Market Report: Blood will be spilled in FTSE hi-tech revolution

TODAY IS the day of the hi-tech revolution. After months of secret plotting, computer, Internet and telecom stocks will storm the Square Mile citadel and take control of London's leading indexes.

The uprising will be a bloody affair, as members of the old regime - utilities, retailers and engineers - are overthrown and locked up in the lower reaches of the equity market.

As with many revolutions, the outcome of the shake-up will be sanctioned by a committee. Tonight, after the close, members of FTSE International, which secretly controls the membership of the indexes, will meet in a smoke-filled room to decide who is in and who is out. Changes will be effective from Monday 20 December.

The FTSE 100, the highest tower in the City's citadel, will be attacked by two rampant hi-tech companies. Chip designer ARM Holdings and computer group CMG are expected to make a triumphal entry into the market's leading index.

ARM's story epitomises the radical change in the domestic equity market in the recent past. A year ago, the company was one of many Cambridge- based tiddlers with a promising technology and hopes of making it big one day.

The shares, floated in 1998, reflected this pie-in-the-sky quality and were hovering around the 272p mark. Fast forward 12 months and ARM's ugly duckling has turned into a beautiful swan.

Its unique micro-chips are now the undisputed benchmark for the computer and telecommunications industries and its licensing partners include sector giants Texas Instruments and Intel.

As for the shares, they have risen almost vertically touching another high of 3,263.5p on Friday and leaving ARM with a market value of over pounds 6bn - well above vintage blue-chips such as British Airways and ICI.

Unlike ARM, the rise and rise of the Anglo-Dutch software group CMG has taken place away from the public gaze. Since floating three years ago, the computer company has steadily built its business by winning outsourcing contracts for big clients and buying smaller rivals. The shares have followed a similar progression, rising from 163p in 1996 to Friday's 3,879p - a new record.

If ARM and CMG have been, and will be, boosted by heavy buying from the index funds, the stocks heading for the chop will be hit by hefty selling from the all-powerful trackers.

The utility British Energy looks odds-on to get the bullet. The shares have been savaged by fears of a regulatory squeeze on the electricity market and by an anaemic news flow. British Energy's plight has been compounded by a switch away from the dull-but-safe utilities towards the racier telecoms and Internet sectors. As a result, the shares have more than halved and recently touched a 12-month low of 349.5p.

The race to accompany British Energy into the FTSE 250 is a closely-fought one. Until Friday, water group Severn Trent seemed destined to go down the midcap drain. However, a radical cost-cutting plans announced with Friday's interims attracted a bit of buying interest.

If Severn Trent does not go, there is the intriguing possibility that the food giant Associated British Food, one of the founding members of the FTSE 100, might be kicked out for the first time ever.

Like the utilities, the owner of the Silver Spoon sugar and Twinings tea brands has suffered from its reputation as low-growth stock. Chairman Gary Weston and family have tried to prop up the shares by adding to their 50-per-cent-plus stake but the market has failed to take notice.

Builders merchant Wolseley, which only got in last month when Orange dropped out, is also in danger of returning to the midcap.

The relegations and promotions in the undercard will highlight the retailers' recent plight. Four chains whose shares have been hammered by profit warnings and rumours of poor trading - New Look, Storehouse, Arcadia and Electronics Boutique - will almost certainly be ejected.

Their places will be taken by - yes, you have guessed it - hi-tech stocks. First up is Baltimore Technologies, The Independent's tip of the year. The promotion of the old Zergo is unusual because the security software group is moving from the FTSE Fledgling for very small companies to the FTSE 250, bypassing the Small Cap.

The reason for this jump is a near 12-fold rise in the share price over the past year thanks to a string of contract wins, a listing on Nasdaq and investors' unshakeable enthusiasm for its technology. Other high-profile midcap entries could include the recently floated online auctioneer QXL.com and the web-based yellow pages Scoot.com. Among the losers, engineers Senior and Charter look set for the drop, just like former blue chip Inchcape and transport group Go-Ahead.

The FTSE 100 strugglers will hog the limelight this week when brewers and water utilities report figures. The interest rate decision on Thursday will be a sideshow, with most economists going for no change.

The hotels and pub giant Bass will have to restore investors' confidence in a bombed-out sector when it unveils full-year results on Wednesday.

The figures will be a non-event, with profits set to be slightly higher, say pounds 673m versus pounds 661m. Of more importance will be Bass' plans to revitalise its pub division - recently boosted by the acquisition of part of the Allied Domecq estate - and to expand the InterContinental hotel chain with overseas buys.

Rival Scottish & Newcastle, on the block tomorrow, will face similar problems. Interim profits should show a modest rise to pounds 228m thanks to cost savings in its breweries. However, sales in Scottish & Newcastle pubs, including the recently-bought Greenalls' houses, is set to have remained sluggish, especially in the north. The mooted disposal of S&N's ailing holiday division will also be discussed. Pontins camps are set to break even at the year-end, although the European and UK Centeparcs holiday villages are still struggling to attract tourists.

The interims results from five water companies - Kelda, Anglian, Pennon, Hyder and United Utilities - will be the ideal opportunity to examine last week's price review.

Analysts believe the Ofwat price controls are tough and the five companies will be expected to detail how to cope with them. Expect a raft of cost savings plans and a few dividend cuts, especially from Hyder, which is also rumoured to be plotting a fund raising. The price saga will overshadow the interim figures, which are generally expected to be flat on last year's numbers.

The catering group Compass will dish out its finals on Thursday. Profit growth should be well into double digit figures, with Nick Bevan and Jason Holden at Deutsche Bank going for an 18 per cent jump to pounds 191m. Compass' three core markets - the UK, the US and Europe - should have done well but the new chief executive, Mike Bailey, will still be questioned on his plans to improve margins.

Two retailers will spice up the week with their trading updates. On Wednesday, Kingfisher will provide a snapshot of the state of the high street. The owner of B&Q, Woolworths and Superdrug is expected to report a rosier picture than many of its clothes and food peers.

The perilous state of the clothes market should be underlined by Debenhams on Friday. The fashion chain is expected to issue a gloomy statement following similar tidings from troubled peers such as New Look, Arcadia and Marks & Spencer.

f.guerrera@independent.co.uk

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