Stock Market Week: Stock Exchange's answer to hi-tech markets seems to be a little too low-tech

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The Independent Online
MANY STOCKBROKERS, for a variety of largely historical reasons, make markets in the shares of a couple of unquoted companies. But James Sharp & Co of Bury has developed a matched bargains service embracing more than 20 shares and is likely to recruit more.

It could be argued that its market is a throwback to the days when provincial stock markets thrived; it is almost a miniature version of Ofex, the successful fringe share market with around 200 constituents, run by the market maker JP Jenkins.

The strength of the little Bury market and Ofex (an abbreviation of Off Exchange) represent an interesting contrast to the globalisation of some sections of the securities industry and the popularity of hi-tech markets.

The Stock Exchange's answer to the high-flying, hi-tech markets such as America's Nasdaq, Germany's Neuer Market and EuroNM is techMark. It is, however, difficult to avoid the conclusion it is not much more than a puffed up section, with its own indices, of the over all Stock Exchange market.

The indices are launched on Thursday. There are two of them, one covering all hi-tech shares and the other embracing 100.

Of course the Bury market and, to a much lesser extent, Ofex are light years away from the hi-tech roll-out.

Indeed Derek Calrow, Sharp's senior partner, is keen that his little matched bargains market is very low-tech. "We like solid companies with assets; there is no room for high flyers."

Some of Mr Calrow's companies would have been consigned to the investment wilderness. They were traded through the old 4.2 matched bargains facility which the Stock Exchange surprisingly decided to abandon, creating a marvellous opportunity for Jenkins and, to a smaller degree, Sharp.

Family-controlled brewers George Gale & Co and Wadworth & Co, refugees from the 4.2 market, are on the Sharp list.

Other constituents include the parent company of upmarket fashion store Fenwick of Bond Street and utility North Surrey Water.

Fenwick probably has the Bury market's biggest cash pile - some pounds 90m. North Surrey is controlled by French interests with Sharp, still a partnership and dating back to 1885, providing a facility for the few per cent of the capital still available. Some Bury shares are also traded on other markets. Pub owner Heavitree is on Alternative Investment Market and brewer Daniel Thwaites of Blackburn, where Sharp is the company broker, is an Ofex constituent.

Sharp's clients are, not surprisingly, significant investors in the Bury market. Said Mr Calrow, who is 58: "We are only interested in companies we are happy to invest in."

The Stock Exchange, which introduced its junior AIM to try and soak up much of the old 4.2 facility companies, has high hopes for its techMark initiative.

It clearly expects it to reflect the success of Nasdaq and the other technology markets; an achievement which has eluded AIM.

techMark embraces around 170 companies with the Internet and software contingent achieving automatic membership; others will have to wait assessment. Certain listing requirements are being relaxed for the bright young hopefuls which will be such a feature of techMark. For example EasyScreen, providing screens for derivative trading, has been allowed to move to a full listing from Ofex although it is still in a very early stage of its development.

The decision to produce two indices prevents the whole exercise being dominated by the likes of two automatic constituents, VodafoneAirTouch, the stock market's biggest company with an pounds 84bn capitalisation, and BT.

The giants will be in the all-share index but not in the techMark 100 which will feature medium and small companies, perhaps the stars of tomorrow. This week's company results, however, owe little to the high flying world of technology. In fact old fashioned - some might say too old fashioned - retailers are to the fore.

Marks & Spencer's problems are well-known. Once the doyen of the high street its shares have collapsed from 664.5 to 280p as gloom about trading and prospects has increased. Interim figures tomorrow will be disastrous. M&S has already taken the precaution of signalling a profit in the region of pounds 190m when it produced a downbeat trading statement in September. Last time profits were pounds 348m.

The beleaguered retailer is unlikely to cushion the profits slump with any words of comfort. All indications from the high street suggest M&S is still finding the going exceedingly tough. The interim dividend will probably be held at 3.7p a share.

Boots is also on the results agenda. Last week take over rumours gave the shares a modest lift after they had experienced a torrid run, at one time nearly halving. The market feeling is six months profits will be little changed at pounds 255m with the dividend lifted from 7.1p to 7.5p.

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch detergents and foods group, is another likely to produce uninspiring figures with third quarter profits expected to be around pounds 920m against approaching pounds 1.1bn.

Half-time results from airports group BAA will be hit by the slow-down in retail sales since the abolition of duty free trade in July.

The group has already warned on profits but it should not be far away from last time's pounds 307m.

Railtrack could spark controversy by rolling out record interim profits of around pounds 240m, up from pounds 224m.

THE WEEK AHEAD

COMPANY EXPECTED PBT* LAST PBT

MONDAY

Full Year

nil

Interims

BAA pounds 305m pounds 307m

TUESDAY

Full Year

nil

Interims

Marks & Spencers pounds 190m pounds 348m

WEDNESDAY

Full Year

nil

Interims

nil

THURSDAY

Full Year

nil

Interims

Boots pounds 255m pounds 251.4m

Railtrack pounds 240m pounds 224m

Yates Bros pounds 7.4m pounds 6.2m

COMPANY EXPECTED PBT* LAST PBT

FRIDAY

Full Year

nil

Interims

nil

Source: I/B/E/S.

* PBT- Profit before tax

ECONOMICS NEWS - MONDAY: Manufacturing PMI report; M0 provisional. BIRMINGHAM CBI CONFERENCE: Chancellor Gordon Brown speaks; Conservative leader William Hague speaks; Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Stephen Byers speaks.

TUESDAY: Halifax house price index; Official reserves; Construction PMI report. CBI CONFERENCE: Hong Kong Financial Secretary Sir Donald Tsang speaks; Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks.

WEDNESDAY: UK monetary meeting starts; Service sector PMI report.

THURSDAY: Housing starts (Sept); Construction new orders (Sept); Bank of England MPC rate announcement.

FRIDAY: BRC shop price index; Industrial production (Sept); Insolvencies, Q3; CBI distributive trades survey; NIESR GDP forecast (Oct).

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