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Market Report: Billiton moves up on hopes for commodity prices

BILLITON, the South African mining giant which this week just managed to hold on to its cherished Footsie place, is again winning over institutional investors after an uncomfortable bear run.

The shares were at one time up 11.5p; they closed 5.5p higher at 148p.

Since interim results last week the group has held a series of presentations and on Thursday evening fund managers attended an investment dinner hosted by Schroders.

CSFB is the latest investment house to turn positive on the shares. It feels commodity prices, which have slumped over the past year, may have bottomed out.

Any price improvement may not occur for six months but once it starts it will be rapid and significant. Analyst Alan Richards has moved the shares from hold to an outright buy.

At Thursday's dinner Billiton highlighted the fact that it was highly geared to any upturn in metal prices.

The mining giant, which plans a share buy-back, has not had an altogether happy time since it arrived on the stock market two years ago. The shares almost touched 250p but were down to 98.75p in last year's slump. They have climbed from around 110p since the start of last month.

The Rio Tinto metals giant has also been in a hole. The shares touched 1,109p before sinking to 566.5p. They rose 22p to 894p, partly reflecting Billiton's form.

Tomkins, the buns to guns conglomerate which is due to lose its Footsie position after a 15-year run, had the distinction of topping the blue chip leader board with a 28.25p gain to 234.25p.

For a time, blue chips were riding at yet another peak. Footsie climbed 29.7 points to reach a new trading high of 6,365.4.

But the effort proved too much. In another day of active trading - with turnover above 1.1 billion shares - the index, fell back 53.5 to 6,282.2 as New York paused for breath.

Supporting shares were much more determined, underlining the feeling that the dog days on the undercard are coming to an end.

The mid cap index jumped 67.5 to 5,560.8; it is 400 below the peak hit last June.

The small cap rose 14.7 to 2,367.8, compared with its high of 2,792.7, established in May. Government stocks, reflecting the Lafontaine departure, in Germany, made further headway.

Kingfisher, ahead of year's figures next week, rose 11p to 800p, a peak. In an effort to underline its European connections, the results will be presented in Paris by the group's top brass, including the chief executive, Sir Geoff Mulcahy.

The London show is likely to be a downbeat affair by comparison. BT Alex.Brown expects Kingfisher's profits to be pounds 559.2m, up 11 per cent, with the Darty French operation making the strongest headway.

Ripples continued from the Prudential Corporation descent on the M&G unit trust group. Halifax rose 27.5p to 796.5p and Lloyds TSB added 11p to 991p. The Pru fell a further 19.5p to 779p.

The latest disappointment from Reckitt & Colman, the third in a year, left the household goods group's shares 41p off at 732.5p. Reed International fell again on its results, off 32.25p at 55.25p.

Enterprise Oil, still talking about a possible merger with Lasmo, put on 19.75p to 341.25p following its figures. Confirmation of intended Opec production cuts had little impact, with many wondering whether it has the ability to deliver lower output.

Commerzbank also hit sentiment, downgrading its stance on the leading oil stocks. BP Amoco, off 46p at 975.5p, is now rated as a sell; Shell, suffering the same treatment, was off 10p at 386.75p.

Servisair, the support group, shaded 2p to 229p as Amey, the construction group, abandoned its bid intentions following the intervention of Penauille, the French group, which confirmed it had the support of almost 50 per cent of the capital.

Barlow Index collected a bid but it was not what the market expected. The shares fell 25p to 300p as the supplier of specialist information accepted a 305p-a-share offer from another French group, the publisher Havas.

Tracker Network, the vehicle security group, motored 57.5p to 510p as a possible management buyout appeared on the horizon.

Regal Hotels fell 3p to 26p following a cautious trading statement accompanying a 15 per cent profits increase. The pubs chain JD Wetherspoon frothed 30p higher to 257.5p on its figures.

A profit warning from Weather Action dampened the shares 15p to 32.5p; they were 97p last autumn.

The Scotch whisky group Glenmorangie was also on the rocks. A profits warning left the "A" shares nursing a 102.5p fall with the "B" shares off 155p at 672.5p.

Meconic, the chemical group, also produced the predictable reaction with a 14.5p fall to 117.5p after a warning about its results.

Eurotunnel, for long dead in the water, rallied 11p to 98.5p on hopes that it will roll out its first profit on Monday. It could produce around pounds 60m, although exceptional items linked to the group's debt restructuring would be largely responsible. Still such a performance would compare with a pounds 611m loss last time.

The market's fascination with surfing the Internet was illustrated yet again by a 10p gain to 51.5p by Novara, a supplier of education and scientific products. It has got in on the act by buying a 33.3 per cent interest in DIALnet, involved in Internet networking services for education.

Proteus International, the healthcare group, rose 2.5p to 35p in busy trading; there is talk of a link-up announcement next week.

SEAQ VOLUME: 1.1 billion



SHARES OF drugs group ML Laboratories were on a high, up 15p to 127.5p following investment presentations. Another round of meetings is planned for next week. The shares are now riding at a year's high, although they touched 468.5p in 1996. WestLB Panmure forecast 400p in two years. The group's Emmelle cream may have significant implications in preventing HIV transmission.

BANDT, the old Brown & Tawse construction group, could be a takeover target. There is talk of a bid being lined up but any strike may be held back until after the results for the year ending next month are known.

It has traded well and around pounds 7.5m is expected against pounds 5.4m last time. Institutions are heavy in the shares which have been up to 45p in the past 12 months.