Smaller Companies: Good year for tiddlers

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The Independent Online
THAT WAS the best year for smaller companies since 1988, that was. A 35 per cent increase in the FTA Smaller Companies Index means that the tiddlers have outperformed the All Share by 10 per cent over the past 12 months. When Hoare Govett's rival index is calculated next month, it will show the first outperformance of big companies for five years.

Such a buoyant market in the shares of smaller companies meant it was no surprise that 1993 was also the year of the flotation, with 165 new issues, again the best performance since 1988. Veterans of previous recoveries will also be unsurprised that the year had more than its fair share of profits warnings from companies for whom the upturn did not happen quite as planned.

Flotation proceeds of pounds 5.1bn were the highest amount (excluding privatisations and big one-off new issues) since KPMG Peat Marwick, the accountancy firm, started its records.

Neil Austin, KPMG's head of new issues, said: 'All the indications are for another excellent year for flotations, with the levels of interest at least matching 1993.' And with 72 of the year's floats coming in the final quarter, the trend does indeed look upwards.

The success of those issues will depend on whether the lack of alternative homes for the pension funds' cash continues to push the market to record levels and whether the calls on certain sectors of the market are too ambitious - a rumoured pounds 1bn worth of property flotations, for example, are rumoured to be waiting in the wings for the new year.

The year's crop of newcomers included household names such as Pizza Express, the British School of Motoring and Badgerline, the bus company. Other less well known companies enjoyed their debuts - Virtuality, which makes a new generation of 3-D video games, surged to a massive premium when it came to the market. Tadpole Technology and Quality Software Products also benefited from the market's enthusiasm for high-tech.

Companies for whom 1993 will be remembered less fondly include Sage, the software house, Shandwick, the PR business, and Medeva, the formerly high-flying pharmaceuticals company. They all surprised the market with profits warnings.

Costain, the troubled construction company, announced a massive loss and had to come cap in hand to shareholders for more money. Spring Ram, Margaret Thatcher's favourite company, really had a year to forget, with three profits warnings, a complete board reshuffle and a collapsed share price. Hartstone was another high-flyer to come a cropper.

Investors took a dislike to admissions of underhand activities by salesmen at Southern Business Group, the photocopier leasing company. They later had to face an investigation of the whole industry by the Office of Fair Trading. MTM, which ran into its own problems in 1992, had to arrange a refinancing.

For one sector at least, 1993 was a year of rebirth. Shares in the property sector more than doubled during the year and the resurgence of investor interest signalled the return of a raft of names from the past.

Martin Landau came back from the South of France to buy into Clayform, renaming the small property company Development Securities as a bold statement of intent. The Bourne Brothers returned and Godfrey Bradman emerged as a partner in a proposed west London shopping centre.

Farewells were said during the year to Tom Cowie, who retired from his eponymous motor group and, sadly, to Ferranti, the once great electronics company that at one time would have shuddered at having a mention in a smaller companies column.