Three years after taking the helm at the British retail bell-wether, Marks & Spencer's boss Marc Bolland is still dividing opinion. Most of the debate centres on whether the former Morrisons chief executive has got the gumption to turn around the retailer's clothing arm, and yesterday was no different amid a stream of conflicting opinions from company watchers in the Square Mile.
Despite the worst annual results for four years, the shares have run up more than 30 per cent in the past three months, helped by buoyant equity markets as well as style director Belinda Earl's well-received autumn and winter collections.
The stock added another 3.7p to 475.7p yesterday but Charles Stanley has had enough: the broker is reasonable happy with the M&S food business but reckons it's time to take profits, and lowered its rating to "reduce" because of worries that the anticipated improvement in general merchandising operation won't actually turn up.
That's not the view at UBS, which believes Ms Earl will live up to her reputed £1m salary, and says "the risks will be rewarded". Another broker, Panmure Gordon, retains its buy rating and target price of 516p and looks for another kick in the share price from an update in early July when the company is trading against particularly soft comparisons after a 6.8 per cent fall in sales last year.
Marks & Sparks may have eked out modest gains but it was a much tougher day for the wider FTSE 100 index, which barely clawed back any ground at all from its near-2 per cent fall on Wednesday. In a soporific session, the blue-chip benchmark added just 29.82 points to 6,656.99. More strong data from the US housing market – this time the number of Americans buying homes hitting a three-year high in April – failed to lift the Dow Jones significantly as shares on the Street of Dreams also struggled to make headway.
A few analysts tried to stir things up. UBS had some good news for Tullett Prebon's founder Terry Smith and Icap boss Michael Spencer, whose interdealer broking firms have suffered from lower trading volumes and regulatory uncertainty. UBS thinks the shares have underperformed the financial sector and are now looking cheap. The upgrade to neutral from sell sent the stocks roaring ahead, up 20.1p to 295p and 20.8p to 370.3p respectively. Morgan Stanley also liked the potential upside for Lloyds Banking Group in a better housing market, leaving the shares up 1.16p to 61.8p. Its analyst Chris Manners said: "This improved outlook for housing should benefit Lloyds in a number of ways: enhancing prospects for UK mortgage volumes, keeping low loan loss provisions from UK mortgages and potentially giving some relief on capital as the risk content in the mortgage books falls."
News of big short bets against Kazakhmys, the Kazakh copper miner that lost its place in the FTSE 100 index two months ago, caused a bit of a stir. The miner was 4p better off at 338.4p but the stock has virtually halved in value since the beginning of March. Dealers pointed out that Bloomberg filings showed a host of heavy-hitters including Crispin Odey taking significant short positions against the stock in the past week or so. Paul Marshall's Marshall Wace hedge fund was ahead of the game, betting against the firm in March.
The Kazakh government's near-27 per cent stake in Kazakhmys is to be used in a cash-and-paper consortium bid to take peer Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation up 0.5p to 251.9p – private.
This means cash for Kazakhmys for its 26 per cent stake in ENRC but there are worries the deal will leave an overhang of Kaz's shares in the hands of short-term investors buying into ENRC for the takeover. And besides, how will Kazakhmys get on without its government as a hefty shareholder? Sources said not having the politicians on the board may be a good thing as it increased the free float in the shares, and added that the shorting could be down to fears of a disappointing price for ENRC as well.
Among the small-caps, the biggest riser was Straight, the recycling company run by Salvador Dali-esque entrepreneur Jonathan Straight, who changed his surname by deed poll from Gay 25 years ago. The shares jumped 9.5p to 38p after a new deal to supply wheelie bins.