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Market Report: ICI makes headway but doubts persist

IMPERIAL CHEMICAL Industries, although still attracting cautious comments, enjoyed the distinction of heading the Footsie leader board.

As the stock market took a breather following Tuesday's record-breaking charge, ICI rose 50p to 522p; still a deeply depressed price but at least the shares are now showing some daylight from the 446p seven-year low hit on Monday.

The advance stems from sterling's weakness and chief executive Charles Miller Smith's New York speech, in which he attempted to counter City worries about the group.

But his upbeat comments failed to reassure many of the doubters. His speech quickly produced profit downgradings and yesterday Credit Lyonnais weighed in with advice that its clients should reduce their ICI exposure. Many City profit forecasts are cast around pounds 350m with a few analysts below pounds 300m.

Footsie ended 25.1 points down at 4,828.9 in heavy trading with turnover topping one billion shares for the second session. The mid cap index gave ground but the small cap managed to arrest its decline with a 2.1 recovery to 1,866. Government stocks weakened.

At one time Footsie sported a 95.5 gain; then doubts about today's interest rate decision increased when the Bundesbank president, Hans Tietmeyer, rejected calls for lower German rates. His comments left the market wondering whether Eddie George's Monetary Policy Committee could decide on an independent line and adopt a no-change policy.

New York's failure to hold on to early exuberance was another inhibiting influence.

Still, overseas earners continued to benefit from the pound's decline. Besides ICI, GKN put on 40p to 620p; Yule Catto 13p to 233.5p and Premier Farnell 5.5p to 152p.

Downgrades and upgrades by analysts were in evidence. Colt Telecom won the approval of BT Alex.Brown, which hoisted an 18-month target price of 685p. The shares responded with a 14p gain to 442p.

Waters, which enjoyed safe haven status in the recent turmoil, were hit by ABN Amro, which took the view they were overvalued. United Utilities sank 29p to 915p and Seven Trent 31p to 1,070p.

Alex.Brown trimmed its expectations for RioTinto, off 6,5p at 667p, and Billiton, up 1p at 130.75p.

Barclays, up 51p to 995p, and National Westminster Bank, 23p to 794p, ignored profit downgradings by Cazenove, but Rank, the leisure group, weakened again to 207p as CSFB cut its profits forecasts from pounds 305m to pounds 285m and from pounds 320m to pounds 280m.

Railtrack attracted negative comments from HSBC, falling another 45p to 1,448p but the advertising group WPP collected support from Merrill Lynch, gaining 13p to 231p.

Diageo, the spirits giant, was also in the analytical frame. ABN changed its rating to "overvalued" but then HSBC was thought to have advocated a more positive line. The shares, in busy trading, ended 9.5p lower at 573.5p. They were for a time a shade harder at 585p.

BT slumped 39.5p to 709.5p in heavy trading. There was talk that the US investment house Bear Stearns was a determined seller.

The English generators, National Power and PowerGen, were also ruffled by overseas selling. NP fell 26.5p to 566.5p and PG 31.5p to 852p.

Stagecoach revved up 61p to 1,081p as the rail regulator approved its acquisition of 49 per cent of heavily criticised Virgin Rail. The deal has still to win the support of the Office of Fair Trading.

MFI, the furniture retailer, was unchanged at 34.5p after an investment presentation and Compass, the contract caterer, added 11p to 522p as it hit the City briefings trail. Monument Oil & Gas, taking analysts to see its Turkish operations, hardened 2.75p to 45.75p.

More hi-tech shares suffered humiliation. Vocalis, engaged in speech recognition systems, lost 23.5p to 29p after disclosing a sales shortfall, and Riva, an electronic equipment group, fell 24.5p to 38p following a forecast of static profits.

ECsoft dropped 262.5p to 912.5p with trading below market hopes, and Innovative Technology gave up 15p at 66.5p after talking about seeking financing alternatives.

JJB Sports jogged 83.5p lower to 224p as interim trading failed to come up to expectations, pulling Blacks Leisure down 13.5p to 206.5p.

Queens Moat Houses firmed 1p to 16.5p. The shares have fallen from 43.5p in the summer. The market, which has long suspected bid interest, was intrigued as The Bulldog Fund lifted its stake to 7.8 per cent and Salomon Smith Barney trimmed its holding to 13.8 per cent.

Terranova, the chilled foods spin-off from Hillsdown which most observers feel will be quickly swallowed by another food group, fell 7p to 128p. When trading started on Monday the shares changed hands at 140p. Unigate, a shade firmer at 431.5p, is the market's favourite to pounce.

SEAQ VOLUME: 1.1 billion


GILT INDEX: n/a Wiggins, the property group, is thought to be near to embarking on further airport expansion. It is developing the Manston airfield in Kent and could be close to clinching deals to run airfields in Europe and the United States. There are also reports of bid action with, it is rumoured, a predator thinking in terms of a 17p a share offer. Wiggins, raising pounds 4.5m through a rights issue, saw its shares rise by 0.75p to 10.75p.

Yet another round of long-running takeover negotiations has failed to result in a deal. Abacus Recruitment said after the market closed that talks that have gone on for three months with a US quoted group have broken down. Weakness of the would-be bidder's share price was cited as the reason for the breakdown. Abacus said it is still trading well, but its shares, unchanged at 165p, are likely to be hit today.