Fresh fears for Sears as trading statement is awaited

MARKET REPORT

The stock market is once again fretting about Sears. The struggling retailing group is due to produce a trading statement and fears are growing that it will offer little encouragement for investors.

More than most, Sears desperately needed bumper festive trading. But the word is that sales have not come up to expectations and analysts will be tempted to pull back profit forecasts again, perhaps from around pounds 100m to pounds 90m.

The suggestion is that although Selfridges did well other parts of the sprawling group had a less successful experience.

Liam Strong, the chief executive called in five years ago to mastermind a recovery, is banking on strong seasonal business to halt the flow of hostility from City institutions. Last year he survived calls for his removal at the yearly shareholders' meeting.

Sears has been criticised for bumbling into the fiasco of its abortive attempt to sell nearly 400 shoe shops to Stephen Hinchliffe and for selling the Olympus sports business which managed to stage a revival almost as soon as it baled out.

The group is in talks with Littlewoods and possibly others about selling its Freemans mail order operation. Here again tales of gloom have surfaced with stories of any deal being clinched at nearer pounds 300m than the pounds 400m- plus many expect.

Nick Bubb at MeesPierson recently estimated Sears' break-up value at more than 120p. A Selfridges demerger could be worth 45p a share. The shares slipped 2.5p to 91.5p.

Many believe that if Sears fails to show signs of getting its act together this year it will attract a takeover marauder, or be pressured by institutions into demerging or introducing management changes.

The rest of the market had a busy but uneventful session with Footsie up 8.7 points to 4,087.5. The FTSE 250 index continued its recent run with a 10.8 advance to 4,532.3.

Oils were again strong. The majors made further headway but much of the action was concentrated among second-liners with takeover hopes continuing to bubble.

Cairn Energy flared 27.5p to a 443.5p peak. A range of influences was behind the jump. There was talk of a trading link with Shell as well as developments at its Bangladesh operations. Barclays de Zoete Wedd chipped in by urging a switch into Cairn from British Borneo Petroleum Syndicate. Borneo, however, was undaunted, up 85.5p to 938p. HSBC James Capel put a 1,200p target on the shares.

Legal & General added another 5p to 384p but the most compelling insurance story involved Sun Life & Provident, the UK arm of UAP, the French insurer.

The shares returned to market in June when UAP sold 224 million at 235p, retaining a 60.2 per cent interest. The price rose 11p to 274p on rumours UAP was planning to sell its stake, with Prudential Corporation, which has made no secret of its desire to expand, the most likely buyer. Pru gained 3.5p to 500p.

Profit warnings again did the rounds. Capital Corporation, the casino group, fell 5p to 155p (the price was 245p last summer) after reporting profits would come out at up to pounds 9m against hopes of pounds 10m-pounds 11m. And TC, the nursing homes group, tumbled 25p to 114.5p on its warning.

Analysts were busy. Associated British Foods crumbled 17.5p to 462.5p as ABN Amro Hoare Govett said sell to 450p; Henderson Crosthwaite made cautious noises about Reuters, lowering shares 13p to 719.5p, and Glaxo Wellcome retreated 15.5p to 897.5p as NatWest Securities cut profit estimates because of sterling's strength.

Mirror Group improved 6p to 222.5p after Panmure Gordon put a 250p target on the shares. It drew attention to lower newsprint costs and possible circulation benefits from the coming general election.

Northern Foods put on 2.5p to 212.5p following talk of good Christmas trading and hopes for improved milk margins; the milk prospect also helped Unigate 9p up to 439p.

Wickes, the do-it-yourself chain, remained in the doldrums. Unimpressed by modest director-buying the shares fell sharply with the nil-paid rights crashing 21.5p to 25p.

Alvis, the defence group, moved ahead 7.5p to 137p; it has formed a joint venture for a water jet cutting system.

Lanica Trust, the aspiring mail order business, came down somewhere nearer to earth. After surging from 58p in the summer to 2,050p, the shares have encountered turbulence and were at one time off 425p at 1,400p. But buyers appeared. At the close the price had recovered to 1,800p, down just 25p.

Taking Stock

Merchant Retail, which has displayed interest in AIM-listed A de Gruchy, the Jersey department store, rose 1.5p to 25p after producing an encouraging trading statement. Its Perfume Shop chain lifted Christmas sales by 37.2 per cent and the Joplings department stores managed a 3.3 per cent gain. The group has 32 Perfume Shops and hopes to open 15 this year.

The pounds 3.25m cash-raising exercise by burger maker Whitchurch left Richard Thompson, one of the architects of Caspian, with a 46.31 per cent stake. The shares held at 27.5p.

r Wiggins, the property group, edged ahead 1p to 8.5p. There was talk of planning approvals coming through. NatWest sold 5 million shares, reducing its stake to 3.9 per cent.

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