Market Report: AstraZeneca gets a headache as Footsie rolls on

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The Independent Online
IT'S BEEN a cold turkey week for AstraZeneca, the new Anglo-Swedish drugs giant. After riding on a high as the multi-billion pound merger was put to bed, the shares have suffered with investors snatching their profits.

They have fallen every day since the merged group arrived on Tuesday. Another 45p (after 82p) to 2,778p was chipped away yesterday, bringing the decline to more than 250p.

They say in the market that it is often better to travel than to arrive, and Astra Zeneca's fall from its 3,037p peak would appear to support the traditional adage.

There are suggestions, so far unconfirmed, that much of the selling has come from Sweden where there was a high-profile campaign against the deal. But despite the ferocity of the opposition it attracted little support, with fewer than 4 per cent of Astra shareholders failing to back the merger.

The drugs giant's latest weakness occurred as Footsie experienced a rollercoaster session, ending 34.9 points higher at 6,472.8 after hitting a trading high of 6,512.1. Supporting shares also moved ahead.

The latest Monetary Policy Committee base-rate cut had little immediate impact, but the surprise European Central Bank half-point cut is likely to prompt the MPC, which had been expected to sit on its laurels, into further cuts.

So interest-sensitive shares were among the best performers. Among retailers Kingfisher, Great Universal Stores, Storehouse and Arcadia were strong. Next, the fashion chain, received additional support from a further share sale by Tiger Management, the US hedge fund. It disposed of 4.5 million shares, cutting its stake to just over 7 per cent; the shares jumped 44.5p to 833.5p.

On the property pitch it was the turn of Land Securities, British Land and Burford to show their mettle.

The sudden burst of activity from Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, was the day's highlight. He penalised Manchester United shares, down 32.5p to 186p, by blocking the controversial takeover bid by Rupert Mudoch's BSkyB, little changed at 541p. Fellow Premiership constituent Newcastle United suffered a 9.5p reverse to 75.5p as the proposed takeover by the NTL media group was referred to the new Competition Commission.

The Byers whistle-blowing left the rest of the football players looking as sick as the proverbial parrot. Aston Villa fell by 47.5p to 480p and Leeds Sporting 2p to 20.75p. Chelsea Village lost 2p to 74.5p.

National Power, however, brightened up 3.5p to 486p despite a Westminster threat to block its takeover of Midlands Electricity unless it reduces generating capacity by the sale of the Drax plant and some supply agreements are changed.

Mr Byers also had FirstGroup, the transport company, scurrying for shelter after seeking comments on the modest pounds 10.6m acquisition of a West Country bus and coach operator. Its shares fell 6p to 394.5p, ruffling Stagecoach, 2.75p down at 223.75p.

Cadbury Schweppes melted 20.5p to 877p. The soft drinks-to-sweets group weakened as opposition grew to the pounds 1.85bn merger of its soft drinks side with Coca-Cola. The German cartel office is reported to be intent on blocking the deal and the Australian anti-trust commission has come out against it. There is also speculation that other countries, as well as the European Union, will oppose the merger on competition grounds. In Australia the deal would lift Coca-Cola's share of the carbonated drinks market to 75 per cent.

Granada, the leisure group, achieved a new high, up 27p to 1,377p, following indications that Dresdner Kleinwort Benson is adopting a more benevolent attitude towards the shares, and Norwich Union, the insurer, firmed 3.5p to 451.5p with HSBC signalling a 510p target. Standard Chartered, the banking group, added 55.5p to 1,013.5p after Morgan Stanley raised its target price to 1,180p from 1,050p.

Other insurance shares received a boost from Sun Life & Provincial, which produced an unexpectedly sharp new business increase. Sun Life jumped 27p to 543.5p, offering a helping hand to Prudential, up 31p to 848.5p, and Legal & General, up 37p to 783p.

P&O floated 52.5p higher to 978p following an upbeat statement on the performance of its cruise fleet.

Arjo Wiggins Appleton restructuring pushed the shares 18.5p higher to 163.5p. The AWA shake up, together with signs that the paper and packaging industry could be coming out of the doldrums, helped David S Smith to achieve a 3p gain to 113.5p. Low & Bonar, where there is talk of a continental bid, firmed 3p to 182.5p and Rexam 1.5p to 202.5p.

Tracker Network, the vehicle security group, motored 120p (after 172.5p) ahead to 645p when the management indicated it would bid 670p a share. Goldsmiths, the jeweller, was little changed at 186p after it emerged that a counter-bid to the management buyout was unlikely.

EurosovEnergy hardened to 19.5p as Sibir Energy produced a share exchange offer; Sibir fell 0.75p to 6.75p.

Investment group Mountcashel rose 10p to 61.5p; it has 8.4 per cent of Redstone Telecom, which has said it is in bid talks. ITG, which has an 8.7 per cent Redstone stake, rose 15p to 367.5p. RJB Mining's decision to close its Calverton pit in Nottinghamshire left the shares little changed at 62p.

Middlesex, the metals group with interests in Russia, suffered the day's biggest percentage fall, down 25 per cent to just 0.56p. Engineer Booth Industries fell 9p to 30p on a profits warning and WF Electrical was short- circuited 107.5p to 485p after a cautious trading statement.

SEAQ VOLUME: 1.1 billion



SCOTIA, the drugs development group, rose 9.5p to 115p after it confirmed that founder and former chairman David Horrobin had sold most of his shareholding. His 11 per cent stake was largely placed early this month at around 102p a share. Mr Horrobin stepped down in 1997 and later led an attempt to unseat Robert Dow, ex-Roche, who replaced him as chief executive.

DIRECTORS OF struggling scotch whisky distiller Burn Stewart are still toasting their shares. The price rose 2.5p to 17.5p as more boardroom buying was disclosed. Three directors appear to have picked up 200,000 shares; on Thursday director buying accounted for 60,000 shares. The money- losing whisky maker, hit by tight margins in supermarkets, has risen 5p since the board enthusiasm emerged.