Market Report: Norwich Union lifted by takeover talk once again

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The Independent Online
Norwich Union, the insurance group which has suffered near continuous blasts of takeover speculation since arriving on the stock market in the summer, again stole the limelight, gaining 8.5p to 359p.

In busy trading the shares were at one time riding at 361.5p with a stream of small deals going through.

The insurer has put on a remarkable display since flotation when shares were offered to members at 265p and institutions at 290p. Members also collected free shares.

Long before Norwich made its market debut there was a strong conviction its days of independence were numbered. Indeed, towards the end of the flotation count down there was often intense speculation of bids being prepared.

The latest share strength heralds another round of bid talk. Barclays and Lloyds TSB remain the market's favourite predators.

The Barclays image, suffering from the BZW sale fiasco, would benefit from a positive move like an insurance strike and Lloyds has already made clear it still nurses insurance ambitions.

But the bid story does not get universal support. There is a school of thought that the share display is due to institutions taking advantage of selling by small shareholders. At the time of the issue their allocations were cut back.

Norwich shrugged off a downbeat session which was threatening to be a non event even before the surprise interest rate increase. Footsie ended 44.5 points down at 4,863.8; at one time it was off 67.1. Supporting shares were also ruffled.

RJB Mining had another distressing time, hit by a mystery 8 million share sale. An institution sold the shares at 150p, below the then market price, to another institution. The identity of the buyer and seller was not disclosed but many suspect Mercury Asset Management topped up its stake with Abbey Life unloading.

RJB has been hit by cheap coal imports and generators switching from coal to gas. It has warned of pit closures and 4,000 job losses. The Government has ruled out offering a helping hand.

Last month Dresdner Kleinwort Benson said sell and warned the shares may be worth only 100p; they ended 15p off at 165p.

Pilkington was again the heaviest traded share with a 31.7 million volume recorded. The price recovered some of Wednesday's fall, ending 5.5p higher at 136.5p.

Rank, up 3p to 346p, continued its buy back programme, picking up 1.8 million shares at 345p. Analysts toured some of its British leisure operations this week.

Colt Telecom remained in form following Wednesday's results. It added a further 24.5p to 561.5p, a 47p two-day advance. Faber Prest, a specialist distributor, motored 102.5p to 340p as a possible bidder emerged but shopfitter Havelock Europa crashed 108p to 142p following a warning profits were being hit by sterling's strength. Ushers of Trowbridge, the brewer, remained flat on Wednesday's profit warning, falling another 9p to 85p.

Vickers firmed 1p to 249p while Mayflower, the possible buyer of its Rolls-Royce cars division, fell a further 5.5p to 184p. T Clarke, a little electrical installer, surged 17p to 98.5p after declaring a 17p a share special dividend. Current trading, it said, was encouraging. It has won contracts for power installations at Harrods in Knightsbridge and the fit out of the Marriott Hotel at Heathrow.

Aston Villa, despite its Euro success, ran into selling, falling 70p to 762.5p.The shares were 1,070p when they arrived in the spring. The European victory lifted Manchester Utd just 1p to 654p.

Northern Leisure's upbeat trading statement pushed the shares 11p higher to 325.5p, a peak. Matthew Clark, the hard pressed cider and wine group, softened 3p to 241.5p after Merrill Lynch turned cautious.

Helphire, interim figures next month, advanced 16p to a 251.5p peak. There is some talk of corporate action. The company provides credit for motorists involved in no-fault accidents.

Kay's Food, the contract caterer, held at 2.75p. Kevin Leech, chief of ML Laboratories, has lifted his interest to 6.6 per cent through his Millennium Ventures. Stuart Sim, ML's finance director, has around 1 per cent.

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