The Investment Column: Reed boosts online services

The strength of sterling was the main story at the half-way stage for Reed Elsevier, the Anglo-Dutch publishing group. Currency effects wiped out almost all the underlying 10 per cent profit increase it achieved in the six months to June, leaving headline profit just 1 per cent higher at pounds 419m. Shareholders in Reed International, the British end of this double headed group, see their interim dividend rise 7 per cent to 4.4p, while Dutch shareholders in Elsevier bag a 45 per cent increase to 0.29 guilders.

The performance of the main business divisions, namely scientific, professional, business and consumer publishing, was equally muted. The real excitement lay elsewhere, notably in the future development of new features, including the online information service, ScienceDirect, due for commercial release later this year, and the increased investment in electronic publications at Reed Travel group. An active acquisition policy should also add spice.

This year the group has committed itself to more than 20 acquisitions, costing in total over pounds 600m, including the Chilton Business group which will be completed shortly. It has at least as much again available in cash or borrowing powers. A deal to acquire Reuters' specialist medical magazines is in the wind, while the sale of the children's book division to Pearson or to management could be announced by the end of the month.

Market conditions in the second half are unlikely to improve much, however. Some 70 per cent of profits come from overseas and sterling still looks uncomfortably strong. Several analysts scaled down forecasts for the full- year yesterday. The consensus is now around pounds 850m, for a 5 per cent rise on 1996. The shares fell 40p to 590p, which values them on a forward multiple of 20, falling to 18. High, but still worth holding for the long term.