Market Report: Insurance merger protects against complete rout

Shares fell back again but would have suffered a savage mauling if two staid insurance groups had not confirmed that the merger bug is alive and well.

The pounds 5.4bn deal putting together Royal Insurance and Sun Alliance would, under more normal conditions, have set the stock market romping ahead; the admission that a bid approach had been made to Midlands Electricity would have provided the added glitter speculators dream about. To complete the perfect day for the bulls there was even talk that next week the Government would be prompted to lower interest rates.

But against the backdrop of the Tory poll beating and growing signs of inflationary pressures in the US shares really did not have much of a chance.

The FT-SE 100 index, at one time down 41.8 points, ended 24.8 down at 3,751.6, with the supporting FT-SE 250 index off 22.4 at 4,515.3. Footsie has fallen 81.2 this week and is 105.5 below its peak hit in the middle of last month.

Insurances, however, relished the appearance of takeover action - a development that had long been rumoured, with Commercial Union given a hopeful run on Thursday.

Royal surged 67p to 437p and Sun 55p to 414p. The suspicion other deals will follow lifted GRE 38p to 271p, CU 25p to 615p and Legal & General 22p to 728p.

Regional electricity companies took heart from the Midlands approach. Southern, once the target for National Power, added 9p to 839p and Yorkshire Electricity 6p to 823p. Midlands jumped 38p to 423p.

The generators recovered some lost territoryn with NP 16p higher at 543p and PowerGen, with 21 per cent of Midlands, 21p up at 557p.

BT and Cable and Wireless were friendless after the breakdown of merger talks. In busy trading BT gave up 13.5p to 338.5p and Cable 45p to 479p.

Profit warnings added to the torture. Pearson slipped 18p to 677p and Rugby came off 3.5p to 122p. Adscene, the media group, tumbled 32p to 263p, and Costain, the construction group, 10p to 89p.

BSkyB, the satellite television broadcaster, fell 20p to 454p ahead of figures on Tuesday; British Petroleum, also with figures on Tuesday, lost 3p to 582p.

Drugs suffered withdrawal symptoms. SmithKline Beecham crashed 49.5p to 662p as the US Food & Drug Administration turned down its Coreg drug for heart treatment.

The shares have been strong on hopes of FDA clearance and talk of a big deal. Glaxo Wellcome was caught in the SKB slipstream, losing 14p to 800p.

Smith & Nephew continued to progress on its skin-growing alliance, moving 3p to 197.5p. SkyePharma, the Ian Gowrie Smith vehicle, made another return to market. The shares touched 87p, closing at 79p against a 75p placing price.

Oxford Molecular gained 13p to 326p as Cazenove, the stockbroker, placed 15 million shares with institutions at around 300p.

They came from the original venture capital backers of the group. It was the first opportunity they have had to sell following a two-year lock- in. The venture capitalists sold up to half their holdings.

MSB International, the computer group which made a sparkling debut on Thursday, fell 9p to 234p. The shares were sold at 190p.

Colorvision, the electrical retailer, had a see-saw session after the Office of Fair Trading corrected a blunder over the company's consumer credit licence.

Down to 16p the shares surged to 41p once the mistake was rectified. They closed at 32p, up 6p.

Pan Andean Resources gained 6p to 96p on its Bolivian progress report and Jarvis, the construction group, made further headway, up 5.25p to 64p, on hopes of a deal with British Rail.

Inn Business, the pubs chain, held at 54p as United Breweries, the Indian group, sold 3.8 million shares; it still has around 7 per cent.

Tottenham Hotspur's improving chance of a place in Europe next season lifted the shares 26p to 373p, with the nil paid rights in line, up 26p to 93.

Arcon International Resources held at 35p; Finnish group, Outokumpu, was said to have sold its 4.5 per cent stake at 27p.

It was also rumoured to have sold shares in another Irish resources share, Ivernia West, unchanged at 83p.

Pemberton, a property group, held at 80p. It is bidding for the Ofex- traded Best Peninsular Homes, which has residential property in the South- west. The cash offer is 62p against 48p on Ofex.