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Sedgwick 'still in the game': The Investment Column

It is expectations about further industry restructuring that are keeping interest in the insurance brokers alive, rather than anything particularly exciting about their results.

Sedgwick yesterday announced pre-tax profits 5 per cent higher at pounds 95.5m last year, in a marketplace where rates, as Willis Corroon remarked last week, are in decline everywhere.

"Our strategy is not based on false hopes for an improvement in the rating environment," said Sax Riley, Sedgwick's chief executive, in a suitably downbeat comment.

It was Sedgwick which a year ago suggested that consolidation was under way, and it certainly is not over yet. The merger of Aon and Alexander & Alexander in the US to produce the world's largest broker came shortly after Aon itself had snapped up Bain Hogg in the UK from Inchcape. Jardine and Lloyd Thompson agreed to merge just before Christmas.

Given the international spread of Sedgwick, which is still in the world top three, what happens in the US is just as pertinent as rationalisation in the UK. Mr Riley said elliptically that we had now seen round one but Sedgwick was "still in the game".

He declined to hint whether he meant as bidder or target, but Sedgwick clearly prefers to be active in this international restructuring, though the share price might be giving a different signal, trading at a 10 per cent premium to Willis.

The results brought a 1p increase in the shares to 128p and were well within expectations. Earnings per share were down from 12.6p to 11.6p while the underlying dividend, excluding the foreign income dividend enhancement of 0.75p a share, was unchanged at 6.5p.

Sedgwick has successfully switched an increasing proportion of its income to fees from broking commissions over the past five years as it develops the Sedgwick Noble Lowndes employee benefit consultancy.

There was one little twist in the results, in Sedgwick's purchase of the 50 per cent of River Thames Insurance that it does not already own. Though the cost was pounds 14m, some saw this as a bargain price deal that could bring useful extra cash from the run-off insurance underwriting company. But the amounts are small, and nothing else emerged yesterday to justify putting Sedgwick on the buy list.