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View from City Road: The benefit of the doubt

LIKE the prodigal son, Eagle Star has been forgiven by its parent. After it lost a fortune in the past two-and-a-half years, BAT Industries has prepared a fatted calf in the form of a pounds 190m capital injection.

The deal's structure - in effect a rights issue with BAT the sole shareholder - underlines the attractions of being part of a deep- pocketed conglomerate. Commercial Union and General Accident had to raise money on the open market through preference share issues and Royal Insurance issued a convertible bond last week. The battered composite sector has raised pounds 900m so far in 1992.

BAT's rationale is that the worst of the domestic mortgage indemnity nightmare is over; motor and household insurance rates have hardened and now is the time to go

out and grab some of this profitable business.

But each new premium written reduces Eagle Star's all-important solvency ratio, in turn reducing customers' confidence in its policies. This is where BAT's capital injection in the form of ordinary shares comes in.

It has also capitalised a pounds 260m loan made to Eagle Star earlier in the year, most of which was in turn lent on to BAT's US insurance giant, Farmers.

BAT can easily afford such an investment. It will increase gearing by only 3 percentage points and should not damage earnings if Eagle Star starts paying dividends as anticipated to the parent next year, after a two-year lapse.

But shareholders must wonder whether Eagle Star should be trusted with the money. It has been crucified by UK domestic mortgage indemnity losses amounting to pounds 213m in 1991, and likely to reach another pounds 100m this year.

Combined with losses on commercial mortgage business, Eagle Star has lost pounds 640m in the past two-and-a-half years, equal to the figure BAT paid for it in 1984.

Domestic mortgage indemnity losses are expected to continue at about pounds 25m- pounds 30m per quarter at least until mid 1993.

Newly-appointed Martin Broughton, the managing director of financial services, appears contrite about previous losses. He deserves the benefit of the doubt.

On this basis, the shares, which have outperformed by more than 40 per cent this year, will continue to attract followers.