Market Report: Bulmer leaps further on rumours of French interest

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The Independent Online
MENTION cider, and you conjure up warm images of farmers, orchards and the rolling hills of the West Country. Unless you happen to be talking to an investor, in which case cider is synonymous with sliding share prices.

In recent years, the market for cider has been shrinking relentlessly. Facing the dual temptations of alcopops and cheap imported beer in supermarkets, British boozers have increasingly decided to leave cider on the shelf.

The result is that shares in all the quoted cider makers have more or less halved in the past 12 months. Until Tuesday, that is, when shares in HP Bulmer took a sudden uncharacteristic leap. They did the same yesterday, closing the day up 26p at 381p. A month ago, they were 310p.

According to well-informed market sources, French drinks giant Pernod Ricard is currently running its slide rule over Bulmer, which is responsible for tipples including Strongbow, Woodpecker and Scrumpy Jack. Pernod has already had a look at rivals Matthew Clark and Merrydown, but decided against making an offer.

Previous predators have always been deterred by the Bulmer family's large shareholding in the company, which means that they could block any deal they didn't like. Various family members between them have 23 per cent of the company, and have shown no sign of wanting to sell out.

However, having seen the value of their holding fall by almost 40 per cent since the shares peaked at 626p early last year, they might now be more willing to listen to someone who offered them a decent price.

A massive profit warning from Next yesterday dumped the retailer down a massive 173.5p at 544p and dragged most of the other retailers down with it. Marks & Spencer lost 16.5p to 603p while DFS dropped 18p to 344.5p. Arcadia, down 22p at 464p and House of Fraser, 7.5p lighter at 162.5p, also suffered.

JJB Sports continued its recent slide as rumours of poor trading intensified. The shares, 37.5p lighter at 635p, peaked at 822.5p a few weeks ago.

The general sense of gloom was reflected in the market, which dropped steadily throughout the day. Although Footsie managed to recover some of the 117-point drop it was showing in the early afternoon, it still ended the day down 62.2 points at 5905.6.

The biggest volume of the day was in mobile phone group Orange, where SBC Warburg spent the day busily placing the 16.11 per cent stake it had taken over from British Aerospace with institutional shareholders. Warburg paid just under 396p for the shares, and initially succeeded in keeping the market price around 400p.

As the day wore on, however, the broker found itself with spare stock and a number of large trades went through at 395p. At the end of the day, 143.88 million shares had been traded. That was less than the 193 million SBC Warburg started the day with, although market sources said the broker had also successfully placed blocks of shares with investors in the US.

Orange shares ended the day down 21.5p at 397p, while BAe added 3p to 2005p.

Telecom stocks continued their recent retreat as takeover hopes faded. Local loop operator Colt Telecom, a former bid favourite, was slammed down 90p to 1242.5p. The stock peaked at 1630p earlier this month. BT was 16p lighter at 634p while Cable & Wireless gave up the previous day's gains to close at 735p, down 19p.

Media stocks were in demand. Capital Radio continued its recent surge, firming 18.5p to 718.5p. Television group Carlton was up 11p at 460p and BSkyB added 5.25p to 472p.

Security group Williams was the best performing Footsie share with a 24.5p rise to 451 after it unveiled plans to sell and float off peripheral businesses, as well to return pounds 300m to shareholders.

Disco group Northern Leisure boogied up 65p to 582.5p after revealing it was in bid talks. Meanwhile engineer Flare dropped 10p to 30p on a profit warning. The shares were over 120p less than six months ago.

The departure of two directors gave a boost to Northern Irish group Powerscreen, up 40.5p at 236.5p. The shares had slumped from 762.5p to 196p after a profit warning which sparked allegations that the two knew of problems at a subsidiary before they issued new shares when the price was still high. Analysts said the firm could now be a bid target.

UK Safety eased 0.75p to 3.75p. The protective clothing group is on the receiving end of a 2.5p a share bid from a management buyout team, and is only surviving with help from Bank of Scotland.