View from City Road: Builders' future far from perfect

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The Independent Online
INVESTORS in building shares have clearly decided that 1992 is irrelevant. George Wimpey warned of 'substantial provisions' in last year's accounts - implying that losses will be far higher than the most pessimistic forecasts - yet its shares rose 1p to 115p. Analysts predict that companies such as Taylor Woodrow, AMEC and Tarmac - which has already privately warned of large write-downs - will follow suit. Yet all their shares ended yesterday higher than they started.

The market is at least partially right; companies that make the most swingeing provisions generally perform better in subsequent years. The problem with the construction industry is that its provisions have generally been too little too late. Despite writing off a collective pounds 550m against the value of housing land in the two years to December 1991, many companies are still saddled with over-valued land and over- optimistic price expectations.

Costain and Tarmac, for example, have provided pounds 75m and pounds 45m respectively, yet their land banks are still valued at more than 30 per cent of 1991 average selling prices, compared with an industry norm of 20 per cent.

This year may be different. There are signs the industry is no longer waiting for recovery to rescue it from plunging profits. Chief executives increasingly accept that demand will stay depressed for at least the next two years and are restructuring their businesses - and assessing their provisions - accordingly.

That may mean profits will recover strongly when the upturn comes, but it also means there will be further bad news in the short term. The March reporting season will be the sector's worst ever, putting further pressure on dividends. Wimpey alone is expected to lose more than pounds 100m, while Tarmac's losses could be as high as pounds 250m. The City may be right to believe last year's results are irrelevant, but it would be wrong to take the future on trust.

(Photograph omitted)