Market Report: Insurers on alert for bid movements

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The Independent Online
A TAKEOVER strike is likely to ruffle the insurance broking community. Lowndes Lambert Group is thought to be on the verge of announcing a bid for Norex, the insurance and travel group that has in the past year made most of its profits from the esoteric world of US oil rig debt.

Aggressive Lowndes Lambert, a 1988 management buyout from Hill Samuel, arrived on the stock market in 1991. Norex used to be known as Common Brothers, a shipping group.

The Lowndes Lambert move has been held back until publication of Norex's interim results, which appeared yesterday. The operating profit was sharply lower but a pounds 28m exceptional item transformed the interim profit from pounds 2.25m to pounds 28.08m.

The group's 49 per cent- owned US offshoot was the star performer. It acquired debt of Global Marine, an oil rig operator, at 68 per cent of its face value. The profit was achieved by selling the debt at near its face value.

The success of US Norex was already factored into the shares. They were strong late last year as the US windfall became apparent. When confirmation duly materialised the shares fell 4p to 160p, more influenced by a cautious statement and the lack of an interim dividend.

Lownes Lambert, which came to market at 290p, held at 352p. The Norex acquisition, which could cost about pounds 20m, will be its second takeover since it came to market.

The rest of the market was unsettled by indications that Germany will not, after all the carefully fed excitement, lower its interest rates tomorrow.

The cautious comments by Robin Leigh-Pemberton, Governor of the Bank of England, also stilled enthusiasm. Even so the FT-SE 100 share index, at one time down 10.9 points, managed to cling to the coat-tails of Monday's record, ending just 0.3 down at 2,882.3.

The array of corporate profits offered little inspiration, with Abbey National and Fisons among those marked down.

United Biscuits put on 6p to 392p, with the sale of its Terry's confectionery business expected to be announced this week. The US drink, food and tobacco giant Philip Morris is the favourite to capture the Terry's prize with, unless it makes a new, late bid, Cadbury Schweppes seemingly pushed out of the running.

Guardian Royal Exchange, due to report today, fell 5p to 188p. A loss of pounds 30m is widely expected but there were indications that the group's last-quarter performance had been ahead of expectations and it could be near to break-even for the year.

Courtaulds, the chemical group, jumped 16p to 590p following an investment presentation at Hoare Govett. Rank Organisation rose 9p to 676p on the back of a push from SG Warburg. The building materials group Norcros fell 8p to 140p as NatWest Securities cut its current-year forecast by 31 per cent to pounds 11m and next by 8 per cent to pounds 16.5m.

BAT Industries had another difficult session on continuing talk about the anti-smoking moves the Clinton administration is likely to introduce. The latest suggestion is that tax relief on tobacco promotional expenditure will disappear. BAT lost 21p to 943p but Rothmans International firmed to 620p.

ASW Holdings, the steel stockholder, jumped 24p to 177p following Monday's results. Danka Business Systems, still reflecting US support, advanced 23p to 660p. ADR interest, held by the Bank of New York, has reached 25.81 per cent. But US selling hit Micro Focus, down 95p to 2,355p.

Gabicci, the clothing group, rose 3p to 41p on talk that the signalled bidder will strike in the next few days. Campari International and Helen are the favoured predators.

Acorn Computers slipped 7p to 123p. A deal with a Japanese group is expected to be announced next week.

The Japanese could buy into Acorn by taking some of the near-80 per cent stake held by Olivetti of Italy; another possibility is that their interest will be directed at Acorn's associate Advance Risc Machines, which has produced a new micro chip. Matsushita is regarded as the most likely Japanese investor.

James Wilkes, where Suter has emerged as an 8.9 per cent shareholder, touched 70p but then relapsed to 56p, down 10p. James Cropper, a paper and board distributor, improved 21p to 209p on suggestions of a bid from Portals, the environmental and specialist paper group.

Boddington Group, the drink wholesaling and pub group, gained 6p to 210p ahead of tomorrow's results. NatWest is looking for pounds 23.7m against pounds 19m.

Osprey Communications, up 1p to 27p, continued to attract speculative interest. Taylor Nelson, the UK's largest market research group, was actively traded, with Seaq putting turnover at 17 million shares. The price was nudged 0.25p higher to 19.25p.

Castle Mill International eased to 12.5p as a board meeting took place at Credit Lyonnais Laing. Brian Roussell, the property man, is expected to join the board soon.

Shares closed near their high for the day with the FT-SE 100 index, at one time down 10.9 points, shading 0.3 to 2,882.3. The FT-SE 250 index rose 0.3 to 3,050. Turnover was 573.2 million shares with 31,187 bargains registered. Government stocks, in subdued trading, made modest progress

Hartstone, the hosiery and leisure group, had another difficult session. At one time the shares were down to 155p. They closed at 167p, off 23p. Last week they stood at 270p. At least two investment houses, including Barclays de Zoete Wedd, the company's broker, have downgraded. There is talk about a provision, estimated between pounds 8m and pounds 15m, and management changes.

Shares of Transfer Technology, the broadly spread engineering group, rose 5p to 454p, a two-day gain of 29p. Year's figures are due next week. Credit Lyonnais Laing expects a surge from pounds 5.5m to pounds 9.3m. The analyst Ian Jermin is looking for pounds 13m this year. With 75 per cent of sales exported he feels the shares should be nearer pounds 6 and describes them as 'an unequivocal buy'.

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