Business Information Service: Last Week

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The Independent Online
AGAINST a background of deepening gloom about the prospects for a UK economic recovery, the FT-SE 100 and the pound both lost ground over the week. They were hit by further profit downgrades, fresh data on increasing company bankruptcies and news of more heavy job losses. Speculation that the depth of the recession would force an interest rate cut in the UK initially drove shares higher.

The Halifax and Woolwich building societies responded to the previous week's 1 point base rate cut and reduced basic mortgage rates to 9.99 per cent. The new rate applied only to new borrowers and will not take effect for existing borrowers until 1 November.

Standard Chartered Bank was reported to have been awarded a total of pounds 263m by courts this year, after the New South Wales supreme court awarded it Adollars 71.5m (pounds 30m) against GPI Leisure Corporation, a customer it lent money to in 1988.

British Coal, it was revealed, would supply coal to most of the regional electricity companies over the next five years through a Government-brokered deal - at the cost of pit closures and the loss of thousands of miners' jobs.

Sears announced plans on Tuesday to reduce its workforce by roughly 2,100 when it closes 350 loss-making shoe shops and trims operations at its Freemans mail order business after reporting losses of pounds 90.7m. It also decided to cut its dividend for the first time in its existence from 1.525p to 1p.

Independent figures from Dun & Bradstreet, the information company, revealed more than 46,000 businesses had gone to the wall in Britain in the first nine months, compared with 33,500 in the same period last year.

The conclusion from the meeting of Brent Walker creditors in which George Walker, the ex-chairman, successfully avoided bankruptcy on 24 September, was expected to be challenged by a group of banks still unhappy about the outcome. At the same time it emerged that Raymond Hocking, a senior partner in the insolvency division of Stoy Hayward, the accountants, who had chaired the meeting, had broken the guidelines laid down by the Society of Practitioners of Insolvency by accepting faxed proxies as proof of debt from some creditors.

On Wednesday, fears were raised over the ability of Brent Walker to trade without further help from the banks, after the struggling leisure group revealed worse-than-expected taxable losses of pounds 79.4m for the half- year to 30 June.

Shareholders of Ratner Group demanded that Gerald Ratner quit as chief executive of the jewellery retail chain after pre-tax losses for the group worsened from pounds 17.7m to pounds 30.6m for the six months to August.

Thursday saw shares in Trafalgar House, the construction company, jump 29p on the day after Hongkong Land, a part of Jardine Matheson Holdings, emerged as the buyer of a 14.9 per cent Trafalgar stake with an offer to acquire a further 15 per cent. Trafalgar later said it would ask shareholders to reject the tender offer from Hongkong Land.

The hotels group Forte announced a sharp fall in pre-tax profits from pounds 42m to pounds 24m for the six months to 31 July, kept the interim dividend at 2.75p, and witnessed a 14p rise in its shares to 149p on a better outlook.

On Friday, the full cost of defending sterling in the days leading to 'Black Wednesday' was estimated at dollars 30bn. Sterling, meanwhile, ended the day's dealings at a new low against the mark as the Bundesbank dashed hopes it might lower interest rates.

Clarke Foods, whose brand names include Lyons Maid, had its shares suspended at 8p 'pending clarification of the company's financial position'. Clarke is believed to be in restructuring talks with its bankers.