The week ahead: Get ready for the mid cap comeback

ARE THE 250 underperforming constituents of the mid cap index about to shed the doubts which have enveloped them for two years? Philip Wolstencroft of investment house Merrill Lynch thinks so. He says: "We remain positive on mid cap stocks compared to big caps."

The mid caps - the shares immediately outside the Footsie 100 index - slumped to a year's low last month. Since then they have made something of a comeback, achieving a remarkable run of 18 pluses in 19 sessions. Last week the mid cap index ended at 4,826.4 points, well down from its 5,966.6 all-time high, hit in June.

It has been customary for the mid caps to live in the shadow of their Footsie peers. But, says Mr Wolstencroft: "Just about everything associated with the underperformance of mid cap stocks since mid-1996 has now gone into reverse."

Mid caps actually peaked against Footsie in April 1996, "when the prospective PE relative was high, investors were unusually positive on the economy and bullishness on mid caps was rife. When interest rates and the pound started to rise, confidence was punctured and a two-year bear market ensued.

"We are now at the stage when the PE relative is very low, investors are negative on the economy and bearishness on mid caps prevails", he says.

But are we heading back to the days when mid caps shone? Interest rates and sterling are in retreat and concern about the economy, as measured by Merrill Lynch's fund managers survey, is receding "from extreme levels and pessimism on mid caps has edged back".

However, Mr Wolstencroft's bullishness does not extend to the once high- flying computer sector. "There is a perception that IT shares will be immune from economic slowdown. We would be wary of this."

His list of best mid cap buys includes Imperial Tobacco and Somerfield. Until his last revision, two mid caps reporting this week - FirstGroup, the bus and train company, and Unigate, the distribution, food and milk group, were on the bull list. They have been removed because shares of FirstGroup no longer offer the value they once did, and weak pig and milk prices have prompted Unigate profit forecasts to be cut. Unigate's interims should emerge at around pounds 67.5m against pounds 66,4m. FirstGroup, also with half year figures, is seen as producing a little changed pounds 30m.

Another mid cap on the results schedule is British Steel; a Footsie member until the pound and falling steel prices devastated prospects. Sterling's recent weakness came too late to improve the lot of the steel group, which two years ago managed profits of more than pounds 1.1bn.

This year around pounds 310m is expected, with today's interim figure likely to emerge at pounds 90m against pounds 143m. The shares, 200p two years ago, have been down to 95p; they ended last week at 108.5p. The privatisation shares were sold to investors at 125p 10 years ago.

By contrast shares in BG - British Gas as once was - have been much more rewarding. The shares are near their peak and the demerged Centrica, if more subdued, has also enjoyed record highs.

The third quarter is traditionally BG's weakest, and this week's figures are unlikely to create much excitement. Keith Westhead at investment house BT Alex.Brown expects a much higher operating profit of pounds 74m to leave the group with a pounds 9m net loss. He remains a bull of the shares with a 440p target against last week's 403p close.

BOC has had a disappointing year. It is another sterling casualty but has had to contend with poor vacuum profits. An 11 per cent fall to pounds 395m is the probable outcome.

National Power is likely to blot its copybook with an interim profits fall from pounds 254m to pounds 210m. It faces regulatory hurdles at home but ploughs on with its overseas expansion.

Three utilities should roll out higher interim profits. United Utilities is set for figures a little better at pounds 239m (pounds 233m), Hyder should manage pounds 115m (pounds 105.5m) and Viridian could produce a modest gain, chalking up pounds 40m against pounds 37.4m.

Vodafone, the mobile phone group, is on call to top pounds 400m when it presents half-year results. Last year it produced pounds 298m. The group continues to take around 30 per cent of new domestic subscribers and is doing well elsewhere. Its shares, at 828p, peaked in the summer but BT Alex.Brown retains its 1,100p target.

Engineer Siebe seems on line for half-year profits 13 per cent higher at pounds 246.5m. The FKI engineering group should achieve pounds 72m (pounds 64m).

Retailers are represented by Safeway and Storehouse. They are unlikely to offer much cheer to a sector worried by squeezed margins and slower consumer spending.

Safeway interim profits will be down to pounds 190m from pounds 230m. Still, the chain is on the recovery path after last year's difficulties. Storehouse, also with mid-terms, could suffer a 5 per cent fall to pounds 36.5m.

Acquisitive Enterprise Inns, one of few companies offering final figures, should serve up heady profits - say pounds 22.5m, up from pounds 14.4m.

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