Market Report: Mineral groups suffer as metal prices take a pounding

After the oil spill it was the turn of mineral groups to take a pounding. RioTinto and Billiton were in the front line, reflecting the seemingly continuous slump in metal prices.

With little sign of any metals revival Rio fell a further 37p to 736p and Billiton 7.5p to 157p. Rio touched 1,109p last summer; Billiton was floated at 220p in July and subsequently hit 249p.

There were casualties among the smaller fry with Avocet Mining off 4p at 94p - it touched 241p last year - and Reunion, down from 138p, easing 6p to 85p.

Oils staged something of a revival although bearish comments continued to swirl around, with the investment house Henderson Crosthwaite cutting this year's crude price projection from $19 a barrel to $17.5. Positive noises from Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley lifted British Petroleum 13p to 778p. However Enterprise Oil, Lasmo and Shell remained under pressure.

In busy trading Footsie suffered its first fall of the year, off 40.3 points at 5,224.1. Supporting shares were more positive.

Asda was the best performing blue chip, rekindling hopes it still hankers for a chance to strike at its hard-pressed rival Safeway. The shares rose 6.25p to 185.75p, a year's high, with Safeway managing a 3.5p gain to 345.5p.

Northern Rock, the building society turned back, was knocked off its pedestal by comments it is the most expensive banking share in Europe and was 15 per cent overvalued. SBC Warburg offered to take profits advice. Still, the setback was confined to 4.5p at 614p as buyers moved in when the price retreated 12p.

Rexam, the packaging and paper group, had an uncomfortable time as Merrill Lynch lowered its share rating to neutral and cut this year's profit forecast from pounds 220m to pounds 205m. With a 7.6 million trade at 270p adding to their woe, the shares fell 16p to 275p. In 1995 the price reached 521p.

Merrill gave Securicor a friendly push with a buy recommendation; the price rose 13p to 313.5p.

Hambro Countrywide, the estate agent, was the hot takeover tip of the day. The shares bounded 11p to 115.5p as stories surfaced that the 52 per cent owned by Hambros, the merchant bank being acquired by Societe Generale, could be on the move.

Hambros has said that as part of its break-up its Countrywide stake will be distributed to its shareholders. Such a scheme could take six months to reach fruition and the yarn flowing around suggested an impatient bidder was seeking to short-cut the process. Hambros put on 3p to 255.5p.

Chemicals attracted attention. Albright & Wilson gained 9.5p to 155.5p on takeover talk and Hickson International was given a 7p speculative boost to 73p. Settlement of Courtaulds' long-running dispute over Lyocell fibre left the shares 1.5p down at 290p.

General Electric Co fell 7.5p to 394.5p as it started its pounds 300m share buy-back and ABN Amro Hoare Govett was said to be keen on the shares. National Grid, 9p higher at 313p, reflected buying for the special dividend payment.

Henderson repeated its buy advice on Rank, off 3.5p to 344.5p; it has turned cautious on Northern Foods, down 1.5p to 266,5p.

Booker, the food group, continued to draw comfort from Warburg support, up 20p to 353.5p.

Ionica, the fledging telephone group, held at 303p as Warburg, the bank behind the heavily criticised 390p flotation, acquired 343,000 shares, lifting its stake to 4.33 per cent.

A bullish trading statement from Electronic Boutique added 1.25p at 49.75p. The video retailer achieved 70 per cent sales growth over Christmas. But caution from Dawson, the newspaper distributor, shredded the price 39p to 176p.

Triplex Lloyd, the engineer. held at 272.5p as the bidder Doncaster, a US group, picked up a 6 per cent stake.

Zetters, the bingo and pools group, hardened 7p to 158.5p after admitting bid approaches had developed into talks although they were "of a very preliminary nature".

Verity, with a wafer-thin sound system, rose 3.75p to 73p; speculation intensified it was on the verge of clinching significant licensing deals. The group is taking part in a trade show at Los Vegas and, according to rumour, has received dozens of enquiries from hopeful licensees.

Blick, the electronic group, made further headway on bid hopes, up 22.5p to 320p. Printer Fairway, which has signalled bid interest, rose another 3p to 68.5p.

Jacques Vert, the troubled fashion group, returned from a two-month suspension at 22.5p, up 1p.