Market Report: Diageo hits peak amid talk of sale by Arnault

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The Independent Online
Bernard Arnault, the combative French tycoon, is said to have lost his taste for Diageo, the pounds 24bn drinks giant created by the merger of Grand Metropolitan and Guinness.

As Diageo shares rose 24.5p to a 615p peak rumours swirled that Mr Arnault had unloaded part of his 11 per cent stake.

His LVMH luxury goods group is thought to be short of cash. The realisation of all, or at least part, of his interest could be a solution to any financial problems.

Stockbroker Greig Middleton has drawn attention to the Arnault discomfort. Its analysts, Tony Cooper and Martin Hawkins, have suggested LVMH could be a casualty of the Asian crisis and must also be feeling the impact of the "extravagant" acquisition of a duty-free group which, "coupled with Arnault's expensive share buying antics to try and influence the course of the Diageo merger must now constitute a threat to his strategy and very survival".

They say the sale of the LVMH stake looks likely "as the financing pressures mount". The LVMH overhang is regarded as a drag on the Diageo price.

Yesterday's rumours suggested Mr Arnault, who strongly opposed the creation of Diageo, had started the unscrambling process in Paris. It was unclear whether he had actually placed shares. One story was that he had sold warrants on the shares.

The 11 per cent stake would command a value of around pounds 2.5bn. With fund managers short of quality shares it would not be too difficult a placing. However, if the present rumours are correct it seems Mr Arnault has decided to whittle away his stake.

The Arnault companies this week drew attention to their Diageo involvement, which is spread over seven companies as well as Mr Arnault and his family.

Blue chips' record-breaking run came to a gentle end with Footsie, after reaching a trading peak, ending 4.9 points lower at 5,718.5. Nagging fears of higher interest rates and an unsettled New York overshadowed yet another round of takeover speculation.

Norwich Union was high on the bid strike list. The shares climbed 18p to a 487p closing peak after touching 500p. The progress underlined the suspicion that insurances will be at the forefront of the round of money mergers the stock market is so confidently predicting.

Royal & Sun Alliance rose 15p to 755p and even the seemingly bid-proof Sun Life & Provincial, where French interests have control, jumped 25.75p to 580.75p. Some other recent high-flyers paused for breath.

Somerfield duly rolled out its bid for Kwik Save and immediately provoked stories of counter-bids. In busy trading Somerfield jumped 38p to 299p and Kwik Save put on 44.5p to 343.5p - not bad for two groups which claimed to be involved in a "nil premium" merger. A German intervention was the favourite option. Asda, at one time seemingly keen on Somerfield, is now thought to be renewing its interest in struggling Safeway, expected to produce another profits warning next week. As Safeway fell 11.5p to 360.5p, Asda rose 3.5p to 199p.

Wm Morrison, the supermarket chain, gave up l 7.5p to 249p after cautious comments from Credit Lyonnais Laing.

BT, at one time up 14p at 614p, ended 4p off at 596p. At their best the shares had added 24p following the investment dinner arranged by Henderson Crosthwaite. Jarvis, the rail maintenance group, continued to respond to presentations in Scotland, gaining a further 20.5p to 549.5p.

British Aerospace, on its figures, ended 18p higher at 1,848p; Glaxo Wellcome responded to its results with a 21p fall to 1,924p.

Da La Rue, the security printer, crashed 92.5p (after 129p) to 270p following a fourth profit warning. The shares were more than 1,000 three years ago.

Other profit warnings taking their toll included Liberty, the stores group noted for an acrimonious confrontation when family influences ousted the executive directors, which slumped 70p to 250p, and ABI Leisure, once riding at 124p, off 4.5p to 11.5p. Sleepy Kids, the character merchandiser, dropped 4.5p to 7.5p after warning of a loss and letting it be known it needs more cash.

How, an engineer, hardened 24p to 100.5p, on a bid approach; British Dredging, where takeover action looms, edged ahead 5p to 168.5p. Biggest shareholder and suspected bidder is Grafton, a Dublin-based builders merchant. It has nearly 30 per cent. RMC has 8.9 per cent and could exercise a right to buy 50 per cent in a joint venture it runs with Dredging.