Greenspan stirs up markets as rate fears prompt falls

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Equities suffered their worst fall for 15 weeks as political uncertainties and the spectre of higher interest rates sent investors running for cover.

In often busy trading, with turnover inflated by bed and breakfast deals, Footsie crashed 74.1 points to 4,258.1. And second liners, which normally limp behind blue chips, slumped with the leaders as the FTSE 250 index crashed 87.7 to 4,565.2. According to Seaq, the stock market's turnover approached 1.2 billion shares.

Since John Major called the election on Monday, Footsie has slipped and slithered more than 160 points and the supporting index lost around 140 points.

Alan Greenspan, the US banking chief whose "cool it" comments, prompted the last slump, could claim much of the credit for the setback. His testimony to a congressional committee convinced many observers that US rates will be lifted next week, prompting the predictable reaction in New York.

Domestic rates also loomed large in the market's thinking. Although expected to remain unchanged until after polling day, there is a growing impression that which ever party wins it will be forced into a sharp increase, probably a full point or even more.

The election rhetoric is also taking its toll; prompting private investors to lock in profits.

Some strategists have suggested that if financial shares crack then the market's long bull run is over and a sharp correction, possibly taking Footsie to 3,800, will occur. Well, money related shares led the retreat. The poorest performing blue chip was Bank of Scotland, off 24p to 315.5p. Commercial Union, GRE, Legal & General, Lloyds TSB and Barclays were in hot pursuit.

Guinness, on results, and engineer Siebe, reflecting a rumoured buy circular, managed to resist the downward pull. So did the superstore chains, partly on the back of a bullish research document. Tesco, up 5p to 339p, confirmed it was in talks to buy Associated British Foods' Irish supermarket chain; ABF held at 511,5p.

Stagecoach remained under the whip of its South West Trains fiasco, falling 17.5p to 671.5p; the shares have fallen from 799.5p this year.

The telecom excitement evaporated. BT, after an early gain, ended 3p lower at 458.5p and Cable & Wireless fell 20p to 489p as this week's rumoured activity appeared to reduce the chance of a bid.

Three newcomers braved the jitters and managed to make impressive debuts. London Bridge, a software house, was at one time sporting a 78.5p plus over its 200p placing; it closed at 261.5p; KCB Advanced Technology, an oil industry consultant, closed at 247.5p from a 195p placing and Total Office, providing office management services, traded at 152.5p from 145p. Distributor Donatantonio, placed at 70p, ended at 71.5p.

But an Ofex debutante stole the new issue show. Bookshop Co UK closed at 195p from a 100p placing. The company, which had 250 applications from Internet investors, is Britain's largest web book retailer. Based in Oxford it has 894,000 books which it offers for sale to Internet users.

Jarvis, the construction group with rail maintenance interests, was one to buck the trend. It gained 16.5p to 240p; a year ago the price was 24.5p. The latest run was prompted by a pounds 3.15m development for the Inland Revenue by a company in which it has a 34 per cent interest.

Telspec, more than 800p last year, recovered 30p to 227.5p, despite a near pounds 10m loss. The market decided the worst was over and the telecom equipment group should make profits of pounds 5m this year.

Cementone, the paint group, firmed to 52.5p as it confirmed Indian tycoon Vijay Mallya was in talks to sell his near 34 per cent interest. The warrants added 2.5p to 14p.

Howden, the engineer, held at 91.5p. Since denying on Monday it was in takeover talks it is rumoured to have received a tentative approach, possibly from Charter. The engineer is valued at pounds 270m.

British Building & Engineering gained 9p to 64.5p as Britannia, which has been stake building and has around 12 per cent of the capital, revealed a takeover approach. BB&E has in the past not appeared too impressed by a possible Britannia embrace. Britannia shares held at 29.5p.

Drugs were mixed. Shield Diagnostic fell 47.5p to 620p but Cantab Pharmaceuticals enjoyed Lehman Brothers support. adding 10p to 1,022.5p.

BLP, the wood laminate and moulding group, achieved the day's best gain - a 37 per cent advance to 145p. Profits up from pounds 916,000 to pounds 1.4m and an upbeat trading statement provided the spur.

Taking Stock

Steve Morgan, chairman and creator of the Redrow building group, has realised pounds 86m by selling 25 per cent of the capital at 158p. The disposal reduces his holding to 34.8 per cent and was signalled earlier this month. BZW and Cazenove handled the sale. Its shares shaded 1.5p to 164p.

Albert Fisher, the food group, shaded to 43p but Ray Caley at stockbroker Hichens Harrison thinks the shares could triple in the next 18 months. He believes Fisher will maintain its dividend, retaining FTSE 250 status, and points out that some director options are at 100p. Restructuring is largely finished and profits should move ahead.

ABN Amro Hoare Govett, known to be keen to increase its fund management side, may bid for Capel-Cure Myers Capital Management.