Argyll sells continental store stakes to raise pounds 123m

MARKET REPORT
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The Independent Online
Argyll, the Safeway supermarket chain, was the subject of a pounds 94m share placing as its seven year cross-shareholding alliance with two continental retailers was abandoned.

Royal Ahold and Casino Guichard Perrachon sold their 2.7 per cent interest in Argyll in a bought deal with Barclays de Zoete Wedd and Panmure Gordon. The securities houses paid 298p a share and placed them with institutions at around 301p.

Argyll realised pounds 123m from the sale of its stakes in the Continental groups, showing a pounds 37m profit.

It seems that pressure from Casino - a French chain which wanted to realise its investments - prompted the end of the cross-border agreement which was hailed as an innovative move, possibly indicating the shape of things to come, when it was put together.

Argyll, which retains trading links with its Continental associates, intends to use the cash windfall to help a share buy back. It plans to seek approval from shareholders to buy-in 4.4 per cent of its capital.

On a day when supermarket shares were under pressure - thanks to profit downgradings from James Capel and ABN Amro Hoare Govett - Argyll slipped 4.5p to 306.5p.

The rest of the stock market was again in the doldrums with New York displaying renewed weakness and Government stocks giving further ground.

The round of company results, with the exception of Unilever, was generally ahead of expectations and seemed likely to allay fears that poor profits in the reporting season will undermine the market. But shares retreated after a firm opening.

In the past three days the FT-SE 100 index has fallen 65.2 points. Selling has not been heavy but there is no doubt that the market is now so fretful that it needs a large injection of cheerful news to enliven proceedings. A further interest rate cut and another mega takeover are the most likely developments to transform sentiment.

With any interest rate cut much less likely following the M4 figures salvation was seen to rest with Carlton Communications which is expected, at least by the optimists, to hit the take over trail today, or at least herald its intentions with a dawn raid.

It is said to be likely to barge into the comfortable merger arranged between United News & Media and MAI. A bid for either party is said to be high on the Carlton agenda. But there is a school of thought which believes it will strike at another media group.

After the excesses of recent days most media shares encountered a little profit taking but Emap and Mirror Group Newspapers moved ahead.

Cadbury Schweppes took over the running in the take over stakes with the shares at one time up 12p. Many attributed the advance to a 2.5 million buying order in a market short of stock. The shares closed 8p higher at 540p, pricing the group at pounds 5.3bn.

Standard Chartered also helped keep the speculative flag flying. There is talk of a US bid and a late flurry lifted the shares 5p to 599p. Close Brothers, the merchant bank, fell 12p to 370p as take over gossip evaporated.

Granada continued to feel the impact of the IRA, falling 16p to 708p, as the market worried about the group's ability to sell-off hotels in the present fraught climate.

MAID, the on-line information group, had another volatile session, brushing 200p and then settling for an 8p gain at 187p. It has conditionally bought a near 15 per cent interest in Easynet, said to be one of the UK's largest internet service providers.

Easynet is due to arrived on AIM next month. Stockbroker Collins Stewart hopes to sell the shares at 100p. MAID is paying pounds 1.49m in shares for its stake which will be valued at pounds 2.1m on the flotation

Yorkshire Water, which is still suffering from the impact of the summer drought, spurted 17p to 639p as Greig Middleton, the stockbroker, re-rated the shares a buy.

The broker expects this year's profit at pounds 166.9m to reflect a pounds 50m hit from the drought fiasco. But next year should produce pounds 215.4m. Greig Middleton sees a share buy-back and enhanced dividend policy as likely trends.

Gardner, the diesel engine maker which arrived on the market late year at 125p, jumped 12p (after 18p) to 155p. There was talk that parent Texas Holdings, with 61.3 per cent, could be tempted to sell to a predator.

ML Laboratories' long expected inhalant deal with Medeva left the shares unchanged at 417p.

TAKING STOCK

o Aegis, the media buying and planning group, jumped 3.25p to 48.25p - the highest for four years - in busy trading. Figures are due in April and around pounds 32m is expected.

The shares have enjoyed a number of spurts, prompting take over speculation.

More O'Ferrall, itself often mentioned as a bid target, has been named as a likely predator. But some bank on a US strike. Aegis, with an impressive client list, has been nursed back to health after teetering on the brink a

few years ago.

o Flare, the second of Ian Gowrie-Smith's quoted vehicles, rose 12p to 150p. There is talk the ceramics group, formerly called Hewitt, is at last near to clinching a significant deal which should be announced in the next few weeks.

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