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WINNERS AND LOSERS: An annus horribilis for equities

Few investors will remember 1994 with much affection. Regardless of how they chose to weight their portfolios between equities and fixed-interest bonds, they would have been better off leaving their cash in the building society.

For the second year running small companies outperformed their larger peers, with the FT-SE Small Capitalisation Index faring better than the middle-sized FT-SE 250 companies. These in turn did better than the shares of the largest companies in the FT-SE100.

None of the indices, however, was covered in glory, with even the small companies falling 5.7 per cent on average. The middle 250 companies fell 7.5 per cent, while the FT-SE 100 ended the year 9.2 per cent lower than it started.

Despite strong earnings growth from many companies as margins were rebuilt after the recession, shares were dragged down by gilts, where yields rose from 6 per cent to 8.5 per cent during the year. That pushed the value of 10-year bonds 15 per cent lower.

Of the largest 100 companies only 28 managed any gain at all, while only 11 rose more than 10 per cent to give shareholders any chance at all of making money after dealing costs.

Of the Footsie laggards, 43 slipped by more than 10 per cent and eight lost more than a quarter of their value. After three strong years for shares, 1994 was truly an annus horribilis.

As the tables show, British Steel emerged at the top of the heap as it benefited from resurgent demand for primary materials, always the first to gain from economic upturn.

BP also saw the oil price rise during the year from $13 a barrel to $16 and the company, now Britain's largest, appears to have fully recovered from the dark days of three years ago.

Another recovery story, at Archie Norman's Asda, stood out among the Footsie's few winners. Three years ago Asda was also the ugly duckling of its sector and even after another strong year is still rated at a discount to some of its historically strongerpeers.

Elsewhere in the top ten, bid speculation in the electricity sector following Trafalgar's swoop on Northern helped Eastern and Southern Electric to sparky performances.

The bottom end of the Footsie was propped up by Kingfisher, the Woolworths owner, which has suffered even more than the rest of the dispirited retail sector.

Other laggards included a sprinkling of builders and property companies, which have both had a dismal year following the optimism of 1993. Land Securities just escaped the bottom of the table with its 24 per cent decline but MEPC continued to disappoint the market with poorer than expected asset growth.

The weakness of the Hang Seng index during 1994 dragged down HSBC and Cable & Wireless, whose largest investment is its stake in Hongkong Telecom. The Hong Kong market lost 31 per cent during the year.

Other losers included the big insurance companies, which face tough disclosure requirements, have lost money on their stock market investments and struggled to cope with lower sales of pensions and life insurance policies.

Among the medium sized companies, bid activity boosted three of the top ten. The paper maker Portals doubled in value as De La Rue, the banknote printer, paid top dollar for access to the 88 per cent of the world paper money market controlled by state-owned printers.

VSEL soared after British Aerospace and Lord Weinstock's GEC battled for control of the Trident submarine maker. The bids are on hold as the Monopolies Commission mulls over the competition issues.

Northern Electric is currently fending off a bid from Trafalgar House, which some observers think marks the prelude to a wave of corporate activity in the RECs sector.

Also in the top ten is Berisford, which is suspended while the company sorts out a rights issue to fund its acquisition of Welbilt, the American kitchen equipment maker. The company has been transformed since the sale of British Sugar allowed it to rebuild itself via the acquisition of kitchens group Magnet.

Propping up the middle-sized companies was Eurotunnel, whose shares lost half their value as the market worried that shareholders will be tapped for yet more cash to tide it over.

Other dreary performances were registered by a clutch of housebuilders - Persimmon, Berkeley and Wilson Bowden - and Heywood Williams in the building materials sector.

As usual the real place to make and lose money was among the market's tiddlers, where seven companies tripled in value and the same number lost more than 90 per cent of their shareholders' investment.

The credit reference business UAPT-Infolink found itself in a bid battle, which pushed its shares up from 73p to 635p. The car part designer Hawtal Whiting was given a boost by Postel, which backed a rights issue.

Bullers shares collapsed after a capital reconstruction replaced 1,000 old shares with one new one. What was left of Shoprite's assets were picked up on the cheap by Kwik Save.

So, a dismal year in the main, and a timely reminder to readers following share tips in this and other newspapers that the only way to avoid disasters is to have a widely spread portfolio.