Market Report: Drug shares offer antidote to election boredom

Bored stiff by the election and uncertain about New York the stock market seems determined to get hooked on drugs.

Much of the recent action has been among the market's disparate collection of health shares with some turning in highly volatile performances.

At first the bio-babes attracted the action. In the past few days the big players, particularly SmithKline Beecham, have captured the market's imagination.

Reawakened US interest is thought to be the SB spur. The shares rose 22.5p to 915.5p in often brisk trading; they were 867.5p a week ago.

Zeneca was another in demand, up 37p at 1,804.5p, and Glaxo Wellcome threw off its US legal setback with a modest 7.5p gain to 1,088.5p.

Shield Diagnostic, which prompted the current stampede with encouraging trials for its heart disease detection system, had a roller-coaster session with a 32.5p gain surrendered into a 7.5p loss at 662.5p.

The group has replaced stockbroker Greig Middleton with UBS and should benefit from the clearance of a stock overhang.

Apax Ventures, a venture capitalist and one of Shield's early backers, has been dripping shares into the market but now appears to have sold much of its remaining stake. Last week it had approaching 1.5 million shares (7.7 per cent).

A 1.2 million deal at 640p was almost certainly an Apax sale although it is not clear where the shares ended up. At one time Apax had 19.1 per cent of Shield which touched 805p earlier this year.

One pharmaceutical share which has conspicuously missed the drugs party is ML Laboratories. It fell 2.5p to 187.5p, a 12-month low. In 1995 the shares touched 468.5p. Shortly afterwards chairman Kevin Leech and related interests sold 13.75 million shares for pounds 55m. He still has more than 50 per cent.

The ML fall from grace is even more surprising as it has occurred as the company moved into the black - an exceedingly rare event for a fledgling drugs group. Its pounds 5.45m profit should, if stockbroker Panmure Gordon has got its sums right, be followed by pounds 12m this year and more than pounds 100m at the turn of the century.

In lacklustre trading Footsie managed a 23-points gain to 4,292.3 after briefly going through 4,300. Allied Domecq was a major blue chip casualty. Evidence its Teacher's Scotch whisky, once the second-best selling brand in the country, had suffered a sobering 26 per cent sales decline left the shares nursing a 6.5p hangover at 437.5p.

Laura Ashley, the clothing and home furnishings retailer, was at one time up 16.5p as determined buying was evident for the second day running. The price closed 5p higher at 149.5p. Year's figures are due later this month.

HTV was another in demand. In brisk trading the shares were switched on 8.5p to 302.5p. In the past few weeks they have edged away from a 280.5p low. United News & Media has 29.9 per cent of the Welsh broadcaster.

Another frisson of excitement went through the insurance broking sector as David Herro, the Chicago fund manager who achieved a sort of fleeting fame at the old Saatchi & Saatchi, lifted his Oakmark International's stake in Sedgwick to just above 3 per cent.

Sedgwick edged forward 1.5p to 126p and Willis Corroon, regarded as its most likely partner, stirred 1.5p to 156.5p.

Mr Herro achieved prominence here when his actions prompted the departure of the Saatchi brothers from the advertising group they founded. Since renamed Cordiant the advertising business has struggled and its shares are below the level touched earlier in this decade.

Rolls-Royce, finally settling the sale of its Parsons operation to Siemens of Germany for pounds 30m, gained 2p to 244p.

Antonov, developing a revolutionary gearbox, motored 13p to 116.5p and was then suspended. The company hinted a deal was near. On Ofex Conroy Diamonds & Gold opened at 55p.

Thomas Jourdan, the mini-conglomerate which trebled profits to pounds 861,000, rose 7p to 68.5p. Former Suter chief, David Abell, is involved in a shareholder revolt.

What appeared to be coded profits caution put the skids under Henlys, the buses and coach maker. The shares fell 27.5p to 479p after the group talked about the coach and bus division's profits being "weighted towards the second half". The garage side was performing up to expectations.

Dana Petroleum gushed 3.5p higher to 26p on talk of an Enterprise Oil strike.

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