Market Report: S&N subject of rumours as shares recover ground

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THERE were strong rumours yesterday that Scottish & Newcastle was set to pay up to pounds 200m to buy the freeholds on 320 of the 1,600 Chef & Brewer pubs it acquired last year for pounds 736m.

Buying the freeholds would release S&N from annual payments of pounds 19m on the leases, which are owned by Inntrepreneur, the pub company jointly controlled by Grand Metropolitan and Courage.

Drinks analysts said the move would make sense, and could also herald the start of the break-up of Inntrepreneur.

Lease payments on many of the 320 pubs are set to increase at the end of next year under Inntrepreneur's controversial five-year, upwards-only rental reviews.

Besides the rumours in London, there was speculation in Australia yesterday that S&N had offered pounds 500m to Foster's to buy its Courage brewing operations in the UK.

Courage is the second-largest beer producer in Britain, but its profits have been hit by the beer price war fought against Bass, the market leader, and mounting provisions for Inntrepreneur.

Analysts in London, however, said the speculation in Australia sounded 'a bit wild'. S&N is set to stop taking most of the beer currently sold by Courage to Chef & Brewer pubs when its exclusive supply agreement expires next March.

Another recent rumour was that Courage was looking to return to its roots as an integrated brewer and pub owner by buying back 2,000 Inntrepreneur outlets.

Shares in S&N yesterday rose 3p to 482p, and Grand Met improved by 5p to 403p. Grand Met was also aided by a favourable research tome from Goldman Sachs.

Both companies' shares are constituents of the FT-SE 100 index, which yesterday partially offset the previous day's hammering with a 28.1-point advance to 2,984.4. The FT-SE 250 index added 16.3 points to 3,445.5.

Volume share trading was a touch better than recent sessions, although the figure of 579 million shares was still low.

America continued to influence events in London. A late overnight rally on Wall Street, where a initial fall of 50 points in the Dow Jones Industrial Inde was cut to less than 14 by the close, put UK equities on a firmer footing from the outset.

Share prices moved ahead from the bell, and closed only slightly off their intra-day highs, with a steady opending on Wall Street helping to calm nerves.

Confirmation that BSkyB was planning a public offering of 17 per cent of its shares also helped lift the FT-SE 100 index. Pearson, a constituent of the index and a shareholder in the satellite television company, advanced 8p to 580p.

Money from the BSkyB float will be used to repay shareholders' debts.

Other movers among the leaders included Commercial Union, which continued to bask in the success of its rights issue and gained 15p to 512p.

Composite insurers generally were strong. Sun Alliance added 6p to 315p, Royal Insurance firmed 5p to 280p, and General Accident closed 9p higher at 540p.

A lack of fresh bid news saw VSEL slip 13p to pounds 11.80p, while British Aerospace, which this week confirmed it was the mystery suitor for the shipbuilding company, recovered 15p to 454p.

Kode International surged 16p to 80p in early dealings as takeover rumours continued to do the rounds. A denial from the company that bid talks were being held, however, sent the shares scuttling back to 60p, down 4p on the day.

Talk of more US defence contracts lifted Tadpole Technology 9p to 370p.

Share prices recovered some ground yesterday. The FT-SE 100 index rose by 28.1 points to 2,984.4 and the FT-SE 250 gained 16.3 to 3,445.5. Volume trading was a little better at 579 million shares. Gilt-edged stocks advanced by about half a point.

The plot thickens at Bristol Scotts, the property and leisure group. Shares climbed a further 13p to 188p on news that an unknown third party was looking to buy the ousted Kerman family's 25 per cent stake. The company wants open up talks with the Kermans to place the stake in friendly hands. One rumoured buyer is 19 per cent shareholder Nicholas Berry.

Great Western Resources has signed up Enterprise Oil on a farm-out agreement on production for Block 65 in the Mara Basin in Peru. Enterprise will become a 49 per cent working partner on the concession, encompassing about 2.5 million acres adjacent to Block 8, which has several producing oil fields including the Corrientes field. Great Western shares are 42p.