Market Report: BT weighed down by Brussels probe

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The Independent Online
THE THREAT of one of those interminable Brussels probes left BT dialling the wrong numbers. The shares, also weighed down by disappointing Cellnet figures, fell 32p to 862.5p.

BT was one of the blue chips frolicking in the heroic three-day stock market run, which lifted Footsie 374.4 points. The retreat coincided with a much more subdued market display as shares paused for breath.

According to leaks from Brussels the European Union's competition commissioner, Karel van Miert, intends to extend the investigation into BT's proposed alliance with US giant AT&T for another four months.

BT, it is thought, is prepared to sit out a year's regulatory investigation; so although the extra four months added so far should not come as a surprise, it was clearly enough to disconcert the market.

The telecom giants said in July they wanted to create a global telephone venture with $11bn in yearly revenue, providing low-cost voice, data and video services to major customers.

After the EU sting came the Cellnet results. The mobile phone company, 60 per cent owned by BT, made pounds 98m half-year operating profits against pounds 106m; turnover, however, was higher at pounds 666m against pounds 562m.

Securicor, accounting for the remaining 40 per cent of Cellnet, fell 23p to 483p.

Footsie closed 50.1 points down at 5,798.3. It had, on the back of New York's overnight record, opened with a flourish but was soon in negative territory. The day's activity was seen by many as a necessary consolidation after the heady atmosphere of the past three trading days.

Supporting shares, which have lagged their blue chip peers, made moderate headway with the mid cap index up 22.7 to 4,923.9 and the small cap 4.3 to 2,064.7.

The engineering twosome at the heart of Monday's romp, BTR and Siebe, had a restrained time. BTR slipped 4p to 129p and Siebe 8p to 235p.

GRE, the insurer that has said it is open to offers, gave up 6.5p to 344p. Norwich Union, rumoured as a bidder, lost 17p to 443p. But financials remain the flavour of the month. Barclays rose 52p to 1,451p and CGU 12p to 1,030p.

Pearson, the banking and publishing group, rose 23p to 1,103p after an early 30p fall. The shares were initially ruffled by a US group backing out of a deal, saddling Pearson with unexpected debt. But positive comments from investment house Morgan Stanley came to the rescue.

British American Tobacco was puffed up 13p to 545p on the apparent US smoking and health settlement and by higher US cigarette prices.

LucasVarity, still smarting over its failure to move its domicile to the US, fell 13p to 203p and BOC lost 29p to 892p as Warburg Dillon Read made cautious noises about the chemical industry.

Spirit giant Diageo, off 13p at 687p, was unsettled by fears that LVMH, the French group, planned to sell all, or part, of its 10.9 per cent stake.

Compass, the contract catering group, moved 15p higher to 635p; Rentokil Initial, which is known to have looked at Compass, reversed an early fall, ending 7.5p up at 367p.

Debenhams cashed up a 9p gain to 394.5p after investment house BT Alex.Brown suggested the department store chain had many of the characteristics that used to support Marks & Spencer. Alex.Brown cut its M&S profits estimates by 4.2 per cent to pounds 860m and by 5.3 per cent to pounds 960m.

M&S, due today to hold a board meeting to discuss who will emerge as the heir apparent, fell 6p to 448p.

WS Atkins, in talks to buy the Bovis contract management arm, fell 51.5p to 551p but engineer Weir, in belated response to Monday's investment presentation, gained 20.5p to 218.5p.

Ashstead, the plant hire group, slipped 2p to 168.5p ahead of what was said to be a positive investment presentation to 40 fund managers.

Parkland, the textile group, firmed 9p to 31.5p as a 35p cash offer duly appeared from a consortium that includes members of the founding Hanson family.

Airtours, the holidays group, fell 25p to 410p following figures and a pounds 250m convertible bond issue, which, surprisingly, is not being handled by house stockbroker ABN Amro.

Charter, the engineer, hardened 4.5p to 280p after Credit Lyonnais said buy, pointing to a 14.3 yield and a 4.4 PE ratio.

Reunion, the mining group with a zinc strike in Namibia, hardened a further 16.5p to 52.5p.

A profit warning hampered Sterling Industries, off 29p at 225p.

SEAQ VOLUME: 1.02bn

SEAQ TRADES: 76 432

GILTS INDEX: 112.20 -0.27

CRANSWICK COULD be a beneficiary from the resumption of beef exports. The group is a major producer of animal feeds and should reap rewards as farmers build up their cattle stocks. The shares rose 24p to 304.5p; they have come up from a 211.5p low hit early last month. Last week HSBC said the shares should be 360p. Profits last year were pounds 5m; around pounds 6.5m is likely this year.

ALBERT FISHER, the struggling food group that suffered a pounds 20.5m loss, could bounce from its 7p low. It has lowered its interest bill by rearranging part of its pounds 150m debt and is thought to be near to selling two businesses for around pounds 100m. Selling by income funds, forced to unload when the final dividend was scrapped, should be coming to an end. The shares have come down from 37p in the past year.

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