Grey market foreshadows a volatile debut for Centrica

MARKET REPORT

Independence could be a sweet but short-lived experience for Centrica, about to be split from British Gas.

The gas-supply business has already shown a remarkable degree of assertiveness since the Stock Exchange allowed grey dealings in a when issued form of its shares to start on Monday.

They have displayed astonishing volatility, perhaps indicating predatory intentions. In busy trading yesterday the shares touched 76.75p, settling 5p ahead at 75.5p.

The list of potential bidders seems to grow by the day. Shell has for long been in the frame; so has National Power. Now a host of overseas groups has been lined up as well as a range of UK utilities with PowerGen and ScottishPower in the frame.

The great Gas implosion is set for next week when BG, the transportation side, sheds Centrica, the gas supply business which has been allowed, for some illogical reason, to hang on to the Morecambe Bay oil field.

The BG shares, underlining the Centrica contribution, were unchanged at 239p. The BG side fell 4p to 163.5p.

The rest of the stock market achieved the remarkable feat of, as far as blue chips were concerned, ending unchanged. Yes, Footsie, after moving between extremes of a 20 point gain and a 10.7 fall managed to end all square - at 4,304.3.

The supporting index did at least manage to point to a direction - downwards, with the FTSE 250 measurement losing 12.1 to 4.574.5.

The rampant pound destroyed what could have been an up-up-and-away day for shares. With New York in surprisingly resolute form equities could have been expected to put on a stirring display.

But the festering sore of sterling's strength erupted to hit a string of leading exporters. Rolls-Royce plunged 12.5p to 220p; British Aerospace 35.5p to 1,190p and General Electric Co 9p to 383.5p.

A gnawing story that a big rights issue is being prepared was another inhibiting influence. The rumour was that a pounds 1bn-plus cash call was in the pipeline. Reuters, said to be buying Dow Jones & Co, was one name in the frame. So was a host of drug groups as well as an array of financial operations.

Reuters did have an eventful day as, it appeared, bears were squeezed. The shares ended 24.5p higher at 650.5p in brisk trading.

Imperial Chemical Industries rose 6.5p to 758.5p as SBC Warburg moved its stance to buy and Whitbread put on 16p to 816.5p following a meeting with analysts.

Cable & Wireless added 12.5p to 508.5p as Merrill Lynch produced a 600p target price. Pearson rose 15p to 763.5p as Michael Price, the US investor stalking Dow Jones & Co, was said to have put together a 1 per cent shareholding.

Mr Price, who has 5.4 per cent of Dow Jones, is reputed to have provoked the pressure which led to the Chase Manhattan/Chemical Bank merger.

Chubb Security rose 11.5p to 341p on takeover talk and Reckitt & Colman continued to reflect Unilever takeover hopes with an 8.5p gain.

Clyde Petroleum stuck at 120p as bidder Gulf Canada remained in the market, lifting its stake to 29.3 per cent.

House of Fraser, the department store chain, achieved a 4p gain to 155p. Warburg has apparently taken pity on the struggling group and lifted its profit projections for this year by pounds 5m to pounds 29m. Last year HoF managed pounds 14.3m.

Whessoe, the engineer, was the day's unchallenged star, scoring a 73 per cent gain to 155.5p as Siebe, off 25p at 964.5p, mounted a pounds 46m offer at 155p a share.

BTG jumped 45p to 516.5p as its Benefix treatment for blood clotting won the approval of the US Food and Drug Administration two years ahead of expectations. The company talked about the drug producing "significant revenue streams".

Interoute Telecom produced the day's profit warning, falling 24.5p to 98.5p. Epic MultiMedia suffered a telling fall, losing 4p to 11p. The shares were placed at 105p in May. They have not reached such heady levels since.

Action Computer Supplies added 8p to 198.5p on the Henderson Crosthwaite support and Airtours continued to reflect talk that Carnival, the US group with a near 30 per cent stake, will mop up the outstanding shares, with an 11.5p gain of 938.5p, a peak.

Quiligotti, the tile group, rose 1.75p to 23.25p as more evidence emerged of City support following this week's placing.

Taking Stock

The ability of London to raise cash for the most unusual venture is underlined by a placing of shares of Natural Stone, planning to mine green jade in South Africa. The company, registered in Jersey, has strong US, South African and German links.

But when it came to raising pounds 6m to develop the venture, London was the obvious venue with stockbroker IA Pritchard targeting the AIM market.

The company says its jade reserves are worth pounds 63m and it sees the main potential in the Middle and Far East where green jade has a special appeal.

Shoprite, up 2.5p at 33.5p, is intriguing. Not for the first time there is talk of corporate action. The group, after retreating from England and Scotland, has a mixed bag of interests on the Isle of Man.

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