Market Report: Fun and games mark the end of '98

TRADING MAY have been thin but the stock market indulged in some unusual fun and games in a final, mad 30 minutes on the last trading day of the year.

Footsie was down 98.7 points at mid-day. Just 12 minutes later the fall had been extended to 132.5 as, in futures led trading, investment houses endeavoured to end 1998 with their books square.

Yet by the close of the half-day session the decline had been reduced to 58.9 points at 5,882.6. The index had opened with a 3.4 gain.

Turnover was, for a shortened day's trading, a not unreasonable 188.2 million shares. Much of it occurred in the final stampede.

After the late rush to sell further weakened already depressed prices, buyers suddenly appeared with a series of programmes hitting the market.

When trading started there were hopes that Footsie would test the crucial 6,000 mark. But despite New York's overnight strength investors tended to sit on the sidelines. Once again price movements were exacerbated by the sheer lack of investment interest that is a traditional feature of the festive season.

Many investment houses again relied on a skeleton staff with their major players away, leaving understudies minding the shop.

In the past, the day before New Year's Eve has been a full trading session with the last day of the year reduced to a lunchtime close. This time, because of the advent of the euro, the market is closed today, re-opening on Monday.

During what has been an eventful year Footsie swung from an opening 5,135.5 to a peak 6,179 in June and then slumped to 4,647.7 in October before its rally in the past two months produced a year's gain of nearly 750.

Hays topped the Footsie leader board with a 21.5p gain to 527.5p following the pounds 35.3m acquisition of Axis Resources, an IT outsourcing group. Ronnie Frost, chairman of the business support group, said Hays planned to extend its IT outsourcing operations and he expected more deals next year.

Diageo, the wine and spirit giant, had a year-end hangover as Bernard Arnault, the French tycoon, quit, fermenting worries his LVMH is planning to sell its 10.84 per cent shareholding. The shares fell 21p to 684p; about half the LVMH stake was acquired at an average of 630p as Mr Arnault sought to influence the Grand Metropolitan/Guinness merger which he opposed.

Diageo and LVMH still have close trading ties which should survive a reduction or complete sale of the stake. Mr. Arnault is known to nurse ambitions to grow his luxury goods empire and would no doubt welcome the pounds 2.5bn or so the share sale would produce.

Rexam, the packaging and paper group, firmed 7.5p to 169.5p although it admitted it is not in possession of all the information it would normally expect over its pounds 380m Swedish takeover target, PLM.

Under Swedish law PLM is not obliged to provide details which would be necessary in this country. Rexam, therefore, is proceeding on the basis of published information, its own commercial assessment and the knowledge of its chief executive Rolf Boerjesson, who was chief of PLM for six years.

British Petroleum and its merger partner Amoco have won the go -ahead from the US Federal Trade Commission. They will have to shed around 134 US garages and make it easier for some other petrol stations to switch to other brands. BP fell 12p to 897.5p.

Financials were weak with Barclays off 37p at 1,296p and National Westminster 35p at 1,159p.

BICC, the cable and construction group, jumped 5.5p to 70.5p, highest since September, on hopes it will be a New Year takeover target. Wassall, the acquisitive group that took over TGI, the old Thorn Lighting, in October, is stake building. It may be stretched to mount a bid, with BICC capitalised at around pounds 300m, but its interest, it is thought, could provoke another party. Nine years ago BICC nudged 550p; the price was down to 38p before Wassall showed its hand.

Smaller companies were to some extent helped by the KPMG suggestion that institutions, which often ignore the mid and small cap shares, should rethink their policy as many on the under card are now looking under valued. The mid cap index rose 11.2 points to 4,854.7 and the small cap put on 9.2 to 2,070.9.

Topps Tiles, planning a one-for-one share split, slipped 10.5p to 226.5p. Moorfield, the property group, held at 165.5p. What looked like a fund- to-fund cross of just over 1 million shares went through at a little under the market price.

SEAQ VOLUME: 188.2 million

SEAQ TRADES: 26,310

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