Market Report: Bid rumours boost House of Fraser shares

STOCK MARKET professionals, who should have waxed rich on the flow of mega-mergers which have sent shares soaring, concentrated on a more mundane deal, worth a mere pounds 230m or so.

They alighted on a story, which has simmered for a few weeks, that House of Fraser's days of independence were coming to an end.

The department store chain's shares climbed 15.5p (after 17.5p) to 88p, highest since the autumn.

A venture capitalist bid was one guess; another suggested Shami Ahmed, the entrepreneur behind the Joe Bloggs jean empire, who has already shown interest in quoted companies, was the predator.

HoF has the somewhat dubious distinction of looking a sitting duck for a takeover strike. It has a poor trading record and assets are thought to be worth around 180p a share.

The shares were floated at 180p five years ago; they did touch 228.5p at one time but before the recent rumours started to be felt were down to 51p.

The speculators who scored with Philip Green's bid for Sears were, perhaps not surprisingly, said to be chasing HoF shares. The fund manager Phillips & Drew, active in Mr Green's assault on Sears, has 22.3 per cent of HoF and, as in the case of Sears, would dearly like to see at least some of the lost value restored to its investment.

One suggestion was that the fund managers were mulling over a bid of 100p for their stake; the price the market believes the would-be bidder is prepared to offer for the rest of the shares.

HoF was only one second-line share under the speculative spotlight. Lex Service, the vehicle group up 23.5p to 384.5p, was another.

The British Aerospace pounds 7.7bn Marconi acquisition from General Electric Co also produced thoughts about GEC's possible targets.

Psion, the hand-held computer maker, was regarded as one likely candidate, gaining 75.75p to 726.5p. Another thought to be under possible GEC scrutiny was Racal Electronic, 18.5p higher at 386p.

BAe's Marconi deal did not go down well. The market took the view it had overpaid and also made vital European defence alliances much more difficult to achieve. The shares dived 68p to 426.5p. GEC did not escape the disenchantment, falling 31p to 546.5p.

Profit-taking was, of course, a factor in the response to the Marconi deal, and after the sharp gains of the last two trading days could be blamed for some of Footsie's 96.3 points plunge to 6,027.6.

The slide in Vodafone, off 102.5p to 1,123p, was largely due to the games arbitrageurs play. Seaq put volume at nearly 82 million shares, with arbs selling to keep their positions in line.

Once again market turnover was high, nudging 1.1 billion, as Footsie swung between a 14.8 gain and a 107.5 fall.

Supporting shares were in the doldrums. The mid cap index fell 29.2 to 4,874.6 and the small cap 3.1 to 2,102.9.

The latest flurry of takeover rumours was not confined to the market under-card. P&O, the proud shipping line, steamed 14p (after 30.5p) to 629p on vague bid talk, and Granada, off 40.5p to 1,059.5p, was said to be on the verge of another strike. The brewer and leisure group Whitbread was one name in the frame but the shares lost 22.5p to 803p.

Energis was at one time 270p higher before settling for a 132.5p gain at 1,655p as the group emerged as a likely candidate for Footsie membership. National Grid intends to cut its shareholding from 75 per cent to around 45-49 per cent. Once its stake goes below 50 per cent the telecom group becomes eligible for Footsie inclusion.

The shrinking Grid stake will also increase the possibility of Energis forging alliances with other groups.

The Grid's decision to cash in at least some of its Energis chips as telecom shares stretch into the stratosphere gave its shares a modest electrical charge - up 17.75p at 545.25p.

Stagecoach, the transport group, continued to benefit from its Hong Kong Citybus buy, moving ahead 10p to 250.25p.

Debenhams, following an encouraging trading statement, put on 10.5p to 350.5p but more gloomy tidings from Body Shop produced a 4p fall to 85p.

Boots, hit by BT Alex.Brown cutting its profits forecast by 6 per cent to pounds 544m, dropped 43p to 887p. City Centre Restaurants, reflecting sobering Christmas trading, fell 5p to 72p.

Blue Circle Industries lost another 10p to 271p as analysts downgraded following meetings with the company. It seems profit forecasts have been cut by around pounds 10m to pounds 315m.

Diageo, the spirits giant, was another under the analytical whip. Its shares suffered a 12p hiccup to 670p as HSBC put them on its sell list.

Compass, the contract caterer, improved 15p to 797p with Sutherlands saying buy despite the 67 per cent out-performance over the past year. The sugar group Tate & Lyle was sweetened by CSFB, up 13p to 392p.

Media shares continued to flutter on the bid interest in Mirror, little changed at 206.5p. Newsquest rose 16.5p to 284.5p and Informa 14p to 316p. Freepages, on its Internet prospects, gained a further 2p to 23.75p.

On-Line's remarkable run continued, with the shares, 16.5p at the start of last week, jumping 39p to 172.5p. There is a growing suspicion that the computer games group will eventually use its share price strength to tap the market for cash, possibly through a rights issue.

Dagenham Motors moved ahead 9.5p to 158p as Polar Motor, a joint company formed by Ford and Jardine Matheson, produced its bid. Dagenham is Britain's largest Ford dealer.

Flextech, the TV group, rose 38.5p to 753.5p after Merrill Lynch lifted its target from 745p to 660p.

SEAQ VOLUME: 1.01 billion


GILTS INDEX: 116.13 +0.03

WEEKS, the engineering consultant where interim profits fell to pounds 300,000, should manage a year's figure of pounds 700,000 (against pounds 809,000), believes the stockbroker Ellis & Partners. The shares bump along at a 2.25p low; they have been as high as 7.5p since coming to market in 1997. Analyst Neil Badger says the shares' poor performance is understandable after missed expectations but he believes the price has now fallen too far.

ALBRIGHT & WILSON, the chemical group which returned to the market four years ago, edged ahead 2p to 63.5p as speculation continued that a management buyout was planned. At one time the shares topped 200p and were riding at 191.5p in the spring. The group, like others in the chemical industry, has found the going tough but profits are expected to recover to pounds 53.5m from last time's depressed pounds 31.7m.

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