Market Report: Disposals talk fuels interest in BP shares

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BRITISH PETROLEUM, still struggling to overcome the humiliation of losing its chairman, suddenly attracted buyers yesterday, with the shares gaining 6.5p to 207.5p.

There were signs that US institutions are still keen on the shares despite the abrupt departure of Robert Horton and fears that the dividend will be cut.

Behind their interest was a story that BP had decided to sell assets worth more than pounds 2bn.

The group has made no secret of its desire to sell non-core operations to enable it to develop its oil business. But a pounds 2bn disposal programme is much more dramatic than had been intimated.

It is suggested that the sprawling chemical operations may have been downgraded to non- core status along with the nutrition arm, the largest animal feed business in the world. BP is seeking pounds 800m for the nutrition division. But there has been no buying rush and it is likely to opt for a break-up sale.

Chemicals could be split between a number of buyers, although BP may retain minority interests.

The Australian mining business is also likely to be sold. But it is the identity of the other disposal candidates that is intriguing the market.

Some believe BP will be forced to sell some of its Far Eastern assets, which are among the crown jewels of its business portfolio. A Middle Eastern buyer is already hovering.

Two refineries where it has minority interests look destined to be the first to go in the desire to raise cash but so too, it would appear, are fully-owned operations. There is also a question mark over some of its North Sea fields.

The oil giant has said it does not wish to sell its French petrol business and its extensive US operation would also seem safe.

The group needs a cash injection to help fund its huge exploration programme, which includes its highly regarded Colombian oil field.

It is unlikely to use much of any disposal inflow to pay dividends, supporting the view that at best the dividend will be cut by a third.

The rest of the market remained under the whip of interest rate considerations, with suggestions that the Germans will not after all increase their rates tomorrow providing a little late optimism.

After falling 16.7 points the FT-SE index recovered to close 5.7 higher at 2,484. But trading levels remained low, reinforcing fears that the City will once again be the scene of more heavy redundancies.

It is generally accepted that a 500 million daily share turnover is required for the market to operate at even a break-even level. Daily volume in recent weeks has too often been below 400 million, with investors big and small determined to stay on the sidelines until the economic outlook is clearer.

The pounds 201m BET cash call caught the market off balance, pushing the shares 12p lower. They ended 4p down at 129p.

WH Smith was unsettled by stories that the Office of Fair Trading had decided to probe compact disc profit margins. The 'A' shares fell 3p to 403p. Thorn EMI fell 4p to 799p.

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The by-now daily raft of profit downgradings took its inevitable toll. UBS Phillips & Drew followed Barclays de Zoete Wedd in cutting expectations for Marks and Spencer, the retailer once regarded as being immune from recessionary influences.

This year's figure, it appeared, was reduced from pounds 750m to pounds 720m and next from pounds 830m to pounds 800m. The share rating has been moved from buy to hold.

The M&S yearly shareholders' meeting is due to take place on Friday. The market expects a cautious statement. The shares fell 6p to 299p.

But for once there was not a blanket of retail gloom. Hoare Govett upgraded its forecast for J Sainsbury by pounds 10m to pounds 735m and Panmure Gordon decided Argos had fallen too far and generated sufficient enthusiasm to lift the price 10p to 227p.

P&O, down 1p to 387p, encountered a James Capel downgrading. The stockbroker cut this year's forecast from pounds 280m to pounds 255m and next from pounds 350m to pounds 320m. British Steel was unchanged at 59p although Smith New Court again said sell, fretting about the extent of this year's dividend cut.

Carlton Communications rose 9p to 616p on talk of an analysts' meeting. Suggestions that APV was preparing to meet analysts was good for a 2p gain to 101p.

Hi-Tec, the sports shoes group, fell 25p to 71p. The company recently put out a profits warning and is expected to face more intense competition following the Pentland Group takeover of Adidas, the sports equipment maker.

Shares recaptured early falls in pitifully thin trading yesterday. At one time the FT-SE index was nursing a 16.7-point fall, but a late rally produced a 5.7 gain to 2,484. The FT 30-share index rose 7.1 to 1,897.4. Turnover was 374.1 million, with only 18,258 bargains recorded. Government stocks made modest progress

Etonbrook, the property group, held at 68p as the battle between the board and entrepreneur Andrew Perloff became more intense. The board plans to repay the preference shares and make a 25p capital payment on the ordinary shares. Mr Perloff is seeking to join the board and wants the chairman Jonathan Harris and the managing director Keith Moss removed.

Housebuilders have few stock market supporters these days but shares of Westbury are rated a buy by Panmure Gordon. After a loss of pounds 15.2m, the stockbroker expects profits to reach pounds 4.6m this year and pencils in an impressive pounds 10m for the following year. The dividend is forecast to remain at 9p. The shares held at 78p yesterday, almost their low for the year.