies could do worse than take a look at shares of Gartmore Irish Smaller Companies Investment Trust. In its most recent interim results last week, the company reported an 18.2 per cent rise in its net asset value. The total return per share hit 28.4p, an increase of 43 per cent on the same period last year.

News reaches me of plans to beef up Europe's nascent biotechnology industry. On the surface, the idea makes sense. Currently the sector provides a mere 27,500 jobs - a far cry from the US's 120,000 jobs. The European Commission points out that if Europe was as advanced as the US, we would have 170,000 jobs in biotech.

Between them, the Commission and the European Association of Securities Dealers wants to develop a biotechnology and finance forum, strengthening links between the academic world and finance.

In its way, it all sounds fine and dandy, but we will have to see if the Commission has the fleetness of foot needed to spur this sector onwards. Too much bureaucracy could have exactly the opposite effect.

RICHARD PHILLIPS

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