City goes on full bid alert: Conglomerate expected to pounce before Christmas as market confidence improves

THE CITY is expecting a big takeover bid before Christmas.

With share prices predicted to rise still further early next year ahead of the onset of economic recovery, there is a strong feeling that a big company will make a move in the next few weeks. Most eyes are on the acquisitive conglomerates: Williams, BTR and Hanson. GEC is also in the frame.

Williams, headed by Nigel Rudd, is tipped to emerge as a friendly bidder for Evode, the Evo- stick group fending off a pounds 100m assault from Wassall, the industrial conglomerate. Chris Miller, Wassall's chief executive, questioned the sudden appearance of Wasserstein Perella, the aggressive US investment bank, as an Evode adviser alongside Morgan Grenfell.

'Wasserstein are not noted for giving corporate finance advice of a traditional variety, but rather as experts in leveraged buyouts, finding white knights and breaking up companies,' he said. 'Perhaps this is a sign that Evode's board has already given up on the idea of staying independent.'

An Evode spokesman said Wasserstein Perella was involved because of the company's substantial US interests, and that it was perfectly normal for a company to take advice from more than one bank in the course of a bid.

Andrew Mitchell of Smith New Court said a move from Williams, either for Evode or another - much bigger - target, was likely. However, he added that a much-touted attack on Lucas was unlikely. 'Williams prides itself on opportunism.'

Speculation about a BTR bid for Lucas refuses to die, despite a rise in the aerospace engineer's share price in the last few weeks. But sources close to BTR were trying to dampen the rumours last week - possibly because they were genuinely wrong or because it was trying to depress the share price.

When Smith New Court detailed BTR's likely next bid target last year, it named CMB, the former Metal Box packaging group, as number one, followed by Hawker Siddeley and Lucas. In the end, Hawker Siddeley was snapped up.

Alan Jackson, BTR's chief executive, has expressed a preference for a manufacturing business, which appears to rule out a bid for Tarmac, the troubled construction and materials group.

Hanson is known to have eyed Tarmac, but it already owns London Brick and a large aggregates business, so a bid would inevitably pose competition problems.

After failing to acquire Ranks Hovis McDougall, Hanson insiders say the group is keen to bounce back. The food sector, where ratings remain low, may again be the hunting ground.

As British Aerospace continues to languish in the doldrums, one suggestion is that GEC, which relies on the engineering giant for a big slice of its business, could finally lose patience and make a decisive move.

Whatever happens, there should be some seasonal cheer for speculators starved of activity.

(Photograph omitted)