Market Report: Big game hunt lifts Liberty International

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The Independent Online
LIBERTY International, the South African-controlled financial group, jumped 28.5p to a 606p peak as the stock market latched on to ambitious plans which could elevate the shares to Footsie membership.

The company, it seems, is hunting for a significant acquisition. Last month it recruited Jim Sutcliffe, once tipped as a potential chief executive of Prudential Corporation, as deputy chairman. His brief is to develop the company into a major financial services player.

Liberty, with a capitalisation of pounds 1.7bn, needs to grow to more than pounds 3bn to stand any chance of becoming a Footsie constituent.

The company, where South African interests have 69 per cent, has pounds 2.5bn in finance available for acquisitions. It raised pounds 527m selling its half share in the then Sun Holdings (now Sun Life & Provincial) three years ago. One of its major assets is 71.9 per cent of Capital Shopping Centres, firm at 451.5p.

Headed by the legendary Donald Gordon Liberty, it is thought likely to concentrate its takeover fire power on overseas acquisitions. It believes prices in this country are too high.

Footsie's four-day winning canter came to an end with the index giving up 35 points to 5,794.8. An uncertain New York opening, profit taking and the shadow of next week's Budget prompted the retreat. But, once again, supporting shares were buoyant with the mid and SmallCap indices reaching new highs.

British Aerospace, up 20p at 1,935p, and Rolls-Royce, 14p to 268.5p, responded to the expected Government decision to lift the restriction on foreign held shares from 29.5 per cent to 49.5 per cent.

National Grid, as HSBC appeared to reduce its 11.6 per cent stake, rose 11.5p to 344p.

Reuters, off 26p to 638p, was hit by another legal assault with a Swiss group registering a suit against the information group in the US. Already Reuters is under investigation in the US after rivals Bloomberg alleged its products had been improperly obtained and used by Reuters. The Swiss allegations "are completely without foundation", said the news group.

Compass, the caterer, rose 8p to 958p on its Footsie arrival and revived hopes of Rentokil Initial bid interest. Relegated Dixons fell 2.5p to 489p and Misys, the computer group which just missed out on Footsie membership, gained 112.5p to 2,727.5p.

Among the buoyant second liners Airtours climbed 32.5p to 510p and drugs group Galen added 24p to 495.5p. But sterling's renewed strength hurt engineers with Glynwed International, off 9.5p to 241.5p and TI 9p to 502p.

British Biotech was ravaged by the suspension of Andrew Miller, director of clinical research, falling 15.5p to 70p, lowest since 1995.

MFI Furniture slipped 3.5p to 89p. It denied reports one of its institutional investors, Schroders, had demanded a meeting because of the chain's dismal trading. A spokesman said chairman Derek Hunt was engaged in a range of normal institutional meetings.

Wembley, on the Arsenal FC approach, was at one time up 41p. The shares closed at 364.5p, 14p higher. On Ofex, Arsenal shares scored a pounds 100 gain to pounds 2,300.

Molin, the cigarette machinery group, produced losses and another warning, falling 20p to 285p.

Oil services groups Abbot and Expro International were strong on talk of US bid action as well as encouraging trading. Abbot, which could have lifted profits from pounds 7.4m to nearer pounds 14m, gained 6p to 192.5p, a peak. Expro jumped 32p to 507p.

Newcomer Pennant International, a maker of computer-based training systems, arrived on AIM; the price moved to 142.5p from a 125p placing.

WML, the old Whinney Mackay Lewis architect group, returned to market as WML, gaining 20p to 49.5p. The shares were placed at 30p following the acquisitions of two property related companies.

Housebuilders were given a lift by the takeover bid for John Maunders by rival Westbury. The agreed cash and shares offer priced Maunders at pounds 55m. The target's shares advanced 43p to 208.5p; Westbury slipped 4.5p to 272p.

North Midlands Construction put on 13p to 98.5p, a peak, after a profit surge from pounds 1.4m to pounds 2.2m. Further progress is expected this year.

Emerald Energy, seeking oil and gas in Colombia, held at 7.25p after raising pounds 3.4m by placing shares at 6.75p. The cash is needed because of further delays at its Chawina 2 site; its expects to move to its Matambo field by the middle of May.

Freeport Leisure climbed 13.5p to 352p. It has formed a joint venture company to develop a shopping mall at Newcastle-under-Lyme.