Airtours plans German landing

MARKET REPORT The FT-SE 100 index fell 11.6 points to 3,037.7 but the FT-SE 250 index rose 6.4 to 3,407.4. Volume was 551.7 million shares with 21,954 bargains. Government stocks were weak.
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Airtours, the acquisitive package tour operator, is thought to be planning to break into the lucrative German holidays market.

Stories circulating in the travel trade suggest it has its sights on ITS, Germany's fourth-largest tours firm. The business has been put on the market by its parent, the Kauhof retailing group.

Any deal could cost Airtours about £70m. It would give it a stake in the Kuoni travel group, a Swiss-controlled business with an up-market operation in this country but a more price-sensitive business in Switzerland. The Germans also have interests in Belgium and the Netherlands.

It is thought Airtours could make a killing in the generally inefficient, high-margin German travel industry. But the prospect of a brash, well organised overseas group barging into the comfy German market could force the other leading players to close ranks to squeeze out the Airtours bid.

If Airtours, the UK's second largest travel group, should capture ITS it will be its second significant Continental deal in a year. In April it splashed out £74m on SAS, Scandinavia's leading operator.

Rumours in the travel trade also suggest Airtours, which failed to capture the UK's number three group, 1st Choice, two years ago, is eyeing Thomas Cook, the UK group that is German owned. Airtours is said to be interested in its travel shops.

The stock market is worried that any new bout of expansion will force another rights issue. But it is more likely the group, which called on shareholders to put up £82m when it took over SAS, will fund any ITS deal from its resources.

Despite the traditional holiday price wars, Airtours is known to be trading well with bookings ahead of last year. Because of its rapid expansion, the first-half loss will increase significantly but for the year the market is looking for up to £89m against £75.8m, with more than £100m next year.

Its top executives have recently made investment presentations in the US. But the shares, unsettled by the cash-call rumours, have been a weak market, falling 23p this week. They closed at 419p, unchanged.

The rest of the market again succumbed to political influences with next week's cliff hanger Westminster vote overwhelming any remnants of Thursday's enthusiasm. With New York failing to hold on to its new peak in early trading the FT-SE 100 index fell 11.6 points to 3,037.7.

The Confederation of British Industry also contributed to the lacklustre atmosphere by suggesting inflation was building up faster than expected. Its view sent government stocks plunging by more than a point.

The day belonged to life insurers, particularly the smaller brethren. United Friendly's restructuring of its life funds, with the blessing of the Department of Trade and Industry, created the excitement.

Its so-called orphan assets -unclaimed cash trapped in its life funds - are to be split with policy holders taking 90 per cent and shareholders the remaining 10 per cent.

United was at one time up 112p. The shares rose 92p to 605p. Britannic jumped 71p to 505p and Refuge 39p to 322p. The bigger groups, Legal & General and Prudential, are unlikely to hand much of the surplus to shareholders; hence a 6p gain to 447p by L&G and a 9p advance to 308p by the Pru.

Inchcape, the international trader, dipped 4p to 296p. Smith New Court has pulled back its estimates for this year by £10m to £235m and for 1996 by £15m to £260.

Lucas Industries, reflecting its US problems, dipped another 1.5p to 173.5p. TI, down 1p to 333p, denied reports its Dowty Woodville Polymer off-shoot faced legal action from the US Justice Department. Lucas faces a US boycott on defence orders.

Arjo Wiggins Appleton, the packaging and paper group, slipped 5p to 246p but Bluebird, the toys group, continued to reflect takeover hopes, edging 1p higher to 254p.

Amstrad, the electronics group, moved ahead 6p to 159p on favourable comment but BSkyB was again worried by the threat of increased competition, falling 6.5p to 249.5p.

Northern Electric edged ahead 5p to 1,058p with some suggesting Hanson could move in and top the Trafalgar House offer. But Yorkshire, the favoured Hanson target, put on 12p to 832p.

British Aerospace, figures next week, dipped 3.5p to 464.5p. Hoare Govett estimates its involvement in Airbus Industrie is worth more than £1bn. NatWest Securities believes the year's profits will be £185m against a £237m loss.

Properties were firm as evidence grew that office rents were hardening . MEPC was up 8p to 396p; British Land 3p to 374p.

Rolls-Royce improved 3p to 153p. It has agreed to sell a site to the Millennium Group for £40m. Bourne End Properties, paying, with a Goldman Sachs fund, £45m for the Marlowes shopping centre, Hemel Hempstead, dipped 2p to 62p.

Rank Organisation gained 12p to 378p as Robert Fleming Securities and Kleinwort Benson made positive noises; Carlton Communications, with a little help from UBS, gained 13p to 891p.

Metals group Johnson Matthey was unsettled by an agency cross of 800,000 shares at 508p. The price fell 16p to 514p.

Pentex, the oil group that is the year's first flotation, spurted 13p to 85p. It has so far had a disappointing stock market life, having touched 130p. The bank-financed group has assets in low-risk onshore fields and has recently moved offshore. There is talk of further off-shore expansion.

Tinsley Robor, a maker of CD packaging, is attracting attention. It has emerged from a difficult period and buoyant demand is expected. Stockbroker Albert E Sharp has lifted this year's forecast from £1.5m to £1.9m and next from £2m to £2.4m. The shares are 49p; a year ago they were 29p.