Market Report: A slump in gilts piles on agony amid US rate fears

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The Independent Online
SHARES tumbled to their lowest since November as government stocks, hit by foreign selling, slumped more than two points.

The agony was increased by the growing conviction that US interest rates would be forced still higher as the dollar continued to cause anxiety, despite a massive international support operation on the foreign exchange markets.

New York failed to produce even a suggestion of comfort and, with today's elections likely to increase political uncertainty, the FT-SE 100 index finished near its low of the day, down 29.5 points at 3,070.5.

Gilts set the trend. From the outset they were under pressure as some overseas investors unloaded, prompting fears of a snowball impact.

Political instability, the market reasoned, was the biggest fear of foreign investors and the in- fighting in the Tory party and today's expected poll humiliation was creating the investment climate they disliked.

The futures market quickly took fright from the ragged gilts retreat, with its implication for government fund-raising, and moved sharply lower.

So the equity rout continued. Buyers were reluctant and market- makers fearful of their positions. But trading was not heavy and selling was light.

The Legal & General insurance giant piled on the agony by cutting its rolling 12-month FT-SE 100 index forecast from 3,700 to 3,400. The index peaked at 3,520.3 in early February. Since then it has been dragged remorselessly downhill.

But even in the dullest market intriguing situations develop. Spring Ram Corporation, the once high-flying bathroom and kitchen group, seems determined to confuse at least some of its followers.

Early this month Barclays de Zoete Wedd sold 32.2 million shares, sparking rumours that former chief Bill Rooney was unloading his shareholding.

But Mr Rooney remains on the register, although he is thought to be keen to sell to provide finance for a new venture.

The BZW seller turned out to be Lazard Freres, the US investment house.

In the past few days turnover in Spring Ram has been heavy; yesterday Seaq put volume at 13 million. The price held at 61.5p.

Marley, the building materials group, edged ahead 2p to 171p as NatWest Securities repeated its buy recommendation. Other building material and building shares were mainly firm, encouraged by the profit advance at housebuilder Bellway and the upbeat survey from the chartered surveyors.

Hong Kong shares were upset by the colony's retreat to a seven- month low, with HSBC off another 10p at 679p. Abbey National was ruffled by the Northern Rock and North of England building societies merger, seen as adding to mortgage pressure. With UBS making negative noises Abbey fell 13.5p to 413.5p. Since the Lloyds Bank swoop on Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society Abbey has fallen 50p.

On the insurance pitch Commercial Union put on 5p to 552p on French reports it was a candidate to buy the Cie Financier du Groupe Victoire insurance business.

A cautious shareholders' meeting unsettled Unilever, down 18p at 1,049p, and Tate & Lyle lost an early gain on its results, with some muttering about the possibility of a rights issue. The shares ended 8p down at 434p.

Most of the regional electricity shares brightened on the Southern Electricity share buy-back plan, but Southern fell 2p to 574p.

Lasmo, despite talk of an alternative cash bid, was unchanged at 148p; bidder Enterprise Oil was another unmoved - at 410p.

Bottom-fishing lifted unloved supermarket shares. Argyll rose 10p to 238p; J Sainsbury 7p to 378p and Tesco 4p to 215p.

The drugs revival turned out to be short-lived. With Lehman Brothers, the US investment house, turning cautious on the sector, losses were widespread, although Wellcome managed to end with a 3p gain to 550p.

Eurotunnel suffered a 26p fall to 468p with the formal tunnel opening overshadowed by fears that the stock market's fragility will hinder the group's cash-raising ambitions. The company needs a pounds 1.2bn debt and equity refinancing package. It is expected that shareholders will be asked to pump in approaching pounds 750m.

Antofagasta, with copper interests in Chile, jumped 65p to 1,510p. The shares responded to a forecast by ED&F Man, the commodity group, that the copper price will increase. RTZ edged ahead 4p to 844p.

Although quoted in London, Antofagasta operates in Chile where it also has banking and railway interests. The company is controlled by the Chilean entrepreneur, Andronico Luksic.

Upton & Southern, the retail group, improved 2p to 34p on the forecast return to profits by stockbroker Townsley & Co.

Smith New Court, the securities house, is rumoured to be planning to buy into a South African stockbroker. The target is said to be Davis Borkum, regarded by some as the Cazenove of the South African stock market. The suggestion is that Smith will acquire 30 per cent of DB's capital. Detailed talks are expected to take place this weekend. Smith shares fell 7p to 368p.

James Dickie, an engineer, fell 18p to 145p as chief executive Joseph Grimmond lightened his shareholding. He sold 500,000 shares, most of them to M&G which now has 7.4 per cent and is one of two institutional shareholders backing the group. The other is 3i with 19.9 per cent. Mr. Grimmond still has 28.5 per cent. Since 1991 Dickie's shares have climbed from 10p.

The FT-SE 100 index continued to lose ground, down 29.5 points at 3,070.5, and the FT-SE 250 index gave up 17.6 to 3,757.7. Turnover was 571.1 million shares with 22,864 bargains. The account ends on 13 May with settlement on 23 May.

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