Market Report: Small caps start to reveal their hidden value

IT IS BEGINNING to look as if shares on the stock market undercard, after a long run of poor performance, are at last emerging into the sunlight.

This year the small cap index has displayed unexpected vigour, and since the middle of last month has, with a few hiccups, made steady progress.

It is now around the level achieved in the middle of August and could be starting to run ahead of its fellow indices, the Footsie and the 250- strong mid cap index.

Takeover action and management buyouts have been major contributors to the sudden display of enthusiasm. They underlined what many investors had for long overlooked - the hidden value lurking in the less glamorous areas of the market.

The sudden batch of surveys drawing attention to the so-called public- to-private deals has, rather belatedly, added fuel to what was already a smouldering fire.

Yesterday the small cap index edged forward a further 3.6 points to 2,240.6. There was, for once, not much in the way of corporate action to create excitement.

The only deal was what looked like a 112p-a-share reverse takeover of Clan Homes, which jumped 20p to 110p. But there was the usual raft of rumours. Austin Reed, the menswear retailer, rose a further 14.5p to 113.5p on stories of Arcadia or Selfridges interest; Shami Ahmed, the man who created excitement by stake-building in House of Fraser last month, is said to have 2 per cent. Allied Carpets piled on 4p to 43.5p on suggestions that venture capitalists may pounce.

Struggling Tie Rack firmed by 8p to 36p as stories resurfaced of a merger with unquoted Sock Shop. Even Laura Ashley, up 2p to 20.5p, was accorded the benefit of a bid rumour with the upmarket womenswear chain, Hobbs, said to be on the prowl.

Union, once the proud Union Discount Co of London, rose 5p to 25.5p on vague talk of corporate action. And hopes that the signalled Albright & Wilson bid was about to appear lifted the chemical group's shares 10p to 100.5p.

Footsie followed Friday's advance with a 72.5-point gain to 6,023.2, its first time above 6,000 since the start of the month. The mid cap index fell 10.5 points to 5,177.2.

In recent weeks Footsie has been inclined merely to mirror the Dow Jones average, but with New York closed it had to stand on its own two feet, gathering inspiration from hopes that this week's flow of company results will take on an upbeat tone.

Barclays, figures today, was one of the best performing Footsie shares, up 74p to 1,590p. Other banks were firm, encouraged by Friday's Lloyds TSB results and the signal that it intends to seek out acquisitions.

BT, on its Internet boost, rose a further 27.5p to a 1,072p peak. Suggestions that SmithKline Beecham may return to the merger fray pushed the shares 22.5p higher to 863.5p.

National Power, said to be planning to float its international operations, was at one time 22p higher; it ended 8.5p firmer at 536.5p.

Greenalls, one of the market's bewhiskered takeover candidates, overflowed 36.5p to 376.5p as Whitbread, up 32p at 885.5p, was again rumoured to be preparing to strike.

Struggling Rank, results on Friday, firmed 2.25p to 205.5p after selling five outlets to Luminar, up 20p at 800p.

British Biotech fell 4.5p to 21.5p, a new low, following inconclusive trials for its Marimastat cancer treatment. The shares topped 300p three years ago.

Leisure groups firmed as stories again swirled of takeover action. Airtours flew 11p higher to 457.5p with Carnival again the name in the frame, and Northern Leisure rose 7p to 132p.

BSkyB firmed 1.75p to 508p, with the price probably restrained by stories that the share recovery since last week's interim results could prompt some remaining major shareholders to sell.

British Steel slipped 3.75p to 125.25p following reports it might bid again for Salzgitter, a troubled German steel maker. Tobacco shares were mixed after the Government stubbed out plans by the National Health Service to launch legal action to recover smoking-related health costs. Gallaher firmed 8.5p to 423p.

Rage Software, a computer games group, added 0.75p to 15.75p on confirmation of its deal with Microsoft and the forecast of profits of not less than pounds 3.1m in the year ending June. On-Line, another computer games group, rose 36p to 191p. It announced on Friday that it was in talks with Nintendo. Yesterday its marketing director, Clem Chambers, who sold shares during the riproaring run last month, pumped pounds 865,000 into the company, buying shares at 139p. He now has 27.3 per cent.

Zergo, an Internet security group, firmed 2.5p to 705p ahead of a meeting with analysts next month.

A profit warning lowered engineer Haden MacLellan 12p to 39.5p and Sherwood, the clothing group, fell 8p to 31p as a management buyout was abandoned.

Merrydown, the struggling cider maker, held at 26.5p: Teather & Greenwood has sliced its profit expectations. It is now looking for pounds 250,000 in the year ending next month with pounds 750,000 in the following year.

SEAQ VOLUME: 747.4 million

SEAQ TRADES: 79,062

GILTS INDEX: 114.19 +0.42

STOCKBROKER Charles Stanley captured attention with a 30p gain to a 470p peak; the shares have been strong this month and have nearly doubled since last autumn.

Although smaller stockbrokers are trading well, consolidation is the name of the game in financial services and there are whispers that Charles Stanley is in corporate talks which should be concluded soon. In its last financial year the company produced profits of pounds 4.3m.

SKETCHLEY, the former dry-cleaning chain which now concentrates on corporate textile and utility services, firmed to 44p after Sterling Investment Holdings (SIH) picked up 5.1 million shares, taking its stake to 16.27 per cent.

Much of the SIH holding has come from institutions, which seem to be bailing out. There are suggestions of some Italian interest in the shares, which have come up from their 26p low reached in October.

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