Shares fall as Hambros fails to reassure investors

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The Independent Online
Hambros disappointed its shareholders yesterday by refusing to give any details of the ongoing strategic review being conducted for the group by the rival Schroders. Tom Stevenson, Financial Editor, reports on the continuing problems at the insurance, estate agency and banking group.

Sir Chips Keswick said yesterday that Hambros "was actively pursuing a number of options" but declined to give any further details of how it planned to improve its performance. The absence of any news, together with disappointing results from Hambros' core banking business, saw the depressed shares fall another 12.5p to 245p.

Recent speculation has focused on Germany's Westdeutsche Landesbank, which is believed to have approached Hambros with an informal offer. Sir Chips refused to say whether one of the options being considered by the group was to invite a takeover bid.

He said: "We recently announced that we are carrying out a review, assisted by independent advisers, of the best ways of improving performance and returns to shareholders. As soon as we are able to make any further statement to shareholders on progress we shall do so."

Profits for the half year to September emerged slightly ahead of expectations at pounds 52.9m (pounds 35m), although the result included an exceptional credit of pounds 6.8m compared with one-off charges last time of pounds 2.9m.

The improvement was, however, driven almost exclusively by Hambros' investments in the Hambro Countrywide chain of estate agents and in Hambro Insurance Services.

Profits from estate agency soared on the back of the thriving housing market in London and the South-east from pounds 10.5m to pounds 24.2m. Insurance Services more than doubled from pounds 4.5m to pounds 9.8m.

The core banking and investment businesses saw underlying profits fall, with banking almost halved from pounds 10m to pounds 5.4m. Thanks to the recovery of bad debts, compared with a heavy provision last year, the reported profits from banking rose from pounds 4.1m to pounds 6.5m, but the market focused on the trading performance.

Hambros is understood to have suffered since its involvement in the discredited pounds 1bn bid by Andrew Regan, the entrepreneur, for the Co-operative Wholesale Society this year. That episode cost the jobs of several senior corporate financiers at the bank and is thought to have made it hard for Hambros to attract new business and caused a higher than usual attrition rate among its staff.

Hambros also warned that its investment arm was likely to suffer from a lower level of disposals in the second half of the year. Successful realisations from Hambros portfolio of direct investments contributed in large part to profits from the operation of pounds 18.3m (pounds 20.4m).

Last month Hambros bowed to pressure from rebel shareholder Regent Pacific and appointed its rival Schroders to conduct a review of its operations and advise it on how to improve its performance.