MAM backs Frost as petrol-pump battle hots up

The intense pressure on shares of Frost, the country's biggest independent petrol retailer, eased a little - thanks to Mercury Asset Management.

The petrol pumps price war has devastated the once high flying shares. They have fallen from a 270p peak to 115p. MAM, famed for its pivotal role in the thunderous Granada/Forte takeover battle, appears to have taken the view the slide has been overdone.

It went bottom fishing, picking up 1.7 million shares, presumably at around 115p, increasing its interest to 15.44 per cent.

The MAM support lifted Frost 8p to 123p, prompting a few small buyers to appear.

The petrol retailer is being squeezed in the fierce battle between the oil giants and the supermarkets. As margins have come under pressure the stock market has become increasing fretful about its profit growth. Indeed Credit Lyonnais Laing has taken the view there will be no growth at all this year, forecasting pounds 15m for 1995 and 1996. At one time there were hopes it would pump out around pounds 21m this year.

Long term it is thought Frost, which has grown dramatically under the direction of chairman James Frost, is seen as recapturing its old buoyancy. CLL is looking for pounds 21m next year.

The major casualties of the war of the petrol pumps is expected to be the small operators. It is estimated up to 7,000 independent garages could be forced out of business.

Whether MAM has rung the bell for the shares remains to be seen. CLL hopes to upgrade as the year progresses. The static earnings it is forecasting would be an affront to Mr Frost who would miss out on options on 2.7 million shares. "If nothing else this should concentrate his mind and ensure that no avenue is left unexplored in the pursuit of growth", says analyst Ian Jermin.

The rest of the market managed - just - to cling to positive territory with the FT-SE 100 index closing at 3,747.5.

British Gas was the day's most actively traded share following the break- up and departure of Cedric Brown. In a roller-coaster session the shares were at one time up 14p; they closed 2p lower at 242.5p with Seaq putting volume at nearly 54 million.

Rolls-Royce purred ahead 6p to 217p but British Aerospace continued to lose height, off 12p at 863p.

Allied Domecq's sober profits outlook lowered the shares 8.5p to 506.5p after trades at 490p.

Vaux's yearly investment presentation left the shares off 8p at 283p but Scottish & Newcastle continued to benefit from a recent analysts meeting, gaining 11p to 665p.

BSkyB's fine results were overshadowed by the referral of football agreements to the restrictive practices court, leaving the shares 22p down at 392p.

The suspicion another big takeover bid is in the system continued to intrigue. Bank of Scotland - on speculation of a bid from Halifax - gained 5p to 294p and Smith & Nephew, on the perennial rumour of a Johnson & Johnson strike put on 5p to 185.5p. Pearson was again active, up 10p at 680p.

James Capel support lifted generators, National Power (3p to 458p) and PowerGen (3p to 526p).

Hopes the German economy will clamber out of the doldrums lifted building twins, Redland and RMC. Lower interest rate expectations was good for a few gains among builders with George Wimpey up 5p at 144p and Wilson Bowden, with the added help of Berkeley takeover talk, 10p firmer at 396p.

Insurance broker Oriel, which has admitted bid talks, gained a further 22p to 148p and VDC, a distributor of veterinary products, surged 85p to 735p following a 27 per cent half-year profit increase.

Formal, the old Brackenbridge, enjoyed another busy session with volume put at more than 48 million shares; the price stuck at 1.5p.

Biotech shares were again in the casualty ward. The sector has been unsettled since last week's announcement that Celltech had abandoned its key asthma drug.

Celltech was little changed at 480p; the shares were 681p before the asthma news which underlined the fragility of sentiment towards the minor bio stocks. Cortecs International fell 16p to 217p and Scotia 9p to 581p.

Director buying helped Abacus Recruitment 12p higher to 43p.

Pan Andean's remarkable progress continued, up 3p to 39p and Dean Corporation, expected to expand shortly, edged ahead 1p to 13p. Saltire, once Cannon Street, improved 1p to 14.5p on speculation it is near to collecting pounds 15m for its hotel interest.