Market Report: BT climbs to a peak amid talk of alliances and hostile b ids

BT dialled the right numbers as rumours of international alliances and even hostile bids swept through the stock market, lifting the shares 26p to a 583p peak.

At the start of the year BT was drifting along rather aimlessly at 478p. Since then the perception of the telephone giant has undergone a sea change. Two weeks ago NatWest Securities pondered whether BT could be vulnerable. Its strong cash flow and powerful position in Europe could, argued the investment house, make it an attractive target for a US group.

The latest buying surge increased BT's capitalisation by more than pounds 1.5bn to pounds 37.7bn. Remarkably the shares were at one time down 7p. Trading was often hectic and towards the close there was evidence of nerves jangling.

Microsoft, the computer giant, was the latest name tossed into the BT frame. It joined US groups AT&T and GTE.

The Microsoft story caught many dealers on the hop. They felt happier dwelling on the predatory ambitions of AT&T and GTE.

Since BT's great US adventure came to a sad end when it was outbid for MCI it has lost much of its appeal as a global player.

The rush into BT shares suggests many believe the group will find itself in the firing line before it is able to re-establish its international image.

There are not many telephone groups available for it to capture and restore its global creed. Cable and Wireless is one possibility although BT may balk at the possible Chinese hassle it would inherit.

An alliance with another group - Microsoft is clearly the most glamorous candidate - remains the most likely option. Whether such a connection justifies the share surge, which has been helped by the desire for safe, domestic shares, remains to be seen.

The BT excitement provided inspiration for other telephone groups. Colt rose 19.5p to 811p; C&W 14p to 533.5p, Energis 15p to 352p, Orange 12.75p to 292.75p and Vodafone 10p to 490.5p.

The chorus of ringing telephones was in sharp contrast to the rest of the market. Footsie, at one time down 56.4 points, ended 19.2 lower at 5,253.1. Supporting indices were also weak.

Dixons, hit by disappointing holiday trading, jumped 18p to 497p in late trading, responding to the Tandy store closures.

Rank, the leisure group, fell 8.75p to 324.25p, lowest since 1994, following a profit warning from US restaurant chain Planet Hollywood, a rival to Rank's Hard Rock Cafes.

Lasmo, up 2p to 250p, attracted attention with talk of a US strike. Enterprise Oil slipped 3p to 529p although Robert Fleming Securities is upbeat on its Italian activities and regards the shares a buy. British Petroleum, off 32.5p to 779p, was hit by a Dresdner Kleinwort Benson downgrade.

J Sainsbury shaded 1p to 513p with stockbroker Brewin Dolphin saying sell, suggesting the shares could go to 425p.

Cash-rich Associated British Foods hardened 3p to 590p. There is talk it could descend on troubled cash and carry chain Booker, up 1p at 221p.

Latest problems in Indonesia lowered HSBC 24p to 1,380p and Standard Chartered 19p to 564p. Norwich Union and Woolwich made headway as takeover talk flourished.

Director share sales lowered Jarvis, the construction and rail maintenance group, 4.5p to 405p. Another director, Harvey Baird, the property supremo, sold 100,000 shares and now holds 4.92 per cent.

Nycomed Amersham, the health group, suffered a minor setback after saying it may have supplied medical kits withdrawn in Hong Kong. The shares fell 47p to 2,395p.

Engineer Spirax-Sarco held at 543.5p; there is talk of corporate action. Anite, the old Cray Electronic now largely an IT group, rose 4p to 57p. Chief executive John Hawkins has met institutional investors; there is also the inevitable takeover talk with C&W said to be interested.

John Menzies' withdrawal from retailing left the shares 12.5p down at 351.5p. Oasis Stores fell 10.5p to 124p on poor holiday trading.

There appeared to be considerable action in pub chain JD Wetherspoon, with a stream of deals going through. The price hardened 1.5p to 292p. One suggestion was the extensive US shareholdings were being reduced.

SEC, up 16p to 97.5p, is buying a taxation unit from Barclays for pounds 5m. Three founding directors of SEC, a financial advisory network, intend to sell shares which could lead to Intermediate Capital, firm at 390p, lifting its stake to 29.9 per cent.