Market Report: Fear of regulators spreads nerves among utilities

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UTILITIES encountered another wave of selling as investors fretted about regulatory interference and the growing pressure on profits.

With the stock market beginning to concentrate on the expected Conservative disasters at the local and European polls the FT-SE 100 index seemed set to end the week below 3,100 points.

But after a hesitant opening New York perked up, prompting the London market to display unexpected resilience.

At the close the 100 index, at one time down 24.3 points, was 4.6 lower at 3,125.3.

Even the electricities and waters, obvious casualties of political uncertainty and the end of the move to lower interest rates, struggled off their lows. But most ended deep in the red despite a revival of takeover speculation.

Waters face their periodic review in late July. The hovering presence of more restrictive measures has prompted some of the privatised groups not to make City presentations when they announce their results in the next two months.

Among the water shares Anglian fell 10p to 469p; Northumbrian 24p to 558p and Southern 17p to 502p.

Thames dipped 3p to 477p. The shares were riding at a 602p high in January.

The stockbroker Greig Middleton expects most water profits to be little changed. Analysts David Campbell and Gordon Culfeather are looking for pounds 252m at Thames against pounds 251.3m. But they anticipate a sharp dividend increase, up from 21p to 22.71p.

Among the electricities East Midland gave up 9p to 556p and Southern 11.5p to 570.5p. Northern, which hit a 789p peak in February, lost 14p to 622p.

Worries about tougher controls have been heightened by last week's leaked letter from the regulator, Stephen Littlechild, indicating that margins will be squeezed to reduce consumer bills.

Takeover speculation is emerging because the electicity and water companies are due to lose the protection of their 'golden shares'. Waters are exposed to the cut and thrust of full market forces in December and the electricities in March.

Talk is that there will be a rush of takeover bids with some seeking the safety of mergers within their industry and others risking the shock of combining electricity and water.

The possibility of industrial groups barging into the comfortable former nationalised industries, attracted by the cash flows of the constituents, is also under discussion.

Donna Lury, an analyst at Nikko, the Japanese investment house, believes a Northern Electricity attack on Northumbrian Water is one of the most likely possibilities because of the geographical fit.

Northern is nearly twice the size of Northumbrian and could see the takeover as a possible 'poison pill' if, as rumours suggest, Scottish Power is interested in bidding.

Nikko also ponders the possibility of Eastern Electricity going for Anglian Water; Seeboard for Southern Water; South Western Electricity for South West Water and Yorkshire Electricity for Yorkshire Water.

British Gas, hit on Thursday by the profit warning, recovered 6p to 286p, encouraged by the high yield. BT fell further, the shares down 8p at 268.5p and the partly-paid 7p at 251p.

Elsewhere, Royal Bank of Scotland improved 9p to 402p on Credit Lyonnais Laing support. Stories that it was planning a bid for National & Provincial building society were denied.

A weak US dollar eroded internationals with Imperial Chemical Industries down 9p at 822p and Shell 6p to 723p.

Lasmo fell 7.5p to 149.5p with Salomon Brothers calculating the value of the hostile Enterprise Oil offer at 132p. Enterprise lost 8p to 416p. Pittencrieff dropped 11p to 336p on the surprise departure of Robert Wolsey, head of its US telephone business, which is being demerged.

Boosey & Hawkes, the musical instruments group, jumped 88p to 1,513p and Pelican, the restaurant chain, gained 4p to 95p as it confirmed the acquisition of the Dome cafe-bars chain from Forte, 2.5p lower at 236.5p.

Insurances were weak, unsettled by worries about coming results.

Navan Resources, operating mines in Bulgaria and Hungary, produced a 21-month pounds 668,000 profit. A Spanish zinc, lead and silver deposit will be developed. The group is expected to appoint a City 'heavyweight' as its broker in the next few weeks. The shares fell 3p to 161p.

Moran, the tea producer and freight forwarder which came out of administration in July, rose 4p to 51p after it swung from losses to a half-time profit of pounds 789,000.

Ransomes, the lawnmower group, improved 2p to 22p following an encouraging trading statement. The company was the subject of a 'greenmail' move last month when it decided to pay its preference dividend.

Barclays de Zoete Wedd sold 15.2 million shares (33.7 per cent) of RJB Mining. The stock was placed among 30 institutional investors at 335p. It was sold by two of the group's early backers, Schroders and Charterhouse. RJB, being developed by Richard Budge, is one of the new breed of British coal mining companies. Its shares were little changed at 364p.

Canadian Pizza crumbled 40p to 120p after it warned that profits were being hit by the supermarket price war. Sales, it added, would also suffer because J Sainsbury had decided to drop some of the group's products. The shares were placed at 200p in November. The company made profits of pounds 3.22m last year but will clearly struggle to repeat the performance this time.

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