Market Report: MFI gets a much-needed boost from broker

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The Independent Online

The largest problem at MFI is its retail division. The unit is bleeding money as sales slide, and there have even been suggestions - denied by the company - that it would like to put the whole division into administration. But the company boasts a highly profitable building materials arm, Howden. UBS suggests profits at Howden will be enough to offset retail losses and that a disposal of MFI's non-core operations and a sale and leaseback of its remaining freehold property will generate enough cash to fund a much-needed restructuring.

So what will this retail division restructuring entail? According to UBS, MFI needs to close some of its stores, shrink its product offering to kitchens and bedrooms (for which the company is traditionally known) and drastically reduce the average size of its stores. This will not be an easy task, and UBS believes it could cost up to £170m.

MFI will need to get the support of its banks for these reforms as the broker predicts they could cause debt at the company to soar to £400m. But UBS says that given Howden is expected to make a profit of £120m next year, this level of borrowing should be manageable.

Elsewhere in the retail arena, Homestyle dropped 1.5p to 69p after warning it will post a substantial loss at its upcoming interim results. The home furnishings group complained that trading conditions remain challenging. In the wider sector, ScS Upholstery fell 1.5p to 345p, Alexon dropped 1p to 234.25p, Carpetright rose 2p to 880p and WH Smith retreated 3.5p to 365.5p.

Blue chips suffered another day of falls as London shares reacted to Thursday's sharp drop on Wall Street. The fact that US stocks lost more ground in early trading yesterday only made things worse for the FTSE 100, which closed down 22 points at 5,142.1. Market professionals say the crisis at Refco has not helped equity markets. The company was one of the biggest futures brokers in the world and its disintegration is likely to have forced many investors to unwind positions they many have held in the market via the company.

Dealers reported a series of takeover rumours doing the rounds of City dealing rooms. Lloyds TSB rose 1.5p to 441p as talk of a bid for the group from a US player return. Last month, Wells-Fargo was tipped as the most likely US bank to make a move on Lloyds. In early trading, De Vere was boosted by talk of a 750p-a-share offer for the hotels and golf course owner from a venture-capital firm. But by the close punters had lost interest in the story and the stock closed lower on the day, down 3.5p to 554.5p.

Punters were not so quick to dismiss rumours of a bid for Marconi. This was partly because Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chief executive of Ericsson, refused to comment on reports his company is about to pounce on the UK telecom equipment maker. Ericsson's boss was asked about his interest in Marconi after third-quarter results from the Swedish giant. Traders took Mr Svanberg's silence on the topic of Marconi as signifying that he has interest in the company and chased the stock 18.75p higher to 344.75p.

BT Group dropped 5p to 206p amid worries that BSkyB's purchase of Easynet is making the environment in which the telecom group operates even more competitive. Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein said: "Sky's bid for Easynet confirms a serious deterioration in BT's competitive environment."

ARM Holdings gained 1.75p to 107.75p on the back of a series of director share purchases. Warren East, the chief executive of the semiconductor designer, led the way via the purchase of 30,000 shares at 106p. Tim Score, ARM's finance director, bought 20,000 at the same price, as did Mike Muller, the chief technology officer. Regent Inns retreated 2.5p to 91.5p on concern the consumer slowdown will soon start to have an affect on bar operators.

Among the small-caps, Universal Salvage, 3p lower to 109p, announced that its chief executive had bought 9,000 shares at 111p. Altrium Underwriting lost 5.75p to 188.25p after the insurer warned the cost to the company of Hurricane Katrina has risen to £19m. Emblaze fell 0.5p to 120.5p as the company failed to announce a much hoped-for mobile phone supply agreement. It has long been rumoured that Emblaze is close to winning a deal to supply its handsets to a major UK mobile phone operator.

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