Fear of a profit warning sends Courtaulds tumbling

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Fears Courtaulds could be the next to produce a profit warning sent the shares tumbling 16p to 422p. Suggestions SBC Warburg had cut its estimate also eroded confidence.

The chemical group has made no secret this year that its margins are under intense pressure as raw material costs have climbed and its main markets have remained weak.

Profits last year were pounds 151.1m, a commendable performance but well below levels of a few years ago. The market is looking for an improvement to around pounds 172m, although some analysts are shooting as high as pounds 180m. The Warburg estimate is pounds 170m.

The shares have had a difficult run, recently falling from 475p in the past month. Their year's high is 489.5p; a few years ago they topped 600p.

Courtaulds' performance contrasted with the stock market mood, with the FT-SE 100 index up 20.1 points to 3,561.5. A firm display in New York, where in early trading the AT&T demerger overshadowed the record trade deficit, helped sentiment.

There were signs of US buying in London with Reuters, up 15p at 575p, and Vodafone, 6.5p firmer at 276.5p, among the beneficiaries.

Takeover activity was again an important influence. Manweb, struggling to resist a hostile bid from North West Water, jumped 17p to 1,012p as it confirmed talks with a possible overseas white knight.

The electricity utility has not disclosed the identity of its possible partner, but the market is banking on a US group, either Houston Industries or Pacific Oil & Gas.

Swirling rumours of action at British Aerospace at one time lifted the shares to 786p. They closed at 761p, up 5p against a 110p low in 1992. GEC, up 9.5p to 336p, remains the favourite to strike. Persistent bid talk lifted Legal & General 13p to 594p.

The expected appearance of the pounds 256m Matthew Clark bid for Taunton Cider left a sour taste with many speculators who were disappointed by the modest cash element. Matthew Clark fell 33p to 587p and Taunton held at 217.5p.

National Westminster Bank continued to attract attention, gaining 16p to 651p on rumours it was closer to selling its US banking arm. It was suggested NatWest was about to appoint Goldman Sachs to handle the sale, which could be worth around pounds 4bn.

Cable and Wireless improved 17p to 427p on the sale of its 5 per cent interest in a German mobile telephone group, Mannesmann Mobilfunk. The stake has been up for sale since June when C&W linked with another German telephone group, Veba.

Tomkins, the so-called buns to guns conglomerate, added 11p to 251p as James Capel moved from hold to buy and made positive noises about dividend growth.

British Steel retreated 2.5p to 184.5p on the move towards lower steel prices and cautious comments from ABN Amro Hoare Govett.

Asda, the supermarket group, was the day's most heavily traded share with the price up 1.5p to 106p on the expansion plans. Not far behind was Queens Moat Houses, the struggling hotel group, which jumped 3.5p to 11.75p following its return to profit.

Barratt Developments improved 10p to 186p on its 33 per cent profit expansion and relatively upbeat trading statement and Caradon continued to benefit from director buying, up 9p at 219p. Wickes, selling its Hunter timber oper- ation, gained 3.5p to 128.5p.

Disappointing figures and profit warnings took their toll; Travis Perkins fell 3p to 300p; Airsprung Furniture 36p to 182p; Tibbett & Britten 68p to 450p and World of Leather 4p to 39p.

Christian Salvesen, the business support group, gave up 5p to 274p as NatWest Securities cut its profit forecast from pounds 82m to pounds 79m.

Zeneca gained 6p to 1,117p. It is contesting litigation of patent infringement over a cancer treatment. Scotia slumped 50p to 663p on profit-taking. ML Laboratories improved 11p to 266p.

On AIM, Surrey Free Inns fell 5p to 80p. The shares have dropped 18p this week on rumours of a rights issue and acquisition. The day's two newcomers made quiet debuts; La Riches Stores, a Channel Islands grocery retailer, held at 283p and Northumbrian Residential was quoted at 71p. Omnicare, a health care group, moved ahead 8p to 86p; it recently raised cash at 60p. Southern Newspapers edged ahead 3p to 510p.

United Auctions (Scotland) remained the market's highflyer, touching 450p and ending at 400p. It has rejected a tender offer for approaching 30 per cent of its shares from Guinness Peat.