Market Report: Lasmo battle of wits catches the trading eye

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The Independent Online
SHARES in Lasmo, the struggling oil independent, are coming under the spotlight again after a quiet few weeks.

The company, which has been racked by high debts, disgruntled investors and weak oil prices, is involved in an intriguing battle of wits over the sale of Markham, the North Sea oilfield in which it has a 35 per cent stake.

Lasmo put Markham up for sale months ago to reduce debts, but little has since been heard about the disposal plans. Official word from the company is that disposal talks are still continuing, and the City is getting restless.

There is talk that Lasmo was offered about pounds 100m by Wintershall, the German gas company, but wanted more, a decision that some feel it may rue.

It is felt that Lasmo upped the price following an internal upgrade of Markham's reserves and its better-than-expected operating costs. But some believe it may have put buyers off, with Wintershall pulling out of the auction. Others, however, take the view that there are more potential buyers waiting to snap up Markham. But after the recent rescheduling of its debts, Lasmo does not feel under pressure to dispose of the asset at a fire-sale price.

Meanwhile, hopes of an agreement by Opec, the oil exporters' cartel, to trim their production limits, lifted Lasmo 1p to 132p.

The rest of the market was in diffident mood despite the surprise half-point cut in base rates. A sharp overnight fall in Tokyo and New York pushed the FT-SE 100 sharply lower early in the morning. Although the index bounced back strongly after the cut, turning a 20-point fall into a similar gain, steady profit-taking in the afternoon wiped up the advance.

A key market concern is that the Chancellor is planning to curb tax breaks for pension funds further. Some market watchers also fear that yesterday's move has made another rate cut unlikely until next year.

'The timing of the half-point was designed to stabilise increasingly nervous financial markets. People are wondering whether there will be another one until next year,' one City dealer said.

The index finished 1.3 points lower at 3,069.3, though gilts advanced across the board.

Stores shares were in demand, though. Boots, the chemist, jumped 3p to 522p as UBS turned positive, while Argos, the mail- order group, was 5p better at 333p.

Dixons nudged ahead 3.5p to 270p as investors shrugged off recent worries about weak demand for consumer electronics goods ahead of Christmas.

But WH Smith and John Menzies, the newsagents, were hit after the Office of Fair Trading announced an investigation of the net book agreement, which controls book prices in the UK. Smith's 'A' shares slipped 2p to 457p while Menzies' were 13p down at 559p.

Pentos, the Dillons book chain that led a campaign against the NBA, slumped 3p to 36p.

But Bleinheim Group, the acquisitive exhibitions organiser, crashed 19p to 323p amid growing concern about its accounting policies and trading prospects.

Earlier this week it announced a boardroom reshuffle involving Philip Soar, chief executive. The shares have almost halved this year.

Hopes for a housing recovery sent Blue Circle, the bathrooms and cement maker, 8p higher to 315p. Caradon, the heating and sanitary-ware group, gained 3p to 332p. RMC, the readymix concrete company, firmed 10p to 848p while Rugby, the cement group, was 10p up at 284p.

A positive note on water stocks by Natwest Securities buoyed the sector. North West, which yesterday announced the departure of its chief executive earlier this week, bubbled 7p to 534p.

The firm believes that the company would benefit from Nafta, the planned trading bloc consisting of the US, Canada and Mexico. NatWest is also keen on Anglian, up 7p to 537p. Thames, the biggest water utility, improved 2p to 522p.

Thorn EMI, the music group, dived 35p to 914p after it reported first-half profits at the bottom end of City estimates.

But Vodafone, the mobile telephone company, cheered the market with better-than-expected interim profits. The shares raced ahead 7p to 427p.

Tadpole Technology, the workstations computer maker, experienced a two-way pull. Fidelity, the aggressive fund manager, has been adding to its stake, taking its holding to 1.8 per cent. But the shares eased 3p to 272p.

The FT-SE 100 index slipped 1.3 to 3,069.3 points despite the base rate cut. Trading volume totalled 667.1 million shares. The FT-SE 350 index was 0.1 down at 1,532.6 but gilts rose. The account ends on 26 November. Settlement is on 6 December.

Martin Franklyn, who with his father, Roland, masterminded the leveraged takeover of the sticky tape group DRG, is returning to the London market through the optical company Kitty Little. Franklyn's US company, Benson Eyecare, is selling Kitty the Foster Grant Sunglasses brand. He is also taking a 30 per cent stake in the group and becoming chairman. The shares rose 2p to 37p.

Expect an important breakthrough in Russia by Optometrics, the USM-quoted optical instruments group. The company is about to gain marketing rights from several leading Russian institutes that make high-tech optical devices. Optometrics, which reports half- year results today, will obtain rights to sell the products in the West. The shares fell 2p to 21p.

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