Market Report: Bass close to selling its Britvic drinks business

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AFTER months of negotiations the Bass brewing group is thought to be on the verge of clinching the sale of its Britvic soft drinks business. PepsiCo, the US food and drink giant, is the most likely buyer; the price will be about pounds 420m.

Rumours of a deal have been circulating in the usually gossipy drinks industy for months.

But it is thought supply contracts PepsiCo has sought with Bass and Britvic's two other brewery shareholders, Allied-Lyons and Whitbread, have caused the delay.

PepsiCo already has a modest interest in Britvic, which produces Pepsi Cola under licence and is second to Cadbury Schweppes in the British soft drink industry.

Its brewery dominance stems from the days when most brewers had soft drink operations to supply their pubs.

But the relaxation of the brewers' tie, underlined by the Government's controversial Beer Orders, has reduced Britvic's captive pub audience and lowered its appeal to the three brewing groups.

For Whitbread the deal will represent yet another cash inflow, as it builds on last year's restructuring when it equalised its two-tier voting structure and took over its investment arm, the Whitbread Investment Co.

This week it realised pounds 225m by selling many of the regional brewery shares inherited when it took over WIC. All told it has so far pulled in pounds 300m from WIC's drinks portfolio.

It is expected to use its wealth to expand its retail operations and one suggestion is that it wants to buy PepsiCo's half share in the jointly owned Pizza Hut fast-food chain.

Beer shares were as flat as yesterday's pint, still unsettled by the Whitbread selling spree. Bass, down 12p to 516p, had the additional discomfort of a share overhang - not thought to be related to the Whitbread share sales.

Allied fell 11p to 615p and Whitbread 5p to 547p.

Among regionals Greene King eased 10p to 508p; Marston Thompson & Evershed (where some shares are thought to remain on offer) 10p to 280p and Morland 15p to 493p. The Boddington pubs chain fell 2p to 284p.

Beers were also caught in a stock market retreat that lowered the FT-SE 100 index 42 points to 3,191.9.

The supporting FT-SE 250 index, which has recently displayed more resilience than its blue chip counterpart, slumped 51 to 3,857.4.

Weak bond markets again took their toll with government stocks down more than two points in hesitant and nervous trading.

An array of influences clouded sentiment. Eddie George, the Bank of England Governor, was seen to have ruled out a tax-induced interest rate reduction next month, which rattled those who had been expecting a cut, perhaps as much as three-quarters of a point. The latest US statistics strengthened the feeling that US interest rates will soon move higher.

Poor trade figures (prompting recovery worries), the growing transatlantic awareness of the Whitewater scandal, a lacklustre New York performance and end- account influences added to the dismay. Doubts about next week's futures expiry also hovered.

The feared heavy selling, particularly from the US, again failed to materialise. But turnover is edging higher as the market becomes increasingly nervous, underlining the worries about a tough spring and early summer.

This week the 100 index has fallen 114 points. The decline over the account is almost 90.

Shares with a high New York profile were hit. Reuters, for example, fell 50p to 2,048p.

Eurotunnel gave up 29p to 561p as French reports cast doubts on opening hopes. The Heathrow mortar attacks lowered BAA, the airports group, 9p to 985p and Airtours 17p to 501p. But British Airways was one of the few to survive the retreat, up 5.5p to 422p.

Barclays, the banking group, was another. As profit forecasts continued to be lifted following its figures on Thursday the shares rose 9p to 519p. Smith New Court has increased its profit forecasts from pounds 1,316m to pounds 1,500m and from pounds 1,811m to pounds 1,989m.

Fears of increased competition took their toll of telephone shares. Cable and Wireless, with the added disadvantage of a weak Hong Kong market, fell 15p to 440p.

BT lost 13p to 412.5p with the partly paid off 13.5p at 293.5p. Vodafone fell 17p to 569p. The latest worries stemmed from Cable's pounds 1bn investment in new computerised telephones.

The advertising group Abbott Mead Vickers retreated 22p to 708p following its results and J Sainsbury lost 8.5p to 359.5p on its job cuts.

The firm gold price lifted Bakyrchik 29p to 328p and Cluff Resources 2.5p to 54p.

Mercury European Privatisation Trust made a far from ecstatic debut, closing at 468p against a 500p offer price.

The FT-SE 100 index finished near its lowest of the day, off 42 points at 3,191.9, its lowest since November. The FT-SE 250 index lost 51 points to 3,857.4. Turnover was 776.3 million shares with 41,080 deals. Account settlement is due on 21 March.

Nurdin & Peacock, running cash-and-carry warehouses for independent traders, resisted the market gloom, climbing 9p to 232p, a peak. The first of its new- style Cargo Warehouses, a discount club open to all, is to open at Croydon next week. SHV Holdings, a sprawling Dutch investment group which has extensive cash and carry interests, has a 14.1 per cent shareholding.

The ease with which Whitbread's beer share sales were completed has turned the spotlight on Greene King, hugging a 29.3 per cent shareholding in Morland, the Thames Valley brewer. The shares are a legacy of an unsuccessful takeover bid. With little hope of capturing Morland, Greene King is likely to be tempted to follow the Whitbread example - and sell.