Market Report: Scotia's calamity highlights decline of the biotech babes

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The Independent Online
The biotech babes, once the lusty, unstoppable infants of the stock market, are again in danger of being thrown out with the bath water.

Scotia Holdings dealt the latest blow. After the stock market closed on Friday it disclosed the UK health authorities had turned down Tarabetic, a diabetic drug.

Yesterday the once-high flying drug share got its come-uppance, falling 52.5p to 265p. They were floated at 290p four years ago. Since then, they have been as low as 238.5p and, as the biobabes became the market's hot shot sector, as high as 808p.

Like so many of the breed, Scotia has lived on expectation and hope. Losses have piled up with a staggering pounds 19.1m deficit achieved last year. But the blue-sky attitude has faded. Eventually, even in the fledging drug sector, that crude requirement known as profits has to come into the equation. And few biotechs are near to getting out of the red.

Scotia's latest calamity pulled the rest of what is an exceedingly fragile sector lower. Cantab Pharmaceuticals, once 1,072.5p, fell 25p to 640p; Chiroscience, formerly 514.5p, lost 16p to 216p, and Cortecs 14.5p to 169.5p. It once achieved the dizzy height of 875p.

Others hit included ML Laboratories, one of the few in the black, off 4.5p to 82.5p (once 468.5p) and SkyePharma, down 2.5p to 48p against a 287.5p peak.

Biocompatibles International, where dwindling hopes of a US deal has lowered the shares from 1,420p, lost a further 20p to 457.5p after disclosing it expected a higher half year loss.

The big drug groups shrugged aside the problems of the junior faction. Glaxo Wellcome rose 22p to 1,416p and SmithKline Beecham 11p to 618p. Medeva had to contend with cautious comments from Lehman Brothers, ending 6p off at 167p. The securities house, although putting a 300p valuation on the shares, has cut next year's profit estimate to pounds 100.8m but holding this year's at pounds 100m.

The rest of the stock market opened with a flourish of determination to keep alive the Christmas surge which has occurred with near-monotonous regularity in the past two decades.

After notching a 27.9 points gain Footsie faded, ending just 2 lower at 5,018.2. Turnover, considering the festive influences, was reasonably high but the market was largely featureless.

Legal & General, the insurance group, was the best performing blue chip, improving 35p to 515p. A bullish circular, with Panmure Gordon said to be the author, is rumoured to hover; there is also the perennial talk of bid action. Other financials enjoyed support with Schroders 93p higher at 1,895p with some banking on a break up move.

British Steel was a victim of sterling's strength. It fell 6p to 130.5p, not much above its year's low. Engineer Weir lost 5p to 257.5p.

Vodafone had a busy session with vague bid stories running round the wires. The shares gained 5p to 438p.

Thames Water, a casualty of Friday's bloodbath, recovered nearly half its loss, rising 44p to 875p.

Retailers remained in their own land of unfulfilled Christmas dreams. As it become increasingly apparent festive trading would fall below expectations and many shopkeepers had over ordered Kingfisher dropped 18p to 825p and Marks & Spencer 7p to 576p. The Austin Reed offer for Country Casuals pushed the price 11.5p to 132.5p.

Action broke out on the newspaper pitch. Home Counties Newspapers surged 235p to 475p on the Johnston Press agreed pounds 52m offer and Southern Newspapers edged forward 7p to 741p after paying pounds 35m for unquoted Bailey Newspaper Group.

Care First, the health care group, moved ahead 17.5p to 169.5p following the revised Bupa pounds 273m offer. The mbo at Betterware lifted the price 10.5p to 107.5p.

LucasVarity, helped by evidence of US interest, gained 8.75p to 214.5p. Danka Business Systems rallied further to 265p.

Azlan, the computer struggler, added 6p to 54.5p on continuing talk of a Sherwood International strike.

French, a curtain group, tumbled 15p to 37.5p after warning profits would not reach market hopes of pounds 1.1m.