Labour warning puts the skids under buses and trains

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The Independent Online
On Monday it was the utilities; yesterday it was the turn of the buses and the railways to feel the chill from the Labour Party conference in Blackpool.

Shadow transport spokesman Andrew Smith told delegates a Labour government would introduce more regulation and force greater investment, though he stopped short of promising to renationalise transport.

"Labour will re-regulate the buses," he vowed, "in a way that will "serve all our people best". The news was enough to send shares in the sector heading south. Hardest hit was the Go-Ahead Group, which skidded 15p to 354.5p. Stagecoach eased 7p to 523.5p, though FirstBus, 4p lower early on, rallied to end down just half a penny weaker at 175p.

Pledging to use the powers of the rail regulator to bring about more investment in track and signalling, Mr Smith also reasserted Labour's commitment to a publicly owned, publicly accountable railway. Shares in Railtrack closed 5p lower at 297.5p.

On a day when the Footsie finally broke through the 4,000 barrier, it was the laggards who stood out from the crowd. Hanson's miserable run continued as shares in the demerged Millennium Chemicals began trading in New York. Hanson was the weakest blue chip, shedding 3.25p to close 91.25p as 4.9 million shares changed hands. But Imperial Tobacco continued to revel in its new role outside the Hanson fold. The shares added another 10.5p in lively trade to close at 404p as bid rumours continued to do the rounds.

ABN-Amro Hoare Govett was blamed for weakness in Cookson and Johnson Matthey, the worst performers in the FT-SE 250 index. Shares in Cookson fell 13.5p to 234.5p and JM was 15p lower at 596p after the broker highlighted the companies' ceramics joint venture which was the subject of a management reshuffle last month. The broker cut profits forecasts and downgraded its recommendation on both stocks, saying they each had 10 per cent downside.

Media stocks were out of favour. Shares in United News & Media fell 18.5p to 665p on fears that the group could be drawn into a costly bidding war. United has been linked to HTV, where Carlton Communications is also thought to be keen to make a bid, and Blenheim where Reed International is hovering. Carlton also suffered from the uncertainty, ending 15p lower at 469p, though Reed added 3p to 1193.5p. Blenheim, reporting interims, dipped a penny on the absence of any bid developments.

Takeover talk lifted Kwik Save. Its shares surged 18.5p to 330p, after touching 342.5p, on speculation that the supermarket chain may merge with frozen food chain Iceland or be bought on an agreed basis by Aldi, the privately-run German discount food retailer.

The word on dealing room floors is that Aldi is the most likely candidate. One story yesterday suggested Aldi, with 160 stores in the UK, had invited Kwik Save, which has almost 1000 outlets, to go to Germany to see its operations at first hand. This the Kwik Save board duly did last month before returning the invitation.

However, some analysts noted that Aldi had no acquisition history and would be unlikely to compromise on the quality of its store locations. Neither company would comment.

Last week shares in Kwik Save slumped to their lowest level in eight years after Credit Lyonnais retail analyst Paul Smiddy said about 100 of its stores might have to close. He also argued that Kwik Save needs to decide whether to return to its low-cost roots or become more of a neighbourhood chain.

Both Kwik Save and Iceland, which issued a profits warning last month, are based in north Wales. Although there is plenty of geographic overlap between their stores, brokers doubted whether a merger of two second-division food retailers would be enough to reverse their sliding profits.

Drugs were on a high across Europe, boosted by continued US buying and a firmer dollar. Zeneca was again the beneficiary in London, rising 26p to 1630p. UBS has a price target of pounds 22 while Merrill Lynch is also a buyer. Glaxo Wellcome advanced 13.5p to 1024.5p while SmithKline Beecham was 6.5p firmer at 801p.

Leeds-based printer Hunters Armley continued to rebound, rising 4p to 95p. The shares recently dipped below their December 1992 placing price of 90p, but they have rallied strongly this week, albeit on thin volumes.

Overcapacity problems are likely to have eased following rival RR Donnelley's decision on Tuesday to close its York printing operation with the loss of 300 jobs.

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