Market Report: Cable and Wireless just can't get its numbers right

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The Independent Online
Cable and Wireless has dialled the wrong stock market numbers this year. It has suffered boardroom bust-ups leading to the departure of the chairman and chief executive, the collapse of merger talks with BT and continuing uncertainty over its prime overseas investment, Hong Kong Telecom.

The shares, perhaps hoping the worst is over, edged ahead 5p to 421p, a surprisingly upbeat performance on a day the market was in ragged retreat.

Still they are more than a dialling tone away from the 546p high hit when BT's hovering presence was confirmed and there seemed every possibility the nation's number two telecommunications group would be a powerful part of an international network.

Yesterday's modest gain was also prompted by hopes of action at its highly successful Hong Kong associate. Its value could increased immeasurably if its survives in style the Chinese takeover of the colony next year. Should the Chinese authorities allow - and present indications are not encouraging - it could reap significant rewards as the major telephone network in the Far East, plugging into the vast China potential.

But the bear story is compelling. Cable faces more intense competition and its new management team, led by American Richard Brown, has still to win its spurs. There are also stories that its partner in the UK Mercury telephone network, Bell Canada International, is preparing to pull the plug on the alliance. It is rumoured to be preparing to sell its 20 per cent Mercury stake.

Although Mercury's performance has improved, a Canadian exit could still be a blow to Cable, particularly if Bell, as is suggested, shows it is prepared to suffer a big loss on its investment to make its escape. Cable's own complacency in describing itself as bid-proof following the BT breakdown has also encroached on sentiment.

The stock market retreat from this week's peak continued with New York again providing the trigger for some significant marking down and just a little selling.

The FT-SE 100 index ended 17.4 points off at 3,867.5p. The supporting index fell a further 15.9 to 4,416.2.

Shares opened lower in response to New York's overnight fall. In the absence of much selling pressure they staged a recovery only to relapse as New York wilted again in the face of mounting fears that higher interest rates will be introduced soon.

Asda, weak since chief executive Archie Norman disclosed he was reducing his day-to-day involvement, recovered 2.25p to 112.5p as SBC Warburg set a 130p target price. Kleinwort Benson and Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull also like the superstore chain.

General Electric Co added 5.5p to 385.5p as its joint GEC Alsthom venture expressed plans to merge with Framatome, France's state-owned nuclear power station.

Frost, the independent petrol retailer squeezed as the forecourt giants waged a price war, was 5p firmer at 122.5p as more evidence emerged that price competition was easing. Figures are due next week.

Cairn Energy rose 13.5p to 361.5p on Barclays de Zoete Wedd and SGST support and BICC firmed 2.5p to 333.5p with ABN Amro Hoare Govett positive.

Firecrest, the never-a-dull-moment multi-media group, fell 14p to 44.5p. It is in talks which could lead to a takeover bid but the market was more concerned about its threatened share suspension on Monday following the departure of its advisers, Singer & Friedlander and Collins Stewart. If replacements are not appointed within a month Firecrest's listing will be cancelled.

First Information, a software developer where a possible bidder lurks, slumped 22.5p to 67.5p. Before it produced a subdued trading statement on Wednesday the shares were riding at 167.5p.

Inspirations, the holidays group, rose 12.5p to 152.5p as takeover stories circulated. Ex-Lands, the property operation which hived off its golf side, was another in the bid frame, up a further 1.5p to 10p.

But Blenheim, the exhibition group, fell a further 16p to 398p. After hours it was confirmed what the market suspected - takeover talks had collapsed. United News & Media was the favourite to strike.

Apollo Metal held at 125p. It is raising pounds 1.68m through a placing at 120p. The cash is needed to support increased trading levels.

Craig & Rose, a loss making paint maker, fell 72.5p to 150p in the narrowly traded Seats market. Waverley Mining fell 2p to 67.5p.