MARKET REPORT : Crumbs! United back in takeover frame

The FT-SE 100 index gained 10.9 to 3,109.9 and the FT-SE 250, 13.4 to 3,454.1. Turnover was 626 million with 24,039 bargains. Gilts fell by up to a point after news of an auction this month.

Old takeover stories, so they say, are the best, and a quiet Friday afternoon an ideal time to give one of them a spin.

United Biscuits, in every sense, is a golden oldie. In the past its shares have enjoyed innumerable gyrations as take-over rumours have swirled and then quietly faded. Two years ago, on strong talk of a Cadbury Schweppes offer, the shares jumped 43p in two days, prompting a company comment, "Oh crumbs, not again."

Cadbury is not the suspect this time. It has its hands full splashing out £1.1bn for control of the US soft drinks group, Dr Pepper/Seven-Up. But Hanson is free and is known to be seeking a big UK acquisition to help balance its tax demands.

Not surprisingly, then, Hanson was the main name in the bidding frame although such old faithfuls as Philip Morris, the US giant, and Danone, the French group, were also there.

Hanson is an old foe of United. In 1986 the two were engaged in a bruising battle for control of the Imperial Group, then the Courage brewing and Players tobacco combine. Hanson won and promptly sold Courage to what is now Fosters Brewing of Australia.

United has been a trading disappointment, with trendy young management installed a few years ago yet to live up to expectations.

A profit crunch could mean United is vulnerable to a determined strike. Profits, due next month, are expected to be little changed at around £183m. United has been forced to shed jobs and complained about the intensity of the price war. It is one of the branded manufacturers, with such names as McVitie and KP being squeezed by the leading multiple retailers.

The market is now accustomed to being on tenterhooks on a Friday following Glaxo's near-£9bn offer for Wellcome. It struck on Monday after the bid story had leaked into the market on the previous Thursday and Friday.

A plausible case for a United bid - said to be due on Monday - can, therefore be made. And the shares, already up 10p this week, jumped 23p to 365p in busy but crumbly trading. Two small deals were struck at 367p. Seaq put volume at almost 3.5 million shares.

One development confidently expected on Monday is that Fosters will disclose the latest state of play in its bid to sell Courage. Scottish & Newcastle, down 2.5p to 496.5p, and Whitbread, up 2p at 529p, remain the favourites.

The rest of the stock market continued to put on a more confident display although New York, mesmerised by confusing inflation signals, offered little support. The FT-SE 100 index rose 10.9 points to close above 3,100 for the first time this year. At 3,109.9 it is at its highest for 12 weeks.

Tension in the electrical sector also helped spark activity, with many convinced Whitehall will clear the controversial Trafalgar House bid for Northern Electric on Monday.

Northern rose 2p to 980p; Yorkshire, where bidder-for-all-seasons Hanson is said to be interested, lost some of its early glow, ending 2p higher at 819p. Southern jumped 18p to 747p. The generators gave ground as James Capel was reported to have moved from buy to hold. National Power fell 3p to 478p and PowerGen 2p to 509p.

Banks firmed, encouraged by Lloyds producing figures at the top end of expectations. Lloyds rose 10p to 560p. National Westminster, next to report, gained 18p to 508p. On the merchant banking pitch SG Warburg encountered more defections, falling 25p to 726p.

Among supermarkets Asda was the prime casualty of the latest price cut manoeuvres, falling 1.5p to 65.5p. Argyll, J Sainsbury and Tesco, which yesterday launched a discount card, edged ahead.

Eurotunnel slipped 8p to 298p following another disappointing trading statement. Inchcape, the international trader, dropped 5p to 302p as sellers held sway in the wake of an investment presentation.

Glaxo and Wellcome remained firm; Fisons, still the casualty of the drugs industry, rose 4p to 112p. Takeover talk mingled with speculation it is near to selling its intruments side as part of a reorganisation.

Lasmo, the oil group, was another continuing to respond to the whiff of takeover powder. Buying in the US lifted the shares 3p to 160p. Figures are due next month. Ramco Energy, playing a leading role in the planned development of a £5bn project to develop oil and gas reserves in Azerbaijan, gained 17p to 338p. An agency cross at 340p provoked the excitement, prompting talk of a bid from Penzoil of the US.

GBE International, the tobacco equipment group, made further headway, gaining 8p to 49p. There was talk a stockbroker had turned positive after a visit. The shares were down to 14p last year. The upsurge stems from the arrival of Doug Rogers, of Newman Tonks, as chairman. He has options on 250,000 shares at 16p.

Welsh Gold expects to make its debut on the 4.2 share market on 16 March. It is raising £1.3m, with a prospectus in English and Welsh, offering shares at 50p each. The cash will be used to develop its Gwynfynydd mine in Snowdonia National Park and related operations. After the sale directors will have 73.63 per cent of the shares.

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