Market Report: Bargain-hunting by institutions provides support

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The Independent Online
THE DEMORALISED stock market suffered more punishment yesterday with the FT-SE share index at one time slumping below 2,300 points.

Another sinking performance in Tokyo, a weak Wall Street opening and Skipton Building Society's decision to increase its mortgage rates combined to push the index down to 2,294.7. Then a few bargain-hunters and central bank support for the US dollar provoked a modest rally with Footsie back above 2,300 at the close.

Most private investors remained on the sidelines, but some institutions were detected picking up small parcels of stock. The reawakening of interest helped lift share turnover above the break-even 500 million but two program trades accounted for much of the action.

One was by UBS Phillips & Drew. It was a mixed program, although sales outweighed buys.

Lasmo, the oil group, featured in one of the programs, helping turnover to top 6 million. With the price up 4p to 138p there was some talk the group could soon be involved in bid action - a development which could arrest the market slump.

The shares have suffered a savage mauling since last year's successful, but controversial, pounds 1.1bn takeover of the Ultramar oil group. Lasmo shares were 315p when it rolled out the bid. The enlarged group is now valued at about the price paid for Ultramar.

In recent months the French groups, Total and Elf Aquitaine, as well as Shell, have been rumoured to be interested. The latest candidate is RTZ which, runs the argument, could be tempted to take advantage of the depressed price - at its lowest since 1987 - and pounce.

RTZ was 25p down at 525p. The Lasmo story was only one influence. Another was cautious noises from James Capel which, because of the depreciation of the US dollar, tagged the shares a 'trading sell'.

Wellcome, the drugs group, was another briskly traded share. Volume was put at 7.7 million shares as Robert Fleming lowered its support level from 800p, which has persisted since the Wellcome flotation, to 780p. The fall in the market since the pounds 2.2bn secondary flotation prompted the move. The shares fell 18.5p to 782p.

There has so far been little, if any, evidence that the Wellcome Trust has started investing the proceeds of the share sale in the market. 'Once or twice we may have detected their hand, but any activity has been decidedly modest,' one market man said.

On the building pitch, Redland ended 2p down at 390p as Panmure Gordon drew attention to the possibility of a dividend cut next year. This year's payment will be maintained at 25p following the successful bid for Steetley. But with the slender cover PG reckons any profits shortfall below its present estimate of pounds 225m could force a reduction.

The usual raft of profit downgradings took their toll. Barclays de Zoete Wedd descended on Associated British Foods. The shares were labelled a sell as this year's profit forecast was lowered pounds 10m to pounds 305m and next by pounds 14m to pounds 315.

United Biscuits was also downgraded: by pounds 5m to pounds 195 and pounds 6m to pounds 210m. ABF, which has survived the summer retreat better than most, dipped 7p to 386p. UB lost 12p to 300p.

County NatWest weighed in with a cut for Ranks Hovis McDougall. It lowered next year's forecast by pounds 13m to pounds 100m, leaving the shares 4p down at 168p.

Northern Foods tumbled 11p to 232p as Capel axed its forecasts from pounds 165m to pounds 150m and from pounds 185m to pounds 172m.

Harassed BM Group encountered a takeover rumour that nudged the shares 17p higher to 100p. The finance director, Carl Young, said bid talk was 'pretty categorically untrue'.

The low-flying shares of Davies & Newman, the Dan Air airline, recovered a little, up 7p at 20p. There is talk the group will be put out of its misery by a bid from Cathay Pacific.

Queens Moat Houses tumbled 5p to 65p ahead of today's interim figures. Forte lost 1p to 137p as the Standard Life insurance group revealed it had cut its stake below 3 per cent.

The sharp advance in Scotch whisky exports lifted Macallan Glenlivet 10p to 178p, but failed to impress the biggest whisky exporter, Guinness, down 12p at 516p.

Grand Metropolitan was helped by buy recommendations from Daiwa and Kleinwort Benson. The shares were hoisted 9p to 425p.

Paint maker Manders, struggling to resist a bid from its rival, Kalon, tumbled below the bid price as some small selling unsettled the market. The shares were lowered 22p to 213p.

A switch out of newcomer Taunton Cider into rival HP Bulmer is suggested by Kleinwort Benson. Taunton fell 2p to 158p and Bulmer held at 315p. Analyst David Thompson points out that Taunton is at a higher premium to the market than Bulmer, which 'has been under the market scrutiny for years'. Taunton, the new issue success of the recent crop, was floated at 140p.

The powerful Dutch investment group SHV continues to nibble at the cash-and-carry operator Nurdin & Peacock. It has picked up another 350,000 shares, nudging its stake to 12.1 per cent. The Dutch group, which has a big stake in Calor, already has substantial cash-and-carry interests in Britain which, it is thought, it would like to pump into N&P, unchanged at 148p.