Bird flu makes a comeback

The H5N1 strain of avian flu was found at a Bernard Matthews plant in East Anglia last week. Whether you're a survivalist or a pragmatist, find out what the bird flu threat means for your investments.

Only last year, the papers were filled with stories about bird flu. It was the big health scare of the year.

Mocked-up photos of death-bringing wild birds flying over the Thames; scenarios of societal change on a scale not seen since the Black Death; we're sure you remember the sort of thing.

And then, as always happens, bird flu lost its grip on the front pages. The plague spread across the continent, but apart from one dead swan in a Scottish village, the flu didn't touch Britain. The papers got bored and gave up on it.

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It looks like they might have been just a year too early

"Bootiful" it ain't. The outbreak of theH5N1 strain of avian flu in a Bernard Matthews plant in East Anglia is likely to cost Britain £370m in export trade, with a minimum six-month global trade ban on UK poultry almost certain. And that's not to mention the impact on the £3.4bn-a-year domestic market.

More than 2,600 turkeys died of the flu at the farm, which has 22 sheds each holding more than 7,000 turkeys each. The rest are being culled.

Tests are underway to see if the H5N1 is the same sub-strain that has killed more than 100 people in Asia, but so far there have been no signs that any humans have contracted the virus.

Even so, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said that the Government is preparing "very, very seriously and thoroughly for the possibility of a pandemic flu."

But one thing we are pretty sure of is that in the event of a pandemic, the Government is not going to save us.Defra handled the incident with the sort of ruthless efficiency that we'd expect from the Home Office. As The Sunday Telegraph points out, they were informed about the outbreak on Thursday evening, didn't pick up samples until Friday morning, it was then Sunday morning before the results came back saying it was H5N1, and it then took them until Sunday evening to impose an exclusion zone.

Sure, a 36-hour turnaround doesn't sound too bad (by government standards at least) if you're dealing with something that's not terribly serious. But this is bird flu - this is the thing that has the potential to wipe out a quarter of the population, say the scientists (well, if global warming doesn't get us first, of course). So - just a suggestion - maybe in these cases, it'd be a better idea to put the exclusion zone order in place before tests come back, and then remove it afterwards if everything's OK.

More worryingly, The Times speaks to the owner of a local nature reserve who was told to simply "bag and bin" a chicken that had died after showing "classic avian flu symptoms". He tells the paper: "I felt as if I was being fobbed off. I remain amazed by that behaviour when we are facing a potentially fatal problem."

So if you really are worried about a pandemic, then it's probably time to start stocking up on tinned food and Tamiflu. And of course, there's that other disaster-related investment - gold. If you're worried about a possible collapse or near-collapse in civil society, then gold's traditionally a good store of wealth - paper might mean nothing in the absence of society to back it up, but gold will always be regarded as currency, as it has been for millennia.

But let's say that you're not the survivalist type. Or that - at least, for now - things certainly haven't got bad enough for you to start digging out that nuclear bunker in the back garden.

In all likelihood, bird flu will blow over this year as well. This latest outbreak might cause a bit of pain to chicken producers and their shareholders (as it did last year), but that'll be about it. And it's likely to take a lot more than a few outbreaks of H5N1 to stop people from eating chicken, particularly in emerging markets such as Russia and Mexico, where consumption is accelerating rapidly.

So if you're wondering what investment opportunities might arise from Mr Matthews' misfortune, then forgetbiotech - it could well be worth keeping an eye on the chicken production sector.

We did a piece on chicken producers just before Christmas. Among the tips was Brazil'sSadia (SDA), which enjoys far cheaper labour costs than the likes of Bernard Matthews, while it has some protection from bird flu fears poultry accounts for just 42% of sales.

The FTSE 100 was boosted by hopes of further M&A activity in the retail sector following news on Friday of a possible private equity bid for Sainsbury. The blue-chip index gained 28 points to end the day at 6,310. Sainsbury rose nearly 14%, making it the day's biggest riser by far, whilst peers Wm Morrison, Tesco and Marks and Spencer were also higher. For a full market report, see: London market close (/file/25004/london-close-ma-news-lifts-stocks.html)

Across the Channel, the retail sector was also performing well. The Paris CAC-40 climbed 15 points to end the day at 5,677, with supermarket chain Carrefour the day's biggest gainer. In Frankfurt, meanwhile, the DAX-30 rose above the 6,900 mark in intra-day trading but had fallen back to 6,885 by close of play, an overall gain of 34 points.

On Wall Street, US stocks were mixed on Friday as disappointing employment data weighed on some but eased overall inflation concerns. The Dow Jones ended the day 20 points weaker, at 12,653, as Alcoa, Boeing and 3M gave up recent gains. The tech-heavy Nasdaq ended the day at 2,475, a 7-point gain. And the S&P 500 was 2 points higher, at 1,448.

In Asia, the Nikkei gave up some of last week's gains today as automotive stocks Nissan, Toyota and Honda weighed. The index fell 202 points to end the day at 17,344.

The price ofcrude oil had fallen back to $58.76 today, following Friday's gains. In London, Brent spot was at $57.99 a barrel.

Spot gold plunged over $10 on Friday due to the firmer dollar, but had risen to $648.330 this morning from $647.00 in New York late on Friday. Silver had climbed to $13.40/oz.

And in London this morning, it was announced that Barratt Developments is to buy Wilson Bowden for £2.2bn, thereby creating the country's largest housebuilder. Shares in Barratt were up by as much as 4.1% today.

And our two recommended articles for today...

Inflation worries boost the gold price

- What is inflation? Rising prices, says the cartoon eagle on the US Federal Reserve's website. And the Fed wouldn't lie, would it? Well, gold investors prefer to follow another measure of inflation. To find out why that means that gold, the classic 'inflation hedge', has been hitting multi-month highs, read:Inflation worries boost the gold price

How to profit from power shortages

- Cities across the world are routinely being plunged into darkness as electrical power grids fail to cope with increased demand. That means that, for many countries, investment in infrastructure is top priority. For Chris Mayer's top tips on where the best investment opportunities can be found, click here: How to profit from power shortages

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.