Stock Market Week: Pharmaceuticals and banks put FTSE in spotlight

WITH SEVEN Footsie members set to unveil figures this week - including BP Amoco, the biggest of them all - the blue-chip index will be in the spotlight. Footsie has been restless lately, ending a six- day losing streak with a good rally at the end of last week. Now the index is set to get a reality check, with two of its most prized sectors - banks and pharmaceuticals - dominating the results list.

In normal times, money-stackers and drug peddlers would have little in common apart from some heady ratings. But with consolidation sweeping the market, banks and pharmaceuticals are linked by the common thread of mergers, real and rumoured.

Take Barclays, on the block tomorrow. Michael O'Neill, the new man in charge, will no doubt try and talk pre-tax profits, expected to have risen some 8 per cent to pounds 1.8bn, in line with Barclays' semi-profits warning last November.

Russian provisions, say pounds 150m, and general market conditions could also enter the conversation. But what analysts and dealers will really want to know is whether Martin Taylor's American replacement will live up to his reputation as a shrewd deal- maker and marry Barclays to one of its rivals.

The poor performance of Barclays Capital, its investment arm, could strengthen the hand of those in favour of selling it off. The unit is the weakest of the pack and should obfuscate the better-performing retail and corporate divisions.

Halifax, that other would-be consolidator, reports on Thursday. The shares have lost 15 per cent of their value since a possible link-up with Prudential went cold late last year.

Stephen Kirk and Mark Eady at BT Alex.Brown are shooting for a 2 per cent rise in profits to pounds 1.67bn but are no fans of the Yorkshire lender.

"Halifax remains vulnerable to pressures in its core mortgage and savings markets, so forecasts retain a downside risk. We see scant chance for a deal at current valuation levels and so maintain our negative stance," they said.

Others are less bearish and point to Halifax's pounds 3.6bn cash pile as a good omen for 1999. If no deal materialises, the recently appointed chief executive, James Crosby, could return part of it to shareholders through buybacks or special dividends.

Fellow lenders Woolwich and Abbey National round off a busy week for bank watchers. The two were hit in their core mortgage market in the first half and should show some modest recovery in the latter part of the year.

Abbey's retail strength should help offset some of the slide in mortgage lending and analysts are going for an 18 per cent increase in pre-tax profit to pounds 1.51bn. Watch out for a jump in bad debts from around pounds 120m to pounds 200m, mainly due to a rise in unsecured lending.

Woolwich's profits should also rise some 18 per cent to pounds 475m. More importantly, the bank could update investors on plans for its pounds 935m excess capital, and a return of cash to shareholders could be on the cards.

Investors who do not like the banks' takeover scene should turn to drugs. Glaxo Wellcome, everyone's merger favourite, goes on the operating table on Thursday. After saying a thousand "not yets" to the usual "Are you merging with SmithKline Beecham?" question, Sir Richard Sykes, the chairman, will unveil a modest fall in profits to around pounds 2.6bn.

Strong sterling and the decline of the former blockbuster Zantac, the anti-ulcer treatment, will take their toll. However, this should be the last of the Zantac-affected results.

In 1999, Glaxo has promised double-digit sales growth and "significant" earnings rises. New products, led by the influenza drug Relenza, are looking good and, of course, there is always the chance of a tie-up with SmithKline Beecham to prop up the stock from time to time.

For a pharmaceutical merger which is almost certain to be consummated, look no further than Zeneca. The UK group reports on Wednesday, just a day before its shareholders are to vote on its pounds 48bn fusion with its Swedish rival Astra. The focus of the results will be the performance of new products such as the schizophrenia drug Seroquel and the asthma buster Accolate. The future of the combined entity hinges on these new drugs as both Zeneca and Astra are about to lose patent protection on a couple of blockbusters.

Analysts predict a slight fall in pre-tax profits to around 1.08bn, with sales up some 6 per cent to pounds 5.4bn. The market will also want to know about the impact of the devaluation of the Brazilian real on Zeneca's agrochemicals operations and whether the company is exposed to bad debts.

Staying with merged groups, BP-Amoco, which accounts for some 6 per cent of the Footsie value, is expected to face intense scrutiny when it unveils fourth-quarter net income on Wednesday.

William Lowrie, the joint deputy chief executive, stepped down last Friday, sparking suggestions of boardroom tensions in the wake of the merger. The British part of the oil giant should have done better than most of its peers, although some nasty surprises could come from its Russian ventures.

But the really bleak numbers will come from Amoco, the US partner, which is said to have had a horrible fourth quarter. Overall, broker Merrill Lynch is expecting a net income of pounds 803m, well down on the pounds 1.5bn recorded in 1997.

The former Footsie member Rank is the most prominent among the undercard's offerings. The leisure group had a disastrous year, which included botching the video launch of Titanic, seeing its share price going the way of that famous ship and losing its chief executive Andrew Teare.

The City is now in wait-and-see mode, as the new boss Mike Smith does not arrive from Ladbroke until April. Profits, due out on Thursday, should come in at around the pounds 260m reported in 1997.