Market Report: Shell shock drags Footsie to lowest close of the year

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The Independent Online
THE PROFITS warning and job losses at Shell cast a deeply gloomy shadow over the stock market. With New York putting on a hesitant display, equities suffered another setback with Footsie ending 77.3 points down at 5,055.6, its lowest close this year. It had looked as though the index would hold its fall to around 40, but a sudden rush of selling at the close dashed that hope.

A relatively volatile witching hour, when futures and options expire, did provide a short-lived splash of sunshine, with Footsie achieving an early 19.3 gain. Trading was heavy at 1.1 billion shares, underlining fears that some investors are being panicked into selling by the fallout which has occurred since Footsie hit its 6,179 peak in July.

There is little doubt institutions are holding on to their portfolios. They are, indeed, often topping them up. But small shareholders are proving less resolute.

However, the late activity was institution-led, with Footsie constituents the main targets. Supporting shares were also hit, with the mid cap index off 40.4 points to 4,646.8 and the small cap down 11.2 to 2,061.

Shell, where Seaq turnover was a staggering 86 million shares, was dumped 18.75p to 336p, after 322.5p. It blighted Enterprise Oil, down 33.5p to 341.5p. But the rest of the sector held firm, with British Petroleum little changed at 816p and Lasmo a shade harder at 176p.

British Aerospace, lowered on Thursday as the market fretted about its Saudi Arabian cash flow, recovered 36p to 362p, helped by the appearance of a few bargain hunters and the signing of the pounds 5bn Eurofighter contract. BAe is a member of the four-company consortium which is developing the fighter.

Many of the other shares attracting a little interest were simply staging token recoveries after steep slides this week. They included British Steel (1.75p to 97p) and Bass (19p to 685p).

Diageo, the spirit behemoth, had a torrid session, slumping 49p to 532p, its lowest since it was created by the merger of GrandMet and Guinness. Maiden figures are due next week, and they are unlikely to be a cause for celebration. The Asian turmoil and the downturn in Latin America, plus the strong pound, are perfectly designed to make life uncomfortable for such a group, and year's profits are likely to be pounds 1.85bn against pounds 1.93bn.

TeleWest Communications, the cable group due to join Footsie on Monday, had appeared in the mood to resist the downturn. But after moving ahead recently the shares slipped 12.5p to 157p as it became apparent that around 4.7 per cent of the capital, 100 million shares, was to be sold by Vivendi of France. The French group was a shareholder in General Cable, acquired by TeleWest.

Rumours that Coca-Cola of the US was contemplating buying a stake in Coca-Cola Beverages, which came to market in July, prompted a 13.5p sparkle to 181.5p.

Halifax, the former building society, dipped 38.5p to 735p on fears that it was launching a price war. Woolwich, off 11p at 340p, was also hit and had to contend with Panmure Gordon sell advice.

Asda fell 5p to 169.5p as it prepared to join the sales war which seems to be breaking out. Already J Sainsbury has announced what are called "promotional initiatives". Sainsbury, after Thursday's fall, rallied 19.5p to 545p.

Perceived defensive shares, such as National Power, up 12p to 553p, and British Energy, up 26p to 580p, managed to resist the gloom. Nycomed, the health group, put on 11p to 351p after Salomon Smith Barney suggested a 540p target price.

It has been a poor week for Imperial Chemical Industries although the shares managed to hold a 1p gain at 501p. ABN Amro believes they are still overvalued and suggests disposals are needed to bolster the balance sheet.

The takeover approaches to Allied Carpets prompted a 12.5p roll-out to 67p; Leslie Wise, after selling its garment operations for pounds 2.8m, firmed 2.25p to 10p.

Tullow Oil, down 3p at 71p, and Dana Petroleum, 0.5p to 7.75p, were hit by the difficulties at MMI Stockbrokers, which has been suspended from trading until further notice.

Buying by Salomon inspired recruitment group Robert Walters 5p to 315p. Walters has agreed a US bid, but rival PSD has built a modest stake largely through Salomon.

Cookson, the engineer, managed a 1p gain to 119.5p despite a Merrill Lynch downgrading, with this year's profits estimate cut pounds 13m to pounds 158m.

One of the day's best performers was FI, the computer group. Following a five-for-one bonus issue the slimline shares gained 19p to 305.5p.

IAF, an odd-mix of a group concentrating on aviation, property and energy, rose 7p to 99.5p. Greig Middleton made bullish noises: it expects profits this year to reach pounds 4m (against pounds 3.6m) and move to pounds 4.5m next year.

SEAQ VOLUME: 1,070 million

SEAQ TRADES: 75,500

GILTS INDEX: 111.09 +0.03

CELSIS INTERNATIONAL, the health group which has admitted it is in talks with three European companies, rose by 4p to 31p on new reports that a deal is close. There are suggestions that a management buyout at 40p a share has been rejected because one of the potential bidders is prepared to pay more. A bid would certainly come as a relief: the shares are in the intensive care ward, having fallen from 141.5p two years ago.

IT COULD all be happening for Emerald Energy, for so long one of the market's most speculative stocks.

The chairman, Iain Alexander, said the group may start testing its Gigante well structure in Colombia next week, and there is talk of a 1 billion barrel strike. However, Mr Alexander said: "We have no firm numbers to put out." The shares rose 0.75p to 8.75p on a 13 million turnover: they hit a 10p peak in February.

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