Bid hopes work their magic on headless WH Smith

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The Independent Online
WH Smith is without a chief executive and threatened by takeover action. Stories rumble around the stock market that a break-up bid is being prepared or a group, such as Tesco, is contemplating a bid.

The shares were bumping along at a 333.5p year's low last month, reflecting the surprise departure of chief executive Bill Cockburn and worries about year's profits, due next week.

Since then the hopes of bid action have worked their magic and the shares have strengthened, gaining a future 10p to 383.5p in brisk trading yesterday. They are, however, still a long way from the 531p achieved a year ago when the market was pinning its hopes on a Cockburn-led revival. Chairman Jeremy Hardie is running the retailing group until a new chief executive is appointed, probably next month.

Last year Smith posted a pounds 194.7m loss; a profit nudging pounds 100m could be reported next week.

The rest of the market was caught in two minds. Footsie initially showed a desire to return above 5,000 points. When New York displayed no inclination during early trading to continue its come-back, blue chips lost much of their enthusiasm and the index closed with an unconvincing gain of 19.6 points at 4,978.

BT made a significant contribution towards keeping Foosie in positive territory. It headed the blue chip leader board with a 29p gain to 412.5p. Indications that the cost of the controversial takeover of MCI could be reduced prompted the surge, reflecting the exposed positions of an army of arbitrageurs.

They have been playing powerfully in BT and MCI and were caught on the hop when MCI's shock profit warning threatened the massive trans-atlantic deal. Then, in frenetic trading, BT shares crashed from more than 500p to around 420p before drifting more sedately to nearer 380p.

Many arbs are thought to be short of BT and long of MCI. There is talk that exposure on both sides of the Atlantic totals more than $10bn.

Positions have been taken on the theory BT shares would fall and MCI, not surprisingly weak in New York on the arbitrage situation, would advance. The new round of talks cast doubt on such predictions and produced a frantic scramble to reverse uncovered positions as traders felt they could no longer be sure of the merger terms.

Large investment houses on both sides of the Atlantic were said to have incurred book losses of around $1bn as their attempts to change their exposure squeezed BT higher with Seaq putting volume in the underlying BT shares at nearly 70 million.

Professor Littlechild's change of mind continued to generate excitement among power shares. National Power put on 7p to 546.5p and PowerGen 13p to 774.5p. British Energy, with Morgan Stanley saying buy, rose 4p to 170.5p.

Dixons, up 23p to a 662p peak, enjoyed the high street boom and Ladbroke cantered 9p to 260.5p on talk the US Hilton Hotels Corporation was buying.

Vaux was actively traded with some wondering whether the brewer and hotelier could be set for corporate action. In a flat drinks sector the shares frothed 4.5p higher to 304.5p, highest for two years. Granada rose 9p to 814.5p on favourable Dresdner Kleinwort Benson comments.

Vitec, the broadcast and photographic equipment maker once called Vinten, jumped 27.5p to 605p as Merrill Lynch suggested a 700p target. The company is one of the smaller constituents of the FTSE 250 index and could be in danger of being squeezed out in next month's review.

Save, the petrol retailer, rose 10p to 70p as the proposed Shell acquisition of the Gulf network of 450 petrol stations was seen as likely to take some of the intense competitive pressures out of the market.

Ulster TV jumped 38.5p to 237.5p as Scottish Media continued to threaten, lifting its stake to 18.2 per cent; Ulster directors responded by adding to their interests.

The deals were completed at 210p. The company is considering a share buy-back or special dividend.

A possible bid for Ransomes, the lawn mower maker, lifted the shares 22p to 51p and music group Boosey & Hawkes indicated its biggest shareholder was still in talks to sell its stake but there was as yet no clue about any bid terms; the shares fell 62.5p to 1,000p.

Quarto, a US publisher, tumbled 28.5p to 156p following a profit warning.

Wedderburn, a property group, continued its oil build-up, buying a company with interests in Kazakstan.