Market Report: Investors put retailers on their shopping list

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The Independent Online
RETAILERS stole a subdued stock market show. Although hopes of lower interest rates have all but evaporated, the sector was encouraged by upbeat statements from Next and Tesco, and a Signet result in line with most expectations.

But it was Laura Ashley, which produced a cautious statement on Thursday, that attracted most attention.

Shares of the retailer rose 7p to 84p as one or two brave souls decided it could be the next takeover candidate. They argued that Ashley was a sitting duck for a predator.

Profits have been disappointing since the group was floated at 135p in 1985, chief executive Jim Maxmin has been ousted and the group felt the need to raise cash by selling its 44.4 per cent interest in a US linen group.

It was, however, the Maxmin departure last month that is seen as opening the way for takeover action. He had managed to pull the international fashion group back into modest profit after three years of losses.

But any deal would need the support of former chairman Sir Bernard Ashley who, with his wife and family, created the group from a business run from a London attic. Although the Ashley involvement has been reduced the family remain substantial shareholders.

Next responded to its trading statement with a 4p gain to 245p and Signet shaded 1p to 44.5p. Tesco fell 1.5p to 223.5p. Sales, it was reported, were up 10 per cent.

The rest of the market failed to hold on to early strength after a dull opening in New York eliminated much of the interest.

Eurotunnel, still celebrating the limited opening of the Channel tunnel, came under pressure as fears mounted that the signalled cash call will involve as much as pounds 900m compared with earlier expectations of pounds 750m. The shares tumbled 30p to 375p.

Lucas Industries was another feeling the strain - down 15p to 175p on the government investigation into a US operation.

Williams Holdings, up 3p at 372p, and Airtours, 1p higher at 500p, reported successful rights take-ups. The Williams call attracted an 89.02 per cent response and Airtours 98 per cent.

Willis Corroon, the insurance broker, continued to feel the impact of its poor first-quarter figures. The shares fell 8.5p, making a two-day decline of 56p.

General Electric Co brightened 7p to 320p, reflecting a presentation, thought to be by Robert Fleming Securities.

Waters rose as the chairmen of the privatised groups awaited confidental letters providing details of the provisional intentions of Ofwat, the industry regulator. Formal announcements are not due until late July and there are worries the details of Ofwat's proposals will leak into the market.

In the meantime the market decided to adopt a modestly bullish stance, lifting most water shares. Thames, up 11p at 491p, led the advance.

Electricities were also back in favour with one investment house, thought to be Hoare Govett, recommending a switch from water.

Betterware, once a high-flyer, edged ahead 3p to 128p. The shares have been hit by worries growth had slowed down. Year's results on Monday should provide a clue. The market is looking for pounds 14.2m against pounds 12.5m.

Horace Clarkson, the insurance and shipping broker, gained another 10p to 104p. Castalia Offshore Partners, a US group, was thought to be shopping for shares.

Eidoes, the video editing group making a rights issue to speed expansion, jumped 100p to 405p and Standard Platform, a computer group, continued to claw its way back with a 6p gain to 26p.

Proudfoot, the recruitment group, had a brief flurry after reporting moves were afoot to make 'some form of offer'. But the proposals, said the company, 'lack any credibility'. The shares closed at 76p, up 1p.

Trafalgar House, confirming a management contract for the Ritz Hotel in London with Mandarin of Hong Kong, held at 97.5p.

Brackenbridge, the old Cupid bridalwear group, rose 1.75p to 10.5p as George Wardale, who helped turn around the French Connection clothing group, emerged as chairman and acquired a stake. Last month the loss-making group was reorganised with a rescue cash call following the arrival of entrepreneurial investors Luke Johnson and Hugh Osmond.

EFG, run by former Scottish Heritable chief executive Robin Garland, is near to obtaining residential planning permission for an eight-acre garden centre near Pulborough, Sussex. Developers are expected to buy the site. The shares were unchanged at 14p. Formerly Economic Forestry Group, the company is known to be seeking expansion in the garden supplies business.

Action is expected at Porth, a loss-making Christmas decorations group where Sir Michael Edwardes, who headed the old British Leyland car group, is chairman. There is talk an acquisition is being lined up. Recently a 9 per cent shareholding was established, thought to be related to Paul Thompson, chief of Sanderson Electronics. The shares rose 1p to 8.5p.

The FT-SE 100 index, at one time up 16.9 points, ended with a 4.5 gain at 3,127.3 and the FT-SE 250 index managed a 1.1 advance to 3,714.6. Turnover was 708.2 million shares with 24,774 bargains logged. The account ends on 3 June; settlement is on 13 June.

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