Market Report: Hungry punters look for a Christmas with bells on

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The Independent Online
THE record-breaking account ended on a quiet note, but hopes are running high that new peaks will be established in the three- week Christmas account, starting on Monday.

In recent years the festive season has produced some exhilarating share performances. Records were set last year with the FT-SE 100 index recording a series of remarkable gains.

In some quarters there is an understandable fear that after the progress of recent weeks, the stock market is about to run out of steam and profit-takers will get the upper hand for the first time in months.

But the majority view is that further progress will be achieved, although it could be less pronounced than in the past.

A year's close of, perhaps, 3,350 points was the snap prediction yesterday. Some dealers, however, still believe 3,400, perhaps even 3,500, is a possible outcome for the year.

There could, it is felt, be considerable action on the small companies front. Private investors are likely to be tempted by a distant settlement day, 10 January.

The FT-SE 100 index displayed signs of tiredness yesterday. At one time up 10.8, it closed with a 10.3 fall to 3,261.3. But the second- line FT-SE 250 index, demonstrating significant buying for the next account, was up 5.1 to 3,601.3, a new peak.

In the past two weeks the main index has climbed more than 150 points, with the supporting 250 measurement making similar progress. Turnover has been high, twice topping 1 billion shares. The Budget fuelled much of the activity, although even before the Chancellor's decisions were known, the market had got the bit between its teeth.

Cadbury Schweppes put on 19p to 489p with Hoare Govett and Lehman Brothers making positive noises. Hoare is thought to have lifted its profit forecast pounds 10m to pounds 410m. Last year's profit was pounds 332.7m.

The soft drinks and sweets group is seeing stockbrokers before going into the traditional, but unnecessary, close season routine.

But for the Lasmo oil group it was another ragged retreat. At one time the shares dipped below 100p. But buyers taking the view they were oversold lifted the price to 104p, a 5p fall.

The latest retreat stems in part from the deteriorating crude oil price. But the departure of chairman Lord Rees, the third board member to quit in less than a year, created more anxiety about the group's prospects. Since Lasmo won a fiercely fought battle for Ultramar the shares have fallen from more than 300p.

Capital Group, a US investment fund specialising in recovery shares, helped arrest the decline by announcing it had sharply increased its shareholding to 4.67 per cent. Earlier this week Capital lifted its stake in the Fisons drugs group.

Eurotunnel celebrated the builders' handover, after years of haggling and delays, of the Channel Tunnel with a 12p gain to 476p.

Insurance shares were firm with the Lords environmental decision helping sentiment. Bullish comments from Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull also helped. Commercial Union gained 18p to 653p.

Celltech, the healthcare group which came to market on Thursday, had another disappointing run.

The shares fell 12.5p to 217.5p. They were floated at 250p. Other drug shares were subdued, with Wellcome down 29p at 627p following comments about its Zovirax drug.

The day's newcomer, Premium Underwriting, went to 109p from a 100p placing.

Banks succumbed to profit-taking although TSB Group continued to enjoy the comfort of takeover speculation, improving 5.5p to 243p.

Royal Bank of Scotland, which started the sector's share advance with better-than-expected figures, put on 6p to 448p. But the rest fell back; even Standard Chartered surrendered its recent enthusiasm, falling 17p to 1,212p.

In a generally firm building sector, with lower interest rate hopes drawing in buyers, Meyer International gained 12p to 503p. But English China Clays fell 8p to 410p on a rumoured James Capel downgrading.

Shanks & McEwan, the waste disposal group, fell 5p to 87p. A line of 3.7 million shares went through at 70p, probably a tax loss bed and breakfast deal.

Some of the little-known mining shares continued to attract attention. Bakyrchik, seeking gold in the former Soviet Union, rose 13p to 350p. The shares were placed at 120p in August.

Owners Abroad, the holiday group, fell 3p to 79p. It is thought to have seen analysts. There is talk of the group managing only a break-even position in the year just ended.

Marling, the industrial materials group, edged 0.5p higher to 20.5p. Director Mark Sketchley sold 968,000 shares at 19.5p and now has 0.18 per cent.

The FT-SE 100 index gave up 10.3 points to 3,261.3 but the FT-SE 250 index rose 5.1 to 3,601.3. Turnover was 862.5 million with 40,333 deals recorded. The account starts on Monday with settlement on 10 January. Government stocks were firm.

The Greenall family which controlled the Greenalls Group before the shares were equalised has reduced its stake. Through Cazenove it sold 5.66 million shares at 396p. Through a trust, however, Peter Greenall, managing director, has picked up 150,000 of the shares - which were mostly placed with institutions. The family now has 8.9 per cent. The shares fell 6p to 409p.

Regal Hotels, rescued from the corporate graveyard and now trying to take advantage of the depressed state of the hotel market, is buying two properties from Rank Organisation for pounds 2.58m. To meet the cost it is, for the third time in a year, calling on shareholders for cash with shares on offer on a four-for-19 ratio at 1.25p. The deal lifts Regal's chain to eight.