Market Report: Bid fever as small caps stage comeback

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The Independent Online
ARE MID and small cap shares, after seven months of unrelenting gloom, at last staging a comeback?

The contested bid for LucasVarity, a Footsie constituent, has focused attention on the bombed-out metal bashers and helped to alert investors to the undoubted value lurking on the stock market under-card.

Bids, often in cash, for the smaller fry are becoming a daily event and management buy-outs and share buy-backs also tend to underline the hidden value.

The mid cap index, admittedly from a depressed level, has risen nearly 130 points over the past four days to 4,958.9. Even so it is still nearly 1,000 points below its all-time peak, hit in June last year.

The under-card bids - mid and small cap - continue to flow, with furniture maker Cornwell Parker up 21.5p to 87.5p, and building materials group Norcros, 20.5p to 84.5p, admitting bid approaches. Publisher Barbour Index, in talks with "a number of parties", added 60p to 327.5p, and Forward Technology, an electronics group, firmed 3p to 19.5p as it confirmed a possible management buy-out.

GWR, the radio group, produced a 4.5p rise to 278.5p after splashing out pounds 25.6m on the unquoted Orchard operation, which has four West Country radio licences.

Wace, the printer, gained 17.5p to 76.5p as US group Schawk topped the Photobition bid with a 70p cash a share shot; but the market, quite clearly, thinks the action is far from over. Electronics group Airtech, where a predator hovers, rose 7p to 38p.

And the pounds 3.9bn Ford descent on Volvo's car division propelled Henlys 44p to 472.5p. Volvo has 10 per cent of the vehicle group.

Rumours of bid action produced further progress at Albright & Wilson, where suddenly active fund manager Phillips & Drew has nearly 25 per cent. The shares rose a further 10.5p to 76.5p with a management buy-out the favourite guess. Another chemical group, Croda International, put on 18.5p to 217.5p.

Engineers continued their progress. Morgan Crucible hardened a further 14p to 202.5p; Britax 7.5p to 118p and IMI 9p to 215.5p. Glynwed International firmed 5.5p to 164.5p. Six Hundred Group was 9.5p better at 77p.

LucasVarity and the already spoken for Adwest Automotive clearly enjoy the distinction of reviving interest in the smaller groups. LV firmed 7p to 290.5p as TRW, a US group, rolled out a bid, and rival Federal-Mogul continued to hover.

Granada, on the other hand, is seen as preparing a predatory excursion. There is a growing suspicion the leisure group has decided on its next target and is flexing its muscles. The shares rose 34p to 1,086p. Whitbread, up 16p to 850p, is one rumoured target.

Footsie, after riding high for much of the session again, subsided towards the close, ending 3.9 points down at 5,872.5. Trading was again hectic with turnover nudging 1.3 billion shares. At mid-afternoon the index was up 83.4.

The heavy volume seems to reflect determined overseas buying with many domestic fund managers prepared to unload some stock on which they are nursing comfortable profits. Government stocks were little changed.

Bass, for no apparent reason although there was talk of a market maker being caught on the hop, led the Footsie leader board, gaining 52.5p to 851.5p. The shares have come down from 1,175p. There are hopes the brewer and hotelier will roll out a positive trading statement at next week's shareholders meeting.

United News & Media was given a Merrill Lynch push, gaining 23.5p to 547p and Imperial Chemical Industries retreated 24.5p to 525p as WestLB Panmure said sell.

Bowater, the electronics group, was the subject of heavy turnover.

Salomon Smith Barney, just appointed joint stockbroker replacing Credit Lyonnais, was thought to have been responsible for much of the 15 million Seaq volume. Bowthorpe is anxious to expand in the US and was attracted by Salomon's powerful trans-Atlantic presence.

Mortgage banks were hit. HSBC turned negative and the retreat, already evident following Northern Rock's competitive stance, quickly got underway. Halifax fell 32p to 722.5p and Abbey National 53p to 1,202p. Northern lost 9.5p to 488p.

Clearance by the European Commission of P&O's joint venture with Stena Line encouraged the cruise group to record a 28p gain at 638.5p.

British Land gained 10p to 443p. Analysts are due to meet the company next week.

Oils were mixed. BPAmoco fell 5p to 836p and Shell firmed to 307.75p. Lasmo added 6.25p to 103.75p. Emerald Energy edged ahead to 4p; it is now expected its rights issue will be announced next week.

The shake-up at struggling Premier Farnell, the electronic components group, lifted the shares 29p to 191.5p. CSFB helped sentiment by suggesting the price could double.

British Steel hardened 6p to 127p. Warburg Dillon Read regards the shares as a buy, suggesting they could go to 150p. But dividend worries lowered BICC, the cables and construction group where take over hopes swirl; the price lost 2p at 59p.

Profit warnings took their toll. Save, the petrol retailer, lost 14.5p to 38p after saying it would not pay a final dividend; four years ago the shares were 269.5p.

Floral Street was suspended at 32.5p while it considers its position.The shares were once 343p.

Systems Integrated, a software group, continued to romp ahead despite the company's comment that it knows of no reason for the excitement. The shares gained a further 9.25p to 28.75p. They have been above 100p.

Dragon Oil, which flared on the 69 per cent shareholding of Dubai's Emirates National Oil Co., was hit by profit taking, collapsing 7.5p to 20.5p.

Darby, a building materials group, fell 4p to 33.5p as Mike Darby quit as chairman and chief executive. Mark Abrahams, a non-executive director, has taken over.



GILTS INDEX: 116.86-0.07

BIOFOCUS, a drugs group, surged 27p to 48.5p on the fringe, lightly regulated Ofex share market. The company, capitalised at only pounds 2.5m, has forged a two year link with Pharmacia & Upjohn, the giant Swedish- US group, for its combinatorial and computerised chemistry technologies. Biofocus is run by former executives of Wellcome, now part of Glaxo Wellcome. It offers a range of chemistry-based products and services for drug groups.

PHILLIPS & DREW has edged its stake in the voting shares of Young & Co's. Brewery to 21.2 per cent. The fund manager is adopting a more aggressive stance but it was not evident when last year Guinness Peat attempted to change the family controlled group's antiquated capital structure. Whether P&D's new found hands-on approach will extend to linking with GP remains to be seen. Young was unchanged at 612.5p.