The week ahead...
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On Thursday, Vodafone had its deadline to bid for the telecoms firm extended for the third time. The extension came as Tata Communications revealed that it would not bid for Cable and Wireless Worldwide.
After a quiet Monday, Associated British Foods (ABF) will report its interim results on Tuesday.
Broker Collins Stewart is expecting earnings to grow "at least 20%".
Its 'buy' recommendation is predicated on a sustained period of profit growth in the company's sugar division. "We believe world sugar prices will remain firm for longer than the market thinks and in any case the supply/demand balance in the company's sugar-producing regions is favourable. Both ABF's African and Chinese sugar businesses are still in the early stages of their evolution, and are not fully utilising their assets," it comments.
It also reminds investors that management was focused on growing Primark, the division with the highest return on capital. It also believes that Primark has "substantial" growth prospects, which should accelerate value creation for shareholders - at least over the medium term.
Wednesday will see Talvivaara Mining () issue its first-quarter interim results.
In its production report published on Thursday, the company confirmed it had produced a disappointing 3,374 tonnes of nickel in the first quarter and said it would report an operating loss for the period.
Production output was adversely affected by downtime at its metals recovery plant, resulting from environmental investments, and a fatal accident at the Sotkamo mine.
On top of lower production, the fall in the price of nickel from $21,000 (£13,000) per tonne to $17,000 in February and March compounded the company's losses.
Talvivaara maintained its full-year 2012 production guidance at 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes of nickel, but following the first-quarter production volumes, expected output to be closer to the lower end of the range.
Standard Life () will publish its first-quarter interim management statement the same day.
Outlook comments from the 2011 year-end results suggest sales in the first quarter of 2012 will have been impacted by the economic uncertainty and a relatively tough comparative from the corresponding period last year, with consensus expecting worldwide life and pensions sales of approximately £4.8 billion.
Barrie Cornes, analyst at Panmure Gordon, believes that Standard Life "will continue to grow its business driven by positive demographics and improving market conditions". Yet Panmure has a 'hold' recommendation on the stock, stating that it cannot see anything on the short to medium-term horizon that might trigger a positive shift in sentiment.
Shares in the company are trading on a 2012 price to earnings (PE) ratio of between 12 and 13 times, compared to its UK peer group at between 10 and 11 times. The stock is yielding 6.4%.
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) will then kick off reporting for the pharmaceutical sector.
Investors will be looking for an update on the company's offer for Human Genome Sciences (HGS). On Thursday, HGS rejected a $2.6 billion offer by GlaxoSmithKline, saying that the "offer does not reflect the value inherent in HGS". Glaxo's offer was worth $13 a share, almost double the closing price of HGS shares on Wednesday of $7.17.
Management may also take the opportunity to update the market on development prospects with its joint venture deal with Theravance in Japan, after the company increased its stake from 18.3% to 26.8%. Chief executive Andrew Witty has highlighted Japan as a core marketplace that the group would like to grow its ties with given that the country still values and demonstrates that it is prepared to pay for drug innovation.
Current market expectations are for a 4% sales growth in the first quarter, with improving quarterly margins anticipated from the second quarter onwards.
At its full-year results in February, AstraZeneca's management revised its expected earnings range down to core earnings per share (EPS) range of between $6 and $6.30.
Market expectations are for a 20% decline in pre-tax profits and EPS against the first quarter of 2011, as weaker sales and margin erosion feed through.
The Seroquel XR formulation patent cases have been decided in favour of AstraZeneca, with the US District Court finding that the formulation patent was valid and had been infringed. The XR formulation patent expires in 2017. This was at odds with the UK ruling on 22 March, which found that the formulation patent was invalid. Investors are likely to question the conflicting rulings and financial implications for these.
Additionally, the decision for the company to jointly develop and commercialise clinical-stage inflammation portfolio has been widely held as proof of the need to replenish AstraZeneca's drug development pipeline, through external means if necessary.
"We believe investors will be keen to understand more about how this relationship will be structured to ensure that someone takes ownership of the projects and thereby drives the greatest possible results from this opportunity," states James Dawson, analyst at Charles Stanley. His current recommendation on the stock is 'reduce'.
Oil titan Royal Dutch Shell (RDSB) will then come onto the scene with its first-quarter results.
Shell pays about 12% of FTSE 100 dividends and there was some disappointment when it pre-announced in February that its first-quarter dividend would only be increased by about 2% to 43 cents. Both the dividend rise and the fourth-quarter results disappointed and over the last three months, the share price has underperformed the stockmarket by about 8%. This led to the company, in February, setting out a new growth agenda including a bold target of reaching output of four million barrels of oil per day by 2017.
Analysts at Canaccord Genuity are forecasting adjusted net income to come in at $6.4 billion, which would be a 33% quarter-on-quarter rise. They believe that in exploration and production, year-on-year disposals effects and core declines should be offset by the continued ramp-up of new volumes and the recovery in European gas volumes from weather-related weakness experienced in the last quarter.
Additionally, in downstream, they are hoping that the modest recovery in global refining margins, the return of Shell's Bukom refinery after a fire and a recovery from the worst of the fourth quarter's trading conditions and seasonality effects could bring oil products' earnings back to a modest profit of $0.3 billion, from a fourth-quarter loss of $660 million.
Shell is Canaccord Genuity's top pick. "We see the best combination of longer-term growth and free cash strength in our coverage, but market confidence in Shell's prospects was dented severely by poor fourth-quarter results. We expect Shell's first-quarter earnings to be sufficiently better quarter-on-quarter to start to restore investor confidence and to restore the shares' momentum," it states.
Charles Stanley's analyst, Tony Shepard, is also optimistic on the stock with an 'accummulate' recommendation. "Overall, we expect the results to be better received than the last set of results but the issue for the sector may revolve as much around the industry image, politics and the outlook for oil and gas prices," he states.
Leisure operator Whitbread (WTB) will also present a trading update to investors.
The group's pre-close statement revealed a mixed end to the year with a 0.9% like-for-like sales decline at Premier Inn, but like-for-like sales at Costa growing 6.2%. Consensus is estimating a 2012 pre-tax profit of £315 million, pencilling in a 2013 pre-tax profit figure of £333 million.
However, Simon French, analyst at Panmure Gordon, believes this is too optimistic, pointing out that a sales update from Accor suggested that Whitbread may be losing market share.
"Whitbread's shares are trading close to a five-year high but the outlook has never been more uncertain. We expect Premier Inn revenue per average room (RevPar) to fall 1% this year despite the Olympics 'boost', and we are cautious on the prospects for its pub restaurant business," he comments.
The stock is trading on a 2012 PE ratio of between 13 and 14 times, whilst yielding 2.9%. "Relative to other hotel peers, this is not expensive but Whitbread's hotel business is the only one where we are forecasting falling RevPar," French stresses. He rates the stock a 'hold'.
Consumer trends will come under the spotlight when Unilever (ULVR) unveils its first-quarter sales report.
Consensus is expecting a range of between 5.2% and 7.9% sales growth, with a mean forecast of 6.4%, consisting of 4.8% pricing growth and 1.6% volume growth.
However, Investec's analyst Martin Deboo is "cautious" on the stock. "We think that [Unilever's] top-line performance profile just isn't that compelling, either by peer group standards or relative to history. Unilever needs urgently to better exploit its developing & emerging market/household & personal care strengths, in our view, but that is going to take time," he states, adding that "of more immediate concern" was the bottom line outlook.
He also thinks that consensus is choosing to be optimistic, both on the general market climate and the pricing/input cost equation. "This is an optimism we find it difficult to share and we continue to see a risk of cautionary noises from Unilever on the 2012 commodity cost outlook," he says, giving the stock a 'hold' recommendation.
Graham Jones, analyst at Panmure Gordon, is not expecting Thursday's statement to be a significant catalyst for Unilever's shares. Still, he has a 'buy' recommendation on the stock. "We still believe the cost environment is more manageable in 2012 than 2011, and that Unilever should be able to deliver both reasonable top-line growth and some modest margin expansion."
The company is trading on a 2012 PE ratio of about 15 times.
This will be followed by an interim management statement from housebuilder Taylor Wimpey (TW.).
The group did not provide a huge amount of information on current trade when it reported its results in February, apart from commenting that its forward orders were 18% ahead year-on-year and its margins were in double-digit territory.
"With a focus on value over volume, margin progression will be a key focus for us, particularly given the lower new land exposure that the group has relative to its peer group," says Panmure Gordon's analyst Rachel Waring. She also believes that the company will not announce plans to return cash to shareholders until the half-year results.
She also points out that in terms of margin progression, much of the improvement seen to date has been due to self-help measures with little impact from new land. "New land isn't going to come into play for Taylor Wimpey until 2013, so the group will have to work hard to drive its margin in the current financial year," she comments.
Shares in the company are now trading on a price to net asset value (PNAV) ratio of 0.84 times.
Finally, Meggitt (MGGT) will unveil its first-quarter results.
Meggitt exited 2011 with good order and sales momentum, a trend that Investec's analyst Andrew Gollan anticipates will have continued.
He states that management's mid-term target growth in sales of between 6% and 7% is well underpinned by large industry backlogs and Meggitt's increasing share and content in a number of sectors, in addition to mechanistic growth in the aftermarket as the fleets expand and mature.
He has a 'buy' recommendation on the stock.
Economic news will also fall thick and fast next week.
The public finances data for March, out on Tuesday, are expected to show modest improvement compared to a year earlier following the disappointing outturn for February.
Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight, is forecasting a public sector net borrowing requirement (PSNBR) excluding financial interventions of £16 billion in March, down from £18 billion in March 2011. This would mean the PSNBR amounted to £126 billion overall in fiscal year 2011/12, in line with the estimate given in last month's budget and down from a shortfall of £136.8 billion in 2010/11.
In March's budget, the Chancellor set the target of reducing the PSNBR modestly further to £120 billion in fiscal year 2012/13, with the reduction limited by anticipated gross domestic product (GDP) expansion of just 0.8% in 2012 before it improves to 2.0% in 2013.
Archer believes this looks achievable, but warns that the Chancellor could "very well struggle" to meet his longer-term fiscal targets as he is relying on GDP growth picking up to 2.7% in 2014 and 3.0% in both 2015 and 2016.
The key release by far is Wednesday's first estimate of GDP in the first quarter of 2012.
There is major uncertainty about what it will reveal, primarily because the performance of the construction sector has become a real wild card in the GDP hand. Indeed, the recent construction data has led to the Bank of England (BoE) warning that it could even lead to GDP contracting in the first quarter of 2012, thereby causing the UK to move back into recession given that GDP contracted by 0.3% quarter-on-quarter in the fourth quarter of 2011.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS), for example, has reported overall very weak construction output during January and February, which threatens to significantly drag down the overall first-quarter GDP performance even though the construction sector only accounts for 7.6% of the economy's total output.
However, the latest news on the labour market points to an economy growing modestly rather than contracting. Additionally, the latest available hard statistics from the ONS indicate that the more dominant services output grew 0.2% month-on-month in January after an increase of 0.3% in December. Furthermore, survey evidence from the purchasing managers indicate that services activity expanded overall in the first quarter at its fastest rate since the second quarter of 2010.
The general expectation has been that GDP saw modest growth in the first quarter of 2012, which would mean the economy avoided a double-dip recession.
Archer argues that whether or not the economy grew in the first quarter of 2012, it still faces serious domestic and international headwinds such as markedly squeezed consumer purchasing power, elevated unemployment, a reluctance of business to invest in worrying and uncertain circumstances, tighter credit conditions, reduced public spending and investment, and muted global economic activity, particularly in the eurozone.
He also stresses that elevated oil prices are currently reinforcing the headwinds facing the UK economy and that there is a likelihood that growth in the second quarter will be held back by the extra day's public holiday for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
Wednesday will also see the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) industrial trends survey for April being published.
Latest hard data from the ONS showed that manufacturing output fell 0.8% month-on-month in February although it still edged up by 0.2% in the three months to February compared to the three months to November.
Archer is forecasting the balance of manufacturers reporting that their orders are at normal levels to have risen modestly to -5% in April after dipping to -8% in March. This would compare to a long-term average of -17% for the balance.
He is also expecting the April CBI survey to reveal that manufacturers generally expect to raise their production over the next three months. In March, a balance of 24% of companies expected to raise output over the next three months, a 12-month high and up from +15% in February.
However, Archer points out that the manufacturing sector faces a challenging environment.
"Domestic demand for manufactured goods is handicapped by a still-appreciable squeeze on consumers' purchasing power as well as by tighter public spending. Meanwhile, muted economic activity in the eurozone is limiting export orders although this is being countered by recently improved demand South East Asia, Japan and Africa according to the purchasing managers. In addition, the current spike up in input costs centred on higher oil prices is bad news for manufacturers as it squeezing their margins and exerting pressure on them to raise prices at a time when demand is still fragile."
Overnight Thursday/Friday, the GfK/NOP consumer confidence index will be released.
Analysts are expecting the survey to show that sentiment stabilised in April after suffering a disappointing relapse in March, but that it still remains at historically very weak levels.
"We expect consumer confidence to have gained some support in April from a renewed modest easing in concerns over the economic outlook and the jobs outlook," says Archer. "However, this is likely to have been countered by a generally negative view of the Budget that was held in late March and by concern over record high petrol prices."
Finally next week, Nationwide is expected to report that house prices rose by 0.2% month-on-month in April but were down 0.4% year-on-year.
There has been some volatility in house prices recently from month to month and between surveys. Most notably, the 1.0% month-on-month drop in prices in March reported by the Nationwide contrasted with a 2.2% month-on-month increase reported by the Halifax.
It is evident that at least some of the latest volatility in house prices and recent overall modestly-increased housing market activity has been due to first-time buyers looking to complete house purchases before the stamp duty concession ended on 24 March.
The latest survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) indicated that the balance of surveyors reporting an increase in instructions to sell slipped back to +2% in March from +9% in February, although it was still a sixth successive positive balance. The RICS also reported that average stock per branch fell to 66.5 in March from 69.5 in February.
"The squeeze on consumers' purchasing power should eventually ease significantly further as inflation retreats, and this may help house prices to stabilise late on in 2012 along with ongoing very low interest rates and hopefully a sustainable pick-up in economic activity," comments Archer. "However, wage growth looks set to remain muted and unemployment could well rise further so the overall environment will still be very tough for house buyers."
Monday 23 April
Imperial Innovations, Egdon Resources, Alexander David Securities Group, Lok'n Store
Clinical Computing, Baobab Resources
Tuesday 24 April
Next Fifteen Communications Group, Smiths News, Associated British Foods, Carr's Milling Industries, Netplay, Surgical Innovations Group, LiDCO Group, Carpetright, ARM Holdings, Filtrona, BBA Aviation
Law Debenture Corporation, Filtrona, South Arican Property Opportunities, EP Global Opportunities Trust, Modern Water, Microgen, Shire, EMIS Group, Central Rand Gold
Wednesday 25 April
Talvivaara Mining, Virgin Media, GlaxoSmithKline, Avacta Group, Johnston Press, Aseana Properties, Standard Life, Bodycote, Premier Foods, Fenner, Stagecoach Group, DS Smth, Capital Shopping Centres Group, UBM
Reed Elsevier, GlobeOp Financial Services, Premire Energy & Water Trust, Sable Mining, Agreterra, Bodycote, SocialGO
Thursday 26 April
Oil and Gas Development Company, Royal Dutch Shell, Aquarius Platinum, AstraZeneca, Shire, Unilever, Whitbread, Camellia, Taylor Wimpey, Howden Joinery, British American Tobacco, Kazakhmys, ASOS, Meggitt, Elementis, Admiral, Vectura, Jardine Lloyd Thomson, McBride
New World Resources, AstraZeneca, TomCo Energy, Powerflute, SpaceandPeople, Ubisense, Berendsen, Taylor Wimpey, Talvivaara Mining Company, COLT Telecome Group, Jardine Lloyd Thomson Group, Admiral Group, Advance Developing Markets Trust, New Europe Property Investments, Cobham, Wolfson Microelectronics, Alpha Pyrenees, Meggitt, Croda International, British American Tobacco
Friday 27 April
Barclays, Senior, Argo Group, Pearson, Hexaware Technologies, Ultra Electronics Holdings, Alliance Trust, Symphony Environmental Technologies.