Belfast Telegraph

Housebuilder Berkeley Group sees profits rise of 34%

Housebuilder Berkeley Group has bolstered profits by a third despite seeing demand take a hit from Brexit uncertainty, rising stamp duty and the "extraordinary attack" on buy-to-let landlords.

The group, which is focused on London and the South East, recorded a 34% rise in pre-tax profits to £392.7 million in the six months to the end of October, up from £293.3 million over the period last year.

The earnings boost came as the firm sold fewer homes at a higher price, with 2,076 homes sold at an average selling price of £655,000 over the period, compared to 2,091 homes sold for an average £506,000 last year.

However, chief executive Rob Perrins said underlying demand was 20% lower compared to the same period last year.

"This fall in volume is due to higher stamp duty, the extraordinary attack on buy to let landlords - such an important part of sustaining the London market and increasing the supply of new homes - and the uncertainty caused by Brexit."

He said the drop in reservations was in line with the beginning of the year and there were signs that the market had started to adjust to the pressures.

Revenues rose 34% to £1.4 billion for the half year, up from £1.1 billion over the period in 2015.

The firm said it was on track to hit its three-year pre-tax profit target of £2 billion, first outlined in May last year.

It also announced a new target to haul in £3 billion of pre-tax profit for the five years from May 1 2016.

Mr Perrins also cited the US election as a factor adding to the uncertainty hitting the housing market, but said pricing remained resilient and was above its business plan levels.

Berekely Group was demoted to the FTSE 250 in September after its stock price took a hammering following Britain's vote to leave the European Union.

Shares were up nearly 4% during morning trading on the London market, but still remain around 22% lower than before the Brexit vote.

The group said it would change a five-year dividend plan announced prior to the EU referendum and would now return some of the cash through share buy-backs and dividends.

It said it had taken the step because the "current heightened macro uncertainty has led to significant market volatility and there is a dislocation between this and both underlying market conditions and the strength of Berkeley's operating model."

Last month, fellow housebuilder Taylor Wimpey said the housing market had been ''robust'' since the Brexit vote, but revealed a rise in cancellations and a slight fall in sales.

The High Wycombe-based firm sold 0.70 homes per site per week in the second half of the year, down from 0.74 over the period in 2015.

Cancellation rates ticked up to 13% for the year to November 14, compared with 11% in 2015.

George Salmon, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: "While Berkeley's generous capital returns plan has been amended this morning, the change is in how the group will be returning cash to shareholders, not how much.

"The group is diverting some of the cash previously earmarked for dividend payments to share buybacks, which will boost the value of shares that remain on the market.

"With the shares down almost 20% since the Brexit vote, Berkeley says this option represents better value for shareholders at the current time.

"This sends a clear message out that Berkeley feels its own stock looks cheap at the moment.

"With significant uncertainty around the London property market, this confidence is reassuring for investors."