Market Report: British Steel shrugs off problems and nears peak

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The Independent Online
BRITISH STEEL, once the flop of the privatisation programme, is riding near its peak.

In brisk trading the shares rose 4p to 152.5p, only 2.25p below their record level, hit in the spring of 1989. Since then they have been down to 47.5p.

The shares, sold at 125p, were devastated as overcapacity in the world steel industry sent the group, regarded as one of the most efficient steelmakers in the world, plunging into the red.

It still faces a multitude of problems not of its own making. Talk continues that European steelmaking capacity will be reduced but the EC, worried about rationalisation costs and job losses, has so far managed to fudge the issue and continues to subsidise inefficient producers.

The feeling is growing that British Steel, which has already suffered the streamlining agony, will emerge in a strong position once the EC realises its head-in-the- sand attitude is counter-productive. Comments by EU officials that the overcapacity problem could be solved in the next few months fuelled the latest advance.

British Steel has struggled back into profits and estimates stretch to pounds 95m for the year ended last month. For this year the top forecast is pounds 300m. But some wonder whether the shares are ahead of events and a number of security houses have put out sell advice.

The rest of the stock market endured a lacklustre session. Even the German interest rate cut and the improved trade figures failed to generate much interest.

The Iraq helicopter disaster then unsettled sentiment. At its worst the FT-SE 100 index was off 32.6 points. It closed 14.1 lower at 3,131.7.

The change in the investment climate since shares peaked in February has prompted NatWest Securities to lower its expectations.

It has reduced its year-end forecast for the 100 index from 3,900 to 3,650 'on the reality that the gilt market will not revisit the highs reached at the beginning of the year'. The 3,900 estimate has been rolled over until the end of next year.

BAT Industries had a difficult session, ending 6p lower at 450p. The market was ruffled by the growing pressure on the tobacco industry in the US. Accusations that nicotine levels in cigarettes have been lifted to increase addiction have been denied.

The Clinton administration is clearly intent on putting pressure on the tobacco industry leaders and stories abound that restrictions on smoking will be imposed. A rumour that Philip Morris, the leading US tobacco group, is planning to parcel its tobacco side into a separately quoted company added to the disquiet.

Glaxo Holdings was another suffering from US influences. Morgan Stanley, the US investment house, sharply downgraded its earnings expectations, leaving the shares nursing a 6p fall at 568p.

Other drugs weakened, with Zeneca off 14p to 720p. But Fisons continued to enjoy the attention of bid and recovery hopes, up 4p at 153p.

Bass frothed up 9p to 554p as the expectation grew that the long suspected sale of the Britvic soft drinks group was about to be finalised. The rumour was strong enough to submerge sell comments from Credit Lyonnais Laing.

'Although Bass has come back into favour of late there has not been a fundamental improvement in the group's prospects', said analyst Julie Bower. She expects a pounds 20m profit improvement this year to pounds 528m.

Oils were mixed as crude prices continued to firm, helped by talk of a Nigerian cutback. British Petroleum rose 5p to 376.5p and Shell 3p to 710p.

Clyde Petroleum shaded 1p to 33p with some large lines going through.

Tullow Oil was firm at 24p in brisk trading, which included the 7.2 million placing of the open offer rump by Riada, the Dublin stockbroker.

Scottish Hydro-Electric dropped 19p to 352p as, it is thought, Barclays de Zoete Wedd pulled the plug with a sell recommendation. Other electricities were dull.

Motor dealers advanced, helped by positive comments at an S G Warburg seminar. T Cowie gained 9p to 323p and Henlys 6p to 291p. Reg Vardy, with extra impetus from a positive trading statement, gained 13p to 209p.

Lep, the freight forwarder, put on 1.25p to 5.25p on the settlement with former chairman John Read.

Johnson Fry, formerly LIT, rose 10p to 298p ahead of results on Monday.

Acorn Computer added another 5p to 88p. Its product presentation of two new computers, including a stacking system, was, it seems, well received.

But the market is awaiting the expected Olivetti sale of all, or part, of its controlling shareholding and a flotation of the Advance Risc Machines chip operation where Acorn has a 43 per cent interest.

Action in the nil-paid rights of the Lasmo oil group. When trading started a leading investment house, thought to be Schroders, sold 5 million nil-paid to the best bidders - Cazenove and NatWest Securities. The two houses then sold the shares at 18.5p. In busy trading, with Seaq putting volume at 16 million, they closed at 19p and the underlying shares fell 4p to 124p.

The splendidly named British Empire Securities & General Trust is 'substantially undervalued', believes stockbroker John Siddall. Analyst Kevin McKenna argues the 10 per cent discount on assets is too large compared with similar trusts. The yield, a mere 1.2 per cent, is unattractive but the trust is geared to capital growth. The shares were little changed at 93.75p.

The FT-SE 100 index fell 14.1 points to 3,131.7 and the FT-SE 250 index 9.1 to 3,792.1. Turnover was 629.7 million shares with 24,787 bargains. The account ends on 22 April with settlement on 3 May. Gilts staged a late rally.

(Graph omitted)

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