Fears of meltdown give way to a British Gas fantasy

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The Independent Online
The feared meltdown failed to materialise despite a volatile New York display and, it could be argued, the stock market was so relieved it indulged in one of the most fanciful take-over dreams of the year.

The ill-starred British Gas, complete with chief executive Cedric Brown, became the centre of attraction as stories flowed that a takeover bid - nobody bothered to discover whether it was supposed to be friendly or hostile - was being prepared.

British Petroleum, which has had its problems with Westminster, and Shell were the names in the frame.

In heavy trading Gas, in a wilting market, rose 10.5p to 239.5p with some of the more perceptive punters prepared to venture a modest flutter on the story.

The arrival of merchant banker Kenneth Gardener as the man charged with trying to renegotitate Gas's onerous take-or-pay North Sea contracts could, it was argued in some quarters, be responsible for the price advance.

But with Mr. Gardener facing a daunting task the hectic share trading seemed to lend itself to a more short-term explanation.

With Gas valued at more than pounds 10bn a predator would need considerable ammunition. BP, down 7p at 519p, and Shell, off 8p at 834p, have the necessary fire power.

The rest of the market spent the day fretting about New York after the dramatic overnight 100 point-plus slump. But with Wall Street refusing to panic, at least during London trading, the FT-SE 100 index ended a containable 19.2 points lower at 3,576.9. At one time it was off 37.6.

Even so, in the past three trading days, traditionally a jolly time for the market, Footsie has lost 94.7 points. Volume was surprisingly high although most investors, big and small, were prepared to sit on the sidelines.

Two big deals, in National Power and National Grid, ballooned turnover.

NP, up 2p at 429p, engaged in a 57 million share buy-in through Cazenove. It paid 428p. The exercise means NP has cut its capital by 12 per cent this year which should enhance earnings per share by up to 3 per cent.

Grid shaded 1p to 199p as Salomon Brothers successfully placed another tranche of the US owned South Western Electricity's shareholding.

The shares, 25 million of them, were placed at a profit at 199p. PowerGen drew comfort from the share deluge, gaining 12p to 514p.

Legal & General, the insurance group, came to life in late trading as National Westminster Bank sold its US operation for $3.56bn.

NatWest is expected to move quickly to disgorge its new-found riches and L&G is one of the market's favourite candidates to collect a bid from the bank.

It gained 3p to 669p and NatWest 19.5p to 649p.

Profit warnings took their toll. Courtaulds Textiles fell 24p to 373p; Coates Viyella, with a message that was less bleak than many feared, shaded 1p to 169p. Cautious comments from W Canning, the chemical group, left the shares 18p weaker at 212p.

Tarmac gained 4.5p to 109.5p on SBC Warburg support and Norcros continued to gather support on hopes it is about to sell its packaging side; the shares rose 3p to 87p.

The day's newcomers had mixed fortunes. Century Inns ended at 118.5p against a 120p placing price. Polymasc, the bio-pharmaceutical company, touched 152p but found the soggy state of the market too much and had to settle for a 129p close against a 100p placing. Publisher Rushmere Wynne traded at 3.5p.

BTG fell 30p to 1,075p as some of its early investors placed 556,500 shares at 1,050p with institutions through Kleinwort Benson.

Bardon, the aggregates group, was firm at 33p in busy trading. The shares are well below perceived asset value and there is talk of corporate action.

Vodafone edged 3.5p higher to 211p helped by director buying.

Edward Peett acquired 100,000 shares at 209p, lifting his interest to 293,000.

Stagecoach, awarded the first British Rail franchise, advanced 11p to 293p and Vosper Thorneycroft, on a naval contract, progressed 16p to 803p.

Capitol, the specialist security group, held at 126p after a small companies fund acquired a10 per cent stake from directors Ken Dulieu and Robert Gatenby at 123p.

Sleepy Kids, the animated cartoon group with the Duchess of York's Budgie character in its portfolio, shaded to 39p as Williams de Broe, forecasting profits of pounds 1m for the year just ended, said buy.