Shares: When the boat comes in: Prospects of a global boom could transform the shipping and building industries When the boat comes in

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the features of economic recovery is that almost everything recovers. This will be particularly the case if the world economy, as seems increasingly probable, moves into a co-ordinated global boom in 1995. Big companies that are currently having a tough time in areas such as building materials, construction, shipping and supplying the world's battered aerospace and motor industries should find trading conditions and their performance transformed. Three I like are Lucas Industries, P&O, and Blue Circle Industries.

Analysts caution that the share prices of all three companies have recovered strongly from their bear market low points. But that does not mean that the fun is over. For example, components group Lucas Industries, at 228p, has proved a highly cyclical stock in the past. In the 1970s the shares recovered from 10p to 80p; in the 1980s it rose from a low of 30p to 200p. So far it has trebled from the low point of around 80p, but should be capable of reaching between 500p and 750p before this cycle is over. Indeed, there is an argument that the eventual rise in the 1990s could be greater than in the previous cycles. Pressure from two fierce recessions has seen dramatic cost-cutting and improvements in productivity, while the group's increasingly sophisticated product range is addressing a massively expanded world market.

Helped by 20:20 hindsight we can now see that the perfect moment to buy Lucas's shares was in autumn 1992. The shares were depressed by a reported sharp fall in profits, a dramatic programme of factory closures and the abrupt departure of the man regarded as heir apparent to Sir Anthony Gill as chief executive. At the same time sterling had crashed out of the ERM, which was good news in the long term for a massive exporter such as Lucas.

Although it is early days yet, Lucas is showing exciting signs of changing from a recovery play into a growth stock. The problem of the management succession has been solved with the coup of attracting George Simpson, the man who played a big role in Rover's revival. He is due to take the reins in May but may come in sooner, following the sale of Rover to BMW.

Meanwhile, under Sir Anthony Gill and the impressive top management team put together at Lucas in the last two years, costs have been slashed and the group has been focused as a world leader in the supply of brake and diesel engine systems to the world motor industry and flight and engine control systems to the world's aerospace industry. Recent coups include the supply of its expensively developed, electrically programmed injection control system (EPIC) for the C-class Mercedes-Benz.

Based on all these developments, long-time fan Robert Speed, an analyst with Henderson Crosthwaite, is looking for sales and profitability to roar ahead over the next few years. He sees a profits sequence of pounds 88m for the year to July 1994, followed by pounds 145m, pounds 217m and even close to pounds 300m in 1996, by which time the p/e would be in a single figure.

This startling rate of progress will receive a technical boost from the exercise of outstanding warrants. Bringing pounds 123m to the company in 1995, these will virtually eliminate borrowings. The shares look an outstanding buy.

What investors often forget is that although the immediate impact on profits may be painful, recessions are times of opportunity for companies.

The building industry giant Blue Circle, at 365p, has used the recession both to cut costs dramatically on the core cement business and to accelerate its expansion into the home products market with its pounds 200m-plus acquisition of Celsius, the European heating supplies business. As and when the industry recovers, it should make a great deal more profit than it made in the last buoyant phase of the cycle, even if the 1990s boom is less frenetic.

One instance of how the company has changed is the calculation by Donald Anderson at Hoare Govett, the stockbrokers, that rationalisation in 1992 cut pounds 2m a month from UK cement costs.

The group also has some impressive overseas subsidiaries including a cement and aggregates business based in booming Atlanta in the US. It also has fast growing subsidiaries in Chile and Malaysia where economic growth is proceeding at double-figure rates. Anderson forecasts earnings per share approaching 18p in 1994 and 22p in 1995 to drop the p/e to around 18 but adds that the forecasts, particularly the one for 1995, could be too low.

Least exciting as a recovery play in the short term would seem to be P&O, at 717p. The construction industry remains depressed, world shipping is subdued, cruise line tickets are being discounted and its cross-channel ferry business looks a certain casualty when Eurotunnel opens for business.

Nevertheless, the group has weathered the recession in surprisingly good shape with its dividend maintained against expectations. It has also done deals, such as the sale of its contract catering business to Granada at a massive premium to book value, that have reinforced suspicions that the group is a treasure trove of assets. It will shortly be floating a stake in some 7,000 garden apartments around Atlanta in the US on terms expected to bring some dollars 200m in cash into the group, while leaving it with a continuing interest.

Longer-term excitement comes from a string of deals giving it a growing presence in China's fast-developing ports and transport industry and an increasing globalisation of the business. With its massive shipping interests - more than pounds 6.5bn of capital employed and pounds 5.5bn-plus of turnover - P&O is described by observers as the face of British shipping. It seems a reasonable guess that, if and when recovery turns to boom, it will be well placed to benefit. The shares look an attractive speculative purchase.

(Photograph omitted)

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