Forlorn Trafalgar House slips to an all-time low

MARKET REPORT

As sparks continued to fly among the regional electricity shares, Trafalgar House, the first to try to unlock the hidden riches of the sector, sunk forlornly to an all-time low.

The shares dipped 2p to 32.5p as worries multiplied about the trading outlook.

Trafs is being hit on most fronts and year's losses could touch pounds 80m. It is a far cry from earlier, proud days when the group seemed invincible, spreading confidently from its property base into housebuilding and construction, engineering, hotels, newspapers, oils and shipping.

The newspaper and oil interests were long ago handed to shareholders leaving Trafs to make increasingly hard work of running the rest of the empire.

Last week's flat figures from P&O focused stock market minds on Trafs' Cunard fleet and the QE2 re-launch fiasco. With its housing, construction and engineering divisions operating in difficult markets Trafs has been accused of being in the wrong areas at the wrong time.

The controversial bid for Northern Electric, which eventually provoked the electricity takeover charge, could have transformed the group. But after Whitehall intervention had delayed the deal, Trafs, in effect, decided last month it was too poor to proceed.

The shares, once approaching 350p, have been in free-fall this year, coming down from around 80p at the time of the abortive Northern bid as the group has been unable to benefit from its links with Hong Kong Land, which has 26 per cent of the shares and management control.

There are worries HKL, part of the Keswick empire, will lose interest in what has turned out to be an expensive excursion.

The electricity excitement continued apace with Midlands, up 36.5p to 974.5p, accepting a near-pounds 2bn bid from PowerGen which moved powerfully into the market to pick up available Midlands shares.

Scottish Power's increased offer for Manweb prompted a quick rejection, leaving Scottish 6p lower at 365p and Manweb 3p down at 1,007p.

Southern, seen as the logical target for National Power, gained 28p to 853p.

The rest of the market failed to accommodate another set of poor PSBR figures, distortions caused by the unwinding of futures positions and a weak New York display. With government stocks unsettled by the PSBR data and the prospect of more gilt sales there was little to inspire the market and the FT-SE 100 index duly retreated, falling 31.3 points to 3,533.3 in restrained trading.

Dividend payments, however, were responsible for 9.7 points of the fall.

Eurotunnel, another of the current crop of casualties, remained in ragged retreat, falling 16p to a new low, 103p.

Housebuilders were unsettled by the negative statement from Bryant, down 8p at 109p, and Vodafone fell 10.5p to 269p on the prospect of the Orange mobile telephone system coming to market.

But British Aerospace, owner of nearly a third of Orange and likely to cash in most if not all its stake in a flotation, climbed 36p to 735p.

Pearson, one of the ex-dividend shares (7.9p) weakened 13p to 610p on its expected US expansion, financed by its BSkyB cash.

Granada, reflecting its BSkyB shareholding and investment presentations, gained 3p to 657p and BSkyB added 6p to 376p.

Stories National Westminster Bank intends to sell its US arm continued to circulate, pushing the shares 8.5p higher to 631p. Royal Bank of Scotland was again ruffled by last week's presentation for its Direct Line insurance off-shoot, falling 14.5p to 451p. The Hong Kong election result lowered HSBC 19.5p to 926p.

The biotech babes had another comfortable session with British Biotech up 23p to 776p and Chiroscience, which has signed a collaboration agreement over its local anaesthetic with the Swedish Parmacia group, 36p to 283p.

Celltech, which reported encouraging clinical tests, added 29.5p to 422.5p and Celsis International, with a portable hygiene monitor, rose 10p to 129p. Scotia, figures today, gained 21p to 716p, and Oxford Molecular, which fixed up a deal last week with Perkins Elmer, 21p to 204p.

But some of the high-tech shares encountered a little selling, reflecting the weakness of their counterparts in New York. Psion was one to suffer. The hand-held computer group seemed set to break through 600p; instead it fell 12p to 587p. Unipalm, awaiting bid developments, lost 10p to 494p.

United Auctions (Scotland), which arrived on AIM on Friday, was80p higher at 295p.

TAKING STOCK

o Takeover action could be on the way at tiny South Country Homes, which lets residential property. A bid of around 20p a share is thought to have been made and there is talk a higher offer is on the way.

A former Business Expansion Scheme venture, the company came to market last year. With its shares at 15p it is valued at pounds 1.2m. Entrepreneurial investor Stephen Hargrave is a director.

o The bid for Taunton Cider is expected this week. Around 240p a share is the popular guess. The shares gained 6p to 216p in busy trading. Matthew Clark, the rapidly growing drinks group that owns the Gaymer cider brand, is the favourite to strike. But Pernod Ricard, the French drinks giant, is regarded as an outside candidate.

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