The City prepares for a wet Whitsun as the water results flow forth

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The Independent Online
Water, an increasingly controversial commodity, dominates the stock market this week.

Apart from the fact that more bids are likely to flow, three of the privatised utilities are due to produce figures and even the most casual students of the industry will be awaiting more tales of shortage and wastage with, for light relief, perhaps further gaffes of the cement-your-lawn variety.

South West Water, with figures on Thursday, has experienced a catalogue of disasters, being described as an object lesson on the pitfalls of privatisation.

It is the company which pumped a precious billion gallons of the stuff into the sea at the height of last year's drought, has hosepipe bans in place, had problems with contaminated water and sewage and has the audacity to have the highest water charges in the land.

It looked as though SWW could be taken out of its misery; a blessed oblivion which would have delighted much of Whitehall and, it is believed, would even find favour with Ian Byatt, the industry regulator.

But takeover bids from more efficient neighbours, Severn Trent and Wessex, were last week referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Clearance is eventually expected with an Ofwat deal over prices a significant influence. But the probe, which will presumably clear the way for a bid battle, delays the absorption of the country's most accident prone utility, after, of course, British Gas.

SWW is unlikely to rub salt into its customers complaints by producing a profit increase. NatWest Securities is looking for a 3 per cent fall to pounds 98m. Analyst Robert Miller-Bakewell expects, however, the dividend to be lifted, by perhaps 7 per cent to 29.2p. With a bid battle looming, it is too soon to put too much on display.

As Mr Miller-Bakewell puts it: "The more delivered now the less which will be available when the real bid gets underway to offer some form of defence".

The water profits season - the stock market loves to create reporting seasons - is launched tomorrow by Anglian Water, one of the cash rich groups to indulge in a share buy back, a near 10 per cent exercise.

Anglian's results should be satisfactory with, say, pounds 245m against pounds 230m and a 12 per cent dividend increase to 29p.

United Utilities, the combined Norweb electricity and North West Water, group, could produce pounds 348m against pounds 298m, although its figures are going to be confused by the inevitable - and extensive - restructuring which accompany any such merger.

Still, there should be dividend joy; an increase of 31 per cent to 32.45p is the Miller-Bakewell guess.

One other water company is due to make a profits splash, little Mid Kent which has been under French takeover siege for five months.

Last week it, too, was sucked into an MMC investigation. Profits are likely to be pounds 10m, up from pounds 8.3m with a 13 per cent dividend increase to 14.2p.

Mid Kent, a former statutory water company, has expressed indignation at the French bid. Compagnie Generale des Eaux and Saur already have 39 per cent of the capital. The bidders intend, if successful, to split Mid Kent between South East Water and Folkestone & Dover - both French owned.

The French influence is already strong in the South-east water industry and consumer groups are fretting about the threat to competition. The Mid Kent affair is seen as a battle over the county's water supply.

Water shares have felt the impact of the Government's takeover policy somersault and are unlikely to draw much inspiration from this week's flow of results. The threat of more regulatory interference, already a stinging factor elsewhere in the utility sector, is also ruffling sentiment.

The market, as a whole, spent last week drifting lower in indecisive trading, failing, once again, to make any significant response to more New York records.

Another indifferent week is expected with political influences, a particular worry for utilities, likely to erode occasional bursts of exuberance.

The market needs a surge of takeover bids. The absence of significant corporate activity, except among utilities, is baffling many observers.

Even share buy backs and special dividends are failing to make much impression and although there is still a strong swell of opinion supporting the view shares should make strong headway in the short term, year-end targets for the FT-SE 100 index remain mixed.

Some strategists, like Richard Jeffrey of Charterhouse Tilney and Ian Harnett of Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull look for around 4,000 points. Tim Brown and Scott Evans of UBS are on 3,800, and Paul Walton and Edmund Shing at Goldman Sachs, expect 3,400. But the Goldman duo support the feeling there will be a short term upswing with a 4,000 target.

Among others reporting this week is Carlton Communications, the media group. It has half-time figures on Wednesday with around pounds 130m expected compared with pounds 120m.

Another is London International, reshaped and restructured and looking on line for a pounds 7m profit advance to pounds 25m. The dividend should be doubled to 2p.

Last month the condom maker announced its first large deal since in was rescued two years ago from its disastrous move into photo processing which almost brought the company down. It took over Aladan, an American group with a contract to supply 250 million condoms a year to the US Government, for pounds 46m.

Sketchley, still deep into film processing through its Super Snap shops but best known for its dry cleaning outlets, is unlikely to end the week on a cheerful holiday note on Friday. Its profits are likely to come out a shade lower at pounds 6.2m.

Dry cleaning has been its problem. Two months ago it said it would close 160 lossmaking shops at a cost of pounds 7.5m. It still has 550 cleaners but seems to see a brighter exposure developing dry cleaning and film branches in J Sainsbury superstores.

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