Stock Market Week: Ladbroke's price canters as punters place bets on good results

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The Independent Online
Some of the stock market's most avid punters must be a little surprised Ladbroke has survived as an independent company and is about to produce another set of results.

On numerous occasions in the past year the shares have enjoyed frenzied gallops as rumours of imminent takeover action have swirled around.

For a long while the Bass brewing group was seen as the most likely predator. Ladbroke's Hilton Hotels, ran the argument, would slot nicely with Bass's Holiday Inn chain and, Whitehall permitting, the Ladbroke betting shops and the Coral spread would create a powerful betting force.

But Bass became captivated by the thought of recapturing leadership of the UK's beerage and started what turned out to be protracted talks to buy the country's third-largest brewer, Carlsberg-Tetley.

Then it was the turn of the US Hilton Hotels Corporation to take up the running. HHC owns the US Hilton chain; Ladbroke the international Hilton spread. At first it seemed Ladbroke would strike at HHC; then the story was turned on its head with HHC going for Ladbroke. The final - and more likely - version is a trading pact that offers some form of Hilton unity.

Shares of the betting and hotel group ended last week at their highest for three years. Takeover speculation is never far away, but it is Thursday's interim results that have provided much of the impetus. They are not expected to be outstanding. Merrill Lynch is looking for pounds 62m (pounds 56.5m) and an unchanged dividend. Some forecasts stretch to pounds 70m.

But there could be some encouraging comments. Chief executive Peter George has been tidying the group and reducing borrowings. Texas Homecare, the do-it-yourself sheds chain, was sold to J Sainsbury and many properties have been unloaded.

Ladbroke is concentrating on leisure. Its hotels should have joined in the dramatic revival the industry has experienced and, although betting shops are National Lottery casualties, there are signs the worst is over.

The shares at 207p are, however, a long way from the 333p peak achieved in 1989 when Cyril Stein, now endeavouring to build his own up-market hotel empire, ruled the roost. Profits have been under pressure as Ladbroke reshaped. Last year they reached pounds 121.3m and Merrill believes they will hit a peak this year - it is going for pounds 157m. Kleinwort Benson is on pounds 165m.

After their remarkable display last week there must be a temptation for shares to pause for breath. But many in the market have been heard to mutter that now Footsie has conquered the 3,900 barrier there will be no stopping a gallop to the magical 4,000.

After drifting aimlessly since hitting a peak in April, the market has suddenly got up steam, moving into uncharted territory. Trading has often been thin and many of the legendary big-hitters are still on holiday. But there is no denying shares are exuding confidence. They seem, for once, to be able to ignore unhelpful developments and dwell happily on more bullish events.

The scent of lower interest rates is in the air and the feelgood factor could become an old-fashioned election boom.

Some brave souls have for weeks been forecasting Footsie will end the month at more than 4,000. Their predictions once looked outrageously hopeful; that is no longer the case. And forecasters on 4,000 for the year-end could even be wondering whether they will be accused of being too cautious.

Ladbroke is only one of three blue chips reporting on Thursday. The others are Rolls-Royce and Reckitt & Colman. Rolls' interim results will be distorted by provisions relating to closures and write-offs following its decision to withdraw from its Parsons turbine business. NatWest Securities looks for pre-exceptional profits of pounds 75m compared with pounds 47m. Some forecasts stretch to pounds 100m.

Jo Reedman at NatWest will focus on the after-market for civil aviation spares. "If there is evidence of a sustainable increase in aircraft spares, then there could be further upside for the share price," she said.

Reckitt & Colman is another to be repositioned. It has sold its food and soft-drink businesses and intends to evolve as a world leader in household goods with such products as Dettol and Harpic. Interim profits could reflect the reshaping.

Retailer WH Smith is another to undergo a revamping exercise. It has been receiving intensive treatment from Bill Cockburn, the chief executive who used to head the Post Office.

The shares have been surprisingly strong as the market has gleefully anticipated the fruits of his labours. The benefits will not filter through when the group reports its first loss tomorrow. The figures will be heavily distorted by the Cockburn impact with profits emerging at perhaps pounds 85m (against pounds 115.3m), before being overwhelmed by exceptional charges of around pounds 300m.

The shares are just below their 12-month high of 532p. They have climbed from 356p.

The revival programme included paying Boots to assume full ownership of the troubled Do-it-All do-it-yourself business, axing jobs and scything through the vast range of goods stocked by Smith.

Some wonder whether Mr Cockburn will have a few surprises up his corporate sleeve - perhaps even a rights issue.

Others reporting this week include T&N, the specialist engineer still troubled by its asbestos past. In the past 10 years it has paid out more than pounds 300m in claims. Interim profits could be around pounds 60m against pounds 73.2m.

Photo-Me International, the photo booth owner, will benefit from the introduction of identity cards. In the meantime it has warned profits will be lower: around pounds 12.7m against pounds 14.5m is expected.

Cairn Energy's figures will attract little interest; its supporters will be more fascinated by developments at its Bangladesh operation. Perhaps the company will have more striking progress to report?