Market Report: Downgrades take a heavy toll among high flying stocks

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The Independent Online
Pearson, the banking to publishing group being reshaped for the next millennium by American Marjorie Scardino, was under pressure as investment house Merrill Lynch lowered its profit estimates.

The Financial Times group weakened on Wednesday after it had warned growth was slowing and Salomon Smith Barney cut its expectations. The US investment house reduced its forecast by 9 per cent to pounds 320m. Last year Pearson produced pounds 356.8m.

It was not clear by just how much Merrill trimmed its expectations. It did, however, say it continued to rate the shares a buy. Pearson, riding high near its 849p peak, took the latest downgrading badly, falling 34p to 790p.

Another under the weather on a profit revision was Marks & Spencer, doyen of high street retailers. On Wednesday Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull trimmed its profit forecast a mere pounds 20m to pounds 1.14bn. The reduction struck a nerve. With retailers ruffled by the unseasonably slow Christmas sales build up, M&S softened a further 26p to 574p, a 46p fall since the SocGen caution. In the autumn the shares touched 664.5p.

The rest of the stock market tended to drift lower, although trading was often brisk with turnover topping 1 billion shares. There was no evidence of any particularly large trades. Footsie failed to hold an early gain, ending 22.5 points lower at 5,168.3; today's futures expiry created a little unease.

Hays, the business support group, gained 23p to 838p as NatWest Securities said buy; Henderson Crosthwaite lifted its profit forecast, from pounds 180m to pounds 187m, but reduced its recommendation from buy to hold.

Kingfisher, a Henderson buy, moved in the right direction, up 10p to 855p.

Analytical comments provided some action. SocGen put a target of 450p on the IMI engineering group and SBC Warburg said buy; it was enough to lift the shares 12.5p to 408.5p.

GRE, however, had to contend with mixed reviews. The insurer topped the Footsie leader board with a 16.75p advance to 340.75p. Trading was brisk. SocGen said sell; Dresdner Kleinwort Benson suggested buy. Warburg, lifting the shares from sell to hold, cut its profit forecast from pounds 205m to pounds 180m.

Asda's interim profit advance pushed the price 7.5p to 178p; its alleged bid target, Safeway, put on 7.5p to 336.5p.

Diageo's spirited debut was eroded as the spirit giant fell 10.5p to 580.5p. Scottish & Newcastle remained in form, up 27p to 785p.

Engineer Triplex Lloyd rose 10p to 272.5p as a US quoted group, Doncasters, unveiled a pounds 194m offer; 280p a share. Fashion chain Country Casuals returned to the bid limelight, gaining 31p to 122.5p as a mystery bidder appeared.

Shield Diagnostic tumbled 67.5p to 705p following an unexpected delay over the signing of its first commercialisation deal and the continuing failure of Abbott, the US group, to buy into the company. Biocompatibles International was again in the sickbay over its unfulfilled US ambitions, falling 65p to 490p; the shares were 1,420p in the spring. On Ofex BioFocus, a medicinal chemistry company, gained 13p to 50.5p on a tie up with ViroPharma, a US group. Entrepreneurial investor Trevor Davies has lifted his BioFocus stake to nearly 19 per cent.

TransTec, the engineer linked to the Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson, slumped 19p to 67.5p, lowest for three years. Conglomerate TT fell 3p to 280p, a 12 month low, and paper group Ferguson International reacted to a new profits alert with a 36p fall to 94p, worst for more than five years.

Sketchley firmed to 43.5p. Interim figures are due on Monday. There is talk they will be accompanied by corporate action, possibly disposals.

Chieftain, the insulation group which early this month revealed trading was going exceedingly well, gained 9p to 91.5p with suggestions of a bid, maybe a management buy-out.

Abacus, a recruitment group, jumped 41.5p to 251.5p. First-half profits are expected to emerge at pounds 800,000, despite office start-up costs. In the same period last year the company managed pounds 220,000 with the full year producing pounds 813,000. The shares were 16p two years ago.