Market report: Unilever falls out of favour for first time in 17 years


Toby Green@greentoby
Wednesday 21 March 2012 10:47

Seventeen years is rather a long time. 1995 saw the release of Braveheart, the collapse of Barings Bank and the departure of Robbie Williams from Take That. Perhaps less notably, it was also the last time Investec did not believe Unilever shares were worth snapping up – until now.

Yesterday the broker announced that it was finally time to remove its long-standing "buy" recommendation on the consumer goods giant, prompting it to drop 25p to 2,064p.

Investec's Martin Deboo made the decision to downgrade Unilever's rating to "hold", saying that while he continues "to support what Unilever is trying to achieve", he anticipates "another year of slow grind".

The Marmite maker has been hit recently by fears a multi-billion dollar cost-cutting plan from arch-rival Procter & Gamble (P&G) – whose brands include Pampers nappies and Fairy washing-up liquid – will result in a step-up in competition.

Mr Deboo was certainly wary, saying the programme was "a significant threat", while adding that P&G has "the potential to cause plenty of trouble for Unilever".

He also warned there could be a "groundhog day" regarding commodity prices, saying there may be a repeat of last year when the group's initial guidance over input costs proved overly optimistic.

Still, punters who have followed Investec's advice over the years will not have been too unhappy, with Mr Deboo calculating that a £100 investment in Unilever back in 1995 would be worth £568 now.

Having failed to break above the 6,000 point level over the past few sessions, the FTSE 100 suffered a sharp shock downwards, dropping 69.7 points to 5,891.41.

Much of the damage was caused by the miners following BHP Billiton's admission that iron ore demand from China was "flattening". The digger was pegged back 83p to 1,965p, while elsewhere in a sector always sensitive to news from the country, Fresnillo and Rio Tinto slid 59p to 1,687p and 150p to 3,464.5p respectively.

Top of the leaderboard was Vodafone, after Morgan Stanley mulled over the possibility of it becoming a bid target for Verizon. Claiming there was a major valuation gap between the two – with Vodafone "the clearly more attractively valued share" – the broker's scribe, Nick Delfas, claimed that the "classical resolution would be for the more highly rated company to buy out the weaker". However, he admitted the amount of money Verizon would need to raise to fund such a move was just one potential barrier.

The analyst also considered the possibility of an agreed merger between the two or whether Vodafone could sell some or all of its stake in their US joint venture Verizon Wireless. But Mr Delfas warned that with the former valuation differences would cause problems, while there were "complex tax implications" with the latter.

In response, Vodafone was lifted 3.45p to 170.8p, after it got another boost from the Indian government's failure to get a review of the $2.2bn tax case won by the mobile phone giant back in January.

News that the iPad has been flying off the shelves helped Apple-supplier Arm Holdings tick up 4.5p to 584.5p. The chip designer also found a new fan in Barclays Capital, which changed its rating to "overweight" and target price to a mammoth 725p while claiming the group could smash the Square Mile's forecasts over the next couple of years.

Also ahead was Whitbread, which climbed 11p to 1732.5p after Morgan Stanley became the latest to argue that the leisure group should spin-off its Costa Coffee business. Claiming the coffee chain was "now large enough and cash-generative enough to be separately listed", the broker added that at its current share price "Whitbread is offering either Costa or £1 billion of property pretty well for free".

Hopes were rising around Cable & Wireless Worldwide once again following talk that Tata Communications is getting ready to make a formal offer.

The telecoms firm ended up jumping 8.91 per cent to 38p despite contradictory reports emerging later in the session claiming no decision has yet been made by the Indian group.

Those punters who pushed Gem Diamonds nearly 11 per cent higher on Monday received their reward. The precious stone miner announced its pre-tax profits for 2011 almost tripled to $155.7m (£98.2m), prompting it up another 19.5p to 300.5p.

Falkland Oil and Gas was being rather secretive on AIM. The explorer announced it had agreed a farm-out option deal but declined to say with which company, although this did not stop it spurting up 3.5p to 64.5p.

Meanwhile, personal health website Fitbug was in fighting form, advancing 10.77 per cent to 1.8p after an upbeat statement from the penny stock regarding trading in France and Germany.

l Tesco 332.75p (up 1.75p, 0.53 per cent) Supermarket advances after analysts from ING decide to upgrade their recommendation to "hold" and increase their target price to 335p from 280p.

l AstraZeneca 2,863.5p (up 5.5p, 0.19 per cent) Pharmaceuticals group in demand for its defensive qualities despite announcing it is giving up on experimental antidepressant product TC-5214.

l Royal Bank of Scotland 28.63p (down 0.54p, 1.85 per cent) Bank takes a breather after having seen its share price jump nearly 15 per cent higher over the course of the past five trading sessions.

l Glencore International 413.8p (down 6.65p, 1.58 per cent) Commodities giant finishes in the red as it agrees $6.2bn (£3.9bn) to buy Canadian grain handler Viterra at a 48 per cent premium to its pre-talks price.

l Essar Energy 148.9p (up 7.1p, 5.01 per cent) Power generator – which started trading on the mid-tier index this week after being relegated in the latest reshuffle – has now rallied more than a third in just five days.

l Cairn Energy 341.8p (up 9.9p, 2.98 per cent) Oil explorer rises after announcing it will spend some of its $1.2bn (£756.4m) cash pile on deals to diversify its exposure beyond its Greenland exploration campaign.

l Exillon Energy 188.4p (down 16.6p, 8.1 per cent) Oil producer continues to fall following disappointing results on Monday in which it posted a pre-tax loss for the year nearly twice what it suffered over the previous 12 months.

l Regus 104p (down 8.8p, 7.8 per cent) Serviced office provider slumps despite announcing its operating profit for 2011 more than doubled to £50.6m while its revenues rose 12 per cent to £1.16bn.

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