Market Report: Airtours lifts off amid takeover speculation

An array of rumours sent Airtours, the holidays group, romping to yet another peak. The soaraway shares, the equivalent of 40p seven years ago, climbed 35p to 1,335p.

The yearly shareholders meeting takes place next week and there are rising hopes chairman David Crossland will relate a joyous tale of bumper treading and possibly announce a share spilt, the first for five years.

But, of course, in such a frenetic atmosphere, takeover speculation is not far below the surface. The holiday industry is due for a round of consolidation, having survived almost unscathed a Monopolies and Mergers Commission investigation.

Thomson, Britain's biggest holiday operator, is thought to be planning a summertime flotation which could value the Canadian controlled group at pounds 1.3bn. First Choice, number three in the pecking order, could attract bid attention and there is talk the big unquoted groups, which have a big say in the industry, are flexing their corporate muscles.

Airtours, however, is the market's favourite for a strike. It already has a possible predator on its share register in the shape of the Carnival Corporation, a big, ambitious US group which sits on 29.46 per cent.

Ever since Carnival arrived the market has had the distinct impression it would not be content until it gained control of the British operation, floated only 10 years ago and now valued around pounds 1.9bn.

The stock market made further modest headway in often brisk trading. Footsie, at one time up 51.9 points, closed 23 higher at 5,106.9.

Significantly, supporting shares are perking up and could catch their Footsie peers. The FTSE 250 index rose 6.8 to 4,823.3 and is 120.5 from its peak; the FTSE SmallCap added 10 to 2,350.1 - just 50 from its record. Second liners have often enjoyed a bright opening to the year, only to subsequently fall away.

Somerfield, the supermarket chain, had another heady trolley run, running 16p higher to a 251p peak. Takeover talk is in the air although Credit Lyonnais Laing suggest clients should take profits. The shares were 190p last month.

Cadbury Schweppes, the soft drinks and sweets group, was the best performing blue chip, fizzing 52.5p to 685p. A US deal with Coca-Cola did the trick. Coke, Cadbury's fiercest rival, has agreed to extend an agreement to manufacture and distribute Cadbury's products in the US. The new deal will run until the end of 2,005.

Dr Pepper/Seven-Up is a large part of Cadbury's business and accounts for 15 per cent of the US soft drinks market. It has been under pressure because Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola control much of the US distribution network and have not always displayed much enthusiasm towards Cadbury brands, prompting speculation the UK group would be forced to buy bottling companies.

LucasVarity, the aerospace group, climbed 7.5p to 214p after winning a pounds 2bn Rolls-Royce order.

Financials had a strong session with Barclays, up 45p at 1,658p, leading the way. Halifax hardened 17p 772p as Lehman Brothers produced a 900p target price. A planned share buy-back allowed Rio Tinto to ignore the pull of falling metal prices and gain 15.5p to 713p. BT gained 15.5p to 516.5p on hopes its broadcasting ban will soon be lifted.

Dixons dived 58p to 524p on its disappointing trading statement. Storehouse fell 10.5p to 221.5p after awakening the adage that delay means dismay by postponing its festive comments from today until Monday. Mirror Group lost 2p to 192p following the resignation of director Liam Kane and talk of a Salomon Smith Barney downgrade.

British Aerospace dropped 41p to 1.654p on worries the turmoil in the tiger nations will lead to Airbus orders being shelved. Philippine Airlines underlined the danger by cancelling an order for four Boeings. Rolls fell 5p to 217p. Diageo, the drinks giant, softened 2p to 568p as Panmure Gordon drew attention to its Asian exposure.

Takeover talk lifted Telewest Communications 8p to 78p and Creative Publishing, the greeting card group, 4p to 155p. Sketchley, the cleaning chain where a bidder hovers, said it was in talks to sell its retail division. Public relations group Shandwick International firmed 3.5p to 52p after disclosing negotiations were under way which could lead to a bid. UK Active Value, the fund run by interventionists Julian Treger and Brian Myerson, prompted the talks.

Proteus International improved 8.5p to 63p as expectations grew its BSE test could become a commercial proposition.