Market Report: BA climbs amid hopes of go-ahead for US deal

THE STOCK market is swinging round to the view that British Airways is near to clinching its controversial transatlantic alliance with American Airlines.

The group's shares, which have sharply under-performed, rose 22p to 596p. They are still a long way below the 760p achieved nearly a year ago but have at least climbed from the 499.5p low hit last month.

BA and its proposed US partner have battled long and hard and, for a time perhaps too belligerently, to win approval from the Eurocrats of Brussels. Close observers feel that after months of uncertainty the airlines have started to decisively win the argument and the EU may demand only modest concessions. The Brussels decision could be known in the next few weeks.

The proposed alliance has been under scrutiny for nearly two years with many airlines objecting to what they saw as the creation of a far too powerful competitor.

The rest of the market experienced a typical pre-Budget session with trading volume again inflated by bed and breakfast deals. Footsie ended modestly higher, 2.8 points at 5,785.1, with the mid and small caps indices again stretching to new peaks.

Cadbury Schweppes was one of the few Footsie constituents to reach a new high. The shares rose 16p to 833p with the market taking an increasingly positive view of the soft drink to sweet group's US prospects.

It splashed out pounds 1.6bn for America's third largest soft drink group three years ago. The last trading report was upbeat and Cadbury's reduced its dependence on US bottlers, some owned or related to its big rivals, Coca- Cola and Pepsi Cola, by taking a minority interest in a bottling operation.

Cable & Wireless again drew support from talk of an 800p a share offer from the Continent, gaining 10p to 710p. Orange, with NatWest Securities signalling a 415p target, went to 408p, up 27p.

ScottishPower surged 23.5p to 508.5p as two top executive exchanged jobs and Dresdner Kleinwort Benson made positive noises.

The raising of the foreign shareholding ceiling lifted Rolls-Royce a further 7p to 282p and British Steel, on reports that it plans to sell its cargo fleet, put on 4.5p to 143.75p.

Liberty International, the financial group seeking a significant acquisition, shaded to 599.5p. There is talk that it had its eyes on GRE, the insurer, off 16.5p to 439p; another rumoured target is Pearl, the insurance group now owned by Australian interests.

Tesco gained 7p to 538p with SG Securities suggesting a 650p target. Zeneca, off 99p at 2,600p, and SmithKline Beecham, 20p to 737p, were hit by Goldman Sachs caution. Hanson, the building materials group, hardened 13.5p to 365p following a Panmure Gordon push.

Publisher Reed International gave up 21p to 578p as Cazenove placed 5 million shares.

Budget nerves produced a number of predictable casualties; Bass fell 12p to 1,069p; Gallaher 19p to 335p and Imperial Tobacco 10.5p to 401.5p.

Retailers were anxious ahead of February's shop sales figures, due tomorrow. They are expected to be depressed. Dixons, which is losing its Footsie place, fell 6.5p to 472.5p, Boots 11.5p to 898.5p and Next 8.5p to 725.5p. DFS Furniture, off 14p to 415p, and Debenhams, 9.5p to 371p, were among other losers.

Newcastle Utd fell 4.5p to 85.5p on tabloid sleaze allegations and Manchester Utd suffered a 7.5p decline to 151p after the weekend reverse against Arsenal.

Hunting rose 7p to 236.5p on the pounds 24.7m sale of its largest aviation business. It intends to concentrate on its oil operations.

Tele-Cine Cell, a special effects film and video group, firmed to 71p. It is in talks with Todd AO, the US group, which could lead to a bid. Waverley Mining, once riding at 132p, rose 7p to 23p after recording it was in bid talks.

Britt Allcroft, the Thomas the Tank Engine group, jumped 49p to 241.5p with some suggesting a Walt Disney bid was in the offing. Talk of deals in the transport sector pushed Prism Rail 54p higher to 465p.

Fibernet, rolling out a digital network, jumped 40p to 293.5p on weekend comment and Rage Software added a further 0.75p to 15p following its Sony deal.

Hornby, the toy group fell 12.5p to 245p after Friday's takeover denial. There was talk that major shareholders had been approached with a 300p a share offer.

Pennant International, a maker of computer-based training systems, continued to attract support following Thursday's placing at 125p; gaining a further 13p to 160.5p.