Market Report: Small caps find they have some friends after all

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The Independent Online
THE MUCH maligned stock market under card, for long ignored by major institutional investors, came within a whisker of its all-time closing peak yesterday.

The small cap revival has been largely overlooked. For most of last year the market's little'uns were completely and utterly friendless.

Then a succession of overseas cash takeovers and a string of management buyouts, also for cash, alerted the more astute fund managers to the hidden value still lurking on the under card. Since then the small cappers have been in demand; for much of this year they have made steady although far from spectacular progress.

But since the blue chip Footsie index lost its way after hitting a 6,620.6 points peak in July, the small fry has not looked back and has seemed to grow in confidence.

Their index rose 10.9 points to 2,790.5, just 2.2 below the previous high.

Footsie, too, was on form. The US interest rate increase was no more, and of course no less, than expected and the blue chip index added 54.4 to 6,369.5. The mid cap index rose 27.6p to 6,046.3.

BT was the top Footsie performer. The shares charged 56p higher to 1,004p for no apparent reason other than the telecom sector, which has looked subdued lately, was seen to be fit for another whirl. One market man explained: "It's all a question of rotation; the shares have had a bit of a beating and consequently become oversold; so the case for buying them re-appeared".

Even so, BT's dramatic gyrations are becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend. What is, in effect, still the nation's favourite privatisation stock often moves by 50 pence or so, far sharper than would have been expected a few years ago.

The latest spurt was achieved on a 24.2 million turnover, heavy but by no means outstanding by BT standards.

Other telecoms to hit the high wire included Colt, 65p up at 1,321p, and Vodafone AirTouch 36p to 1,233p.

The only non-rotation explanation for the telecom revival appeared to be vague Continental talk of a strike. Deutsche Telekom seems to be adopting a more aggressive stance, prompting some to wonder if it has its sights on a British group. Last week BT's Sir Peter Bonfield wondered whether the nation's telecoms giant could become the subject of an aggressive bid from an American or Continental group.

Financials were also strong. The market is convinced a major deal is about to be announced. Bank of Scotland rose 42p to 825.5p and Royal Bank of Scotland 62p to 1,322p.

Halifax, for long in decline, added 29p to 698p prompting some to speculate the former building society had at last alighted upon a bid target, although most observers agreed the Scottish banks would prove particularly difficult safes for the Yorkshire group to crack.

Cadbury Schweppes melted 7.5p to 402.5p on continuing worries about the way its soft drink sell off has become bogged down, and brewers reflected stories of poor August trading although the Bass deal with Punch Taverns could be creating an avenue for the bears.

As part of the sale of the Allied Domecq pubs estate Bass shares are being offered at 938.5p. They fell a further 10.5p to 831p, seemingly eroding the value of the deal. Institutional investors are likely to be more keen on the Bass shares than are private shareholders; could they be attempting to deter applications for Bass shares when it comes to Allied's mix and match election?

Aggreko, the power hire group, continued to out perform, gaining a further 17p to a 283.5p peak. British Biotech was another to benefit from a trading statement, up a further 2.75p to 32.5p.

Takeover rumours again swirled around Safeway, the supermarket chain. The Dutch Royal Ahold group remains the favourite to pounce although Kingfisher, with Asda snatched away by the US giant Wal-Mart, could be tempted to strike. The supermarket group added a further 1.5p to 247p in once again brisk trading. At one time the shares were up 5.5p.

MFI, the furniture chain, was another retailer under scrutiny. The shares firmed 1.75p to 42p. Stories that Malcolm Healey, who sold the Hygena kitchen operation to MFI 12 years ago for pounds 200m, planned to bid were accompanied by a few chunky deals. But it seems Mr Healey does not want the problems which would come with MFI.

Debenhams gained 15p to 380.5p. Investec Henderson Croswaithe met the company and repeated its buy advice. Said analyst Matthew McEachran: "It was quite a reassuring story; things are still pretty tough for them but there are plenty of opportunities out there in the future". The investment house is staying with its year's profits forecast of pounds 136m. The retail chain made pounds 138.6m last year.

Eurasia Mining was the under card star, jumping 6.5p to 22.5p on indications it had signed a joint platinum venture with the Anglo American giant of South Africa. Prime People, the catering staff recruitment group, rose 2.75p to 15.25p and Lady in Leisure rebounded 8.5p to 63.5p.

The recruitment group, where the bigger PSD recruitment business is a near 30 per cent shareholder, is a long time take over favourite; Lady in Leisure, the fitness group is struggling to get a pounds 1.6m cash call off the ground.

SCI Entertainment added 16p to 150.25p after Virgin acquired the European budget rights for some of its computer games, including something called Carmageddon.

Fayrewood firmed 1.5p to 166p. The computer group is due to produce figures. It is likely to accompany its announcement with details of another float - this time its French computer operation.

Epwin, a builder, jumped 36p to 179.5p; it is the latest small cap to receive a bid approach from its management. Torex, a computer group, rose 1.5p to a 306.5p 12-month high as a company related to Chris Moore, Torex chairman, lifted its stake to 16.6 per cent, buying 4.9 million shares at 260p.

Magnum Power, the computer chips group, firmed a further 1.5p to 18.25p. Talk of a bid from Chloride has surfaced. But the group should be near to producing some fascinating trading developments Undervalued Assets Trust, an investment group, has 12.4 per cent of the capital.

SEAQ VOLUME: 1.1bn

SEAQ TRADES: 79,741

GILTS INDEX: 106.86 +1.07

IFTE is due to make its debut today. Shares in the designer and maker of simulation equipment for training firefighters and others have been placed by Teather & Greenwood, which has become a leading small cap stockbroker. Against a placing price of 100p, there are high hopes that in view of the heavy over subscription and consequent scaling down, the shares could achieve a heady premium - perhaps even reaching a 135p price.

TELSPEC, WHICH has had an eventful stock market career, rose 8p to 87p on offer talk.

The shares of the little telecommunications group have been as high as 1,045p. However, mixed trading left them limping along at a 31p low by the turn of the year.

The latest gain stemmed from hopes that one of the major groups, possibly one from across the Channel, has decided to descend on the group, which is valued at pounds 26m.

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