Market Report: Americans lift the gloom after downgradings

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The Independent Online
PROFIT downgradings threatened to push the FT-SE share index below 2,500 yesterday.

Blue chips wilted as the stock market had to contend with a tide of revisions involving such diverse groups as Imperial Chemical Industries and United Biscuits.

But then US interest and a little discreet buying by some UK fund managers tipped the market and the Footsie ended with a 5.4-point plus at 2,521.2.

The Americans seemed particularly keen on SmithKline Beecham, ahead of this month's share split, and even nibbled at the forlorn British Petroleum.

Domestic fund managers were more intent on putting the best gloss on their second-quarter performance. Their display over the three months is now being calculated ahead of meetings with trustees.

The temptation to indulge in a little window-dressing clearly helped sentiment as losses were trimmed and in some cases replaced by modest gains. There was also futures activity.

The second-quarter round-off day is also cited as one of the reasons for the market's recent weakness, with managers determined to lock in some of their profits.

In early trading it looked as though any late attempt to enhance portfolio performance would be swamped by the downgrading rush.

Imperial Chemical Industries, still accepted as the bellwether of UK industry, fell below 1,200p as Smith New Court slashed its forecast by pounds 100m to pounds 750m. The shares closed at 1,206p, down 15p.

The new SNC calculations must have increased the discomfort at Goldman Sachs. The US securities house relieved Hanson of its 2.8 per cent ICI stake at 1,400p. It is believed to still be sitting on about half the shares.

SNC - and others - took a bite at United Biscuits. Fierce competition is putting United's US margins under intense pressure. Cutting for the third time in six weeks SNC now expects pounds 195m against hopes of pounds 207m.

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James Capel has reduced from pounds 202m to pounds 195m and lowered next year's expectation by pounds 10m to pounds 215m.

Others subjected to profit reductions included BOC Group, Hillsdown Holdings, Kingfisher and Pearson.

Thorn EMI, ahead of a rumoured City presentation, felt the impact of 'take profits' advice from Barclays de Zoete Wedd, falling 15p to 803p. Carr Kitcat & Aitken left the composite insurers looking in need of protection when it suggested the sector should be sold.

Arjo Wiggins Appleton, the packaging group, recovered 3p (to 229p) of Monday's 17p fall which followed a UBS Phillips & Drew downgrading. UBS has cut next year's forecast from pounds 265m to pounds 234m.

British Petroleum was again heavily traded. At one time the price was down to 194p. Then a long-standing engagement by Stephen Ahearne, finance director, at the Society of Investment Analysts had the distinction of passing without provoking any new worries, and some US investors decided not to forsake the stock and started buying.

In early trading the price had to contend with at least one large line on offer from Tokyo, but by the close the fall had been transformed into a 3.5p gain at 203.5p.

Reported volume reached 40 million shares, making a 195 million turnover since the shock departure of Robert Horton as chairman.

The suspicion that a discreet stake-building exercise is in progress remains. The Kuwait Investment Office put together much of its interest, which ultimately created many of BP's problems, under the cover of the Government's share flotation flop.

British Steel, another of the Government's privatisation disasters, attracted a 38 million turnover but the price recovered early falls, ending unchanged at 60.5p.

The retailer Sears was unsettled by the comment that first five months trading was flat.

TSB Group enjoyed a rush of September call options. The cash price rose 7p to 141p, a two-day 10p gain. Takeover gossip is never far from the group, but the market has difficulty spotting a possible bidder.

A continental group seems the most likely predator. TSB is taking over its Channel Islands offshoot and could be planning another bid. There have been suggestions of a deal with St James's Place, 2p lower at 84p.

The unlikely combination of Fisons and Tarmac were others caught by takeover speculation. Fisons rose 12p to 212p and Tarmac recovered almost all an early fall as some banked on Minorco drumming up the courage to show its hand. The shares ended at 99p.

The FT-SE share index ended with a 5.4-point gain to 2,521.2. At one time it had seemed in danger of crashing through 2,500. The FT 30- share index finished 2.4 down at 1,942.3. Much of the trading volume centred on British Petroleum and British Steel. Seaq put market turnover at 458.5 million with 20,844 bargains

The long struggle for survival continues at West Industries, the mechanical engineer. The company has opted to seek a new-style corporate voluntary arrangement which could mean that shareholders will not go empty-handed. The shares, which touched 64p three years ago, were suspended at 2p yesterday. Earlier this year they were down to 0.5p.

Channel Tunnel Investments, which could be described as a relic of a bygone age, held at 46p yesterday as one of its shareholders, Neil Gormley, increased his stake to 6 per cent. The company, which hatched the Channel tunnel idea, is now a small investment trust. It has for long been regarded as a shell but despite occasional share flurries it has eluded any reshaping.