Market Report: British Land shares soar on talk of Selfridges deal

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The Independent Online
BRITISH LAND defied the City's pre-Christmas torpor as dealers started whispering about an interesting property deal in the New Year.

As activity in the overall market nearly ground to a halt, the real estate giant rose 2.75p to 397.75p in pretty lively trading.

According to the dealing rooms' gossip, some knowledgeable investors are starting to take an interest in British Land in the hope of a rally in the New Year.

Most of the attention was focused on the relation between the property group headed by John Ritblat and the posh department store Selfridges, up 6 to 254.5p.

A week ago British Land raised its stake in the Oxford Street retail icon to around 10.55 per cent. At the time, the announcement was barely noticed and the British Land shares went on to touch their 12-month low of 395p.

However, some cunning punters believe that tiny statement could herald a property deal masterminded by Mr Ritblat.

An outright bid by British Land for Selfridges has been mooted in the past, but the most likely scenario is that the retail group would use its stake as a launchpad for a giant sale and leaseback of their Oxford Street store.

The deal could be beneficial for both companies. It would enable Selfridges to knock off a liability from its balance sheet, while at the same time retaining its hugely famous site. For its part, British Land would acquire a landmark building in one of Europe's prime retail locations. Such a high-profile tie-up should also focus investors' minds on British Land's share price, which is still trading at a hefty discounts to its assets.

The rest of the market finally showed signs of the much-mooted millennial slowdown, as turnover dropped to a mere 900 million from the 2 billion-plus seen in the recent past.

However, the thin activity did not stop the FTSE 100 to inch towards to its 6,742.2 all-time closing high. The leading index even breached that barrier in the early afternoon before a bout of profit-taking and nerves ahead of today's US rate decision pushed it back to 6731.2 - a mere 6.6 rise.

Market watchers said that most large institutions had all but stopped trading to avoid settling their dealings ahead of the New Year. Most of the business appeared to come from retail investors who were still active despite the rumoured decision by two large brokers - Warburg and CSFB - to close their doors to small punters.

With very few analysts' notes doing the rounds, it was left to the bid rumours to liven up the proceedings.

The mail-order struggler GUS delivered a 8.75p rise to 345.75p amid growing rumour that it might be targeted by a US rival. Persistent rumours of a sale of its credit business Experian or even of the Burberrys clothes label, were also heard.

Other retailers were also in the spotlight. Supermarket group Somerfield firmed 7p to 87p amid whispers that the Scandinavian rival Netto could buy some of its stores, while Tesco firmed 1p to 181.25p on whispers of a deal with French competitor Casino. Next put on 25p to 545p after US investment fund Putnam revealed a 1 per cent stake. The announcement triggered whispers that Next has been targeted by US hedge funds. WH Smith gained 32p to 457p on hopes of a bumper Christmas and on-going bid speculation.

Poor old Marks & Spencer did not share in the seasonal fun and plummeted 8.5p to 274.5p amid fears that today's management reshuffle might bring dreadful trading news.

Away from the stores, consumer product group Reckitt Benckiser soared 45p to 561.5p - the best blue chip of the day - on bargain-hunting and vague talk of a bid. Information giant Reuters cashed in on a 55.5p rise to 858.5p on talk of a flotation of its Instinet electronic trading business, while BSkyB beamed 37p higher to 917.5p on reports of a float of its Open interactive TV service.

Hi-tech stocks had another glorious day. Chip designer ARM, 97p higher to a record 4067p, and computer group CMG, up 137p to a best-ever 4,356p, started life on the FTSE 100 with a bang. Fellow high-flier COLT Telecom soared 192p to 3,092p on vague bid talk.

Sector giant Vodafone AirTouch, down 10.25p to 301p, missed out on its peers' rally after the arbitrageurs exploited the gap with the Mannesmann share price. Cable group Telewest, down 17.75p to 316.75p, was also undone by an arb play with its target Flextech, 5p lower to 1190p.

Tobacco giant BAT was dragged 17.25p lower to 338.75p amid talk of selling by a large fund manager, while drug rivals Glaxo Wellcome, 17p lower to 1674p and SmithKline Beecham, down 9.5p to 776.5p despite another US pharmaceutical merger. British Airways nosedived 20.25p to 401.75p on news of Virgin's tie-up with arch-rival Singapore Airlines.

The midcap had a subdued day, falling 0.5 to 6330, partly because of a 38 per cent plunge in British-Borneo. The oil explorer shed 74.5p to 121p after a profit warning and denial of bid talks. However, rival Lasmo jumped 5.25p to 124.5p on whispers of a bid from industry heavyweight Conoco.

Returning whispers of corporate action - possibly a management buyout or an acquisition - sent engineer Morgan Crucible 23p higher to 270.5p, while online auctioneer QXL.com was hammered 143.5p higher to 1,362.5p in thin trading on talk of a new contract.

The Small Cap recrossed the 3,000 mark, rising 21.2 to 3002.7 thanks to the usual dose of bid rumours.

Broker Walker Crips jumped 10p to a record 170p amid talk that a larger rival is having a look. Cash-shell Honeysuckle rose a sweet 2.25p to 5.25p on Internet bulletin rumours of a reverse takeover of a sport and leisure business, while David Lloyd's MV Sports firmed 0.2p to 2p in gigantic volume of 27 million share on rehashed talk of a toy licensing deal. Film tiddler VFG gained 1p to 56p on bid rumours, while Veos, the maker of a revolutionary female contraceptive, aroused interest on its first day on AIM and ended up 46p to 117p.

SEAQ VOLUME: 905m

SEAQ TRADES: 88,966

GILTS INDEX: 105.75 -0.06

f.guerrera@independent.co.uk

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