Market Report: S&N's holiday buzz puts fizz into flat FTSE

SCOTTISH & NEWCASTLE, the nation's biggest brewer, was back in demand yesterday after a series of meetings with analysts sparked talk of a sell-off of its Center Parcs holiday business.

S&N surged 29p to 761.5p as the finance director, Derek Wilkinson, toured the City's broking houses to outline the company's near-term strategy and to rein in some of the more optimistic earnings forecasts. Mr Wilkinson is thought to have hinted at some "developments" at Center Parcs, S&N's underperforming holiday camps operation.

The business, which owns Pontin's in the UK and has operations in Holland, France and Belgium, suffered a slump in reservations a few years back as tourists were put off by its staid image. Since then, it has undergone massive restyling and it appeared to be on the up.

However, recent trading is believed to have been poor and Mr Wilkinson was said to have mentioned Center Parcs' disappointing performance as a reason to reduce full-year forecasts. The finance director's caution fuelled speculation that S&N was lining up a sale of the business, which last year produced about pounds 60m in profits on turnover of over pounds 300m. Many experts believe Center Parcs does not fit with S&N's brewing operations but could be a target for a package holiday operator wishing to boost its European presence. A change of management could be in prospect.

The Center Parcs saga overshadowed Mr Wilkinson's other mission: to tell brokers to reduce their forecasts. He is thought to have warned analysts of tough trading conditions in the beer market. The comments had an immediate effect; WestLB Panmure slashed their 1999 forecast by pounds 10m to pounds 409m. Last year S&N posted pounds 422m.

The FTSE 100 had an off day, rising just 14.4 points to 6,428.0p on low turnover of 929 million. A weak opening on Wall Street did not help and many dealers preferred to book in some profits for the weekend.

Most of the blue-chip excitement was in the cable sector as the repercussions of the AT&T hostile bid for US rival MediaOne spread through the London market. Telewest Communications, where MediaOne has 29 per cent stake, rose 20.75p to 282.75p - the biggest riser among blue-chips.

If AT&T succeeds in buying MediaOne it will end up with a 51 per cent holding in Telewest, which will almost certainly be sold to fund the deal and allay regulatory fears. The UK market leader, Cable & Wireless Communications, already in talks with Telewest on the pooling of their domestic operations, is a potential buyer. CWC rose 22p to 713p on hopes it could go for a pounds 16bn merger.

Cable & Wireless was also wanted, rising 27p to 842p. Traders shrugged aside fears that the AT&T bid could scupper the sale of the mobile phone business One2One, co-owned with MediaOne, and focused on speculation that it could merge with France Telecom.

Colt Telecom missed out on the fun, plunging 36p to 1,102p on profit taking. Reed International suffered the same fate and closed 17p down at 522p.

Bid talk returned to swirl around Barclays. The leaderless bank rose 54p to 1,933p after the outgoing chairman, Andrew Buxton, said that it was open to merger talks. Royal Bank of Scotland, its most likely partner, was unruffled, closing 1p up at 1,411p.

British Energy powered 17.5p ahead to 550.5p amid talk of a pounds 400m share buyback. The company could be spurred to return the cash after failing to buy one of the power stations put up for sale by PowerGen.

Asda and Kingfisher survived - almost unscathed - news of a Stock Exchange probe into share dealings before the announcement of their merger. The supermarket slid 1.5p to 191.5p, while the owner of B&Q was 12.5p higher at 822p. The rumour of a strike by Wal-Mart for Safeway grew stronger as it emerged that Tony Blair had met with an executive of the US giant. The UK group closed 14.25p up at 279p.

The mid-cap was in indecisive mode, ending 7.8 points lower at 5,784.5. The small cap bucked the trend and finished ahead, closing 13.9 higher at 2,522.2 and breaking its 1999 trading and closing records in the process.

Arriva, the transport group, was one of the worst-performing mid-cappers, journeying 20p lower to 415p after warning of a tough bus market.

Takeover rumours enlivened the rest of the undercard. United Assurance, the underperforming life insurer, rose 17.5p to 446.5p on talk of a strike from a rival or a major bank, possibly Lloyds. Hickson, a long-suffering chemical group, was also in demand. It closed 8p higher at 58.5p as old bid talks resurfaced. The activist fund manager PDFM owns a large stake and could be looking for a buyer.

Another company in the PDFM stable, Cornwell Parker, rose on talk that a bid was near. The reclining chair maker, known to have received an approach, rose 13.5p to 112p.

The Coke bottler, Coca-Cola Beverages, fizzed 9p higher to 117p on evidence of a buoyant market for the sticky stuff. Storehouse, the BhS and Mothercare retailer, flew 7p higher to 146p as speculative buyers moved in.

Profit warnings were the order of the day among the minnows. The convenience store operator, Dawn Til Dusk, sunk 21.5p lower to 75p after announcing the closure of its "Liquorzones" shops and predicting profits "significantly below" expectations.

The mattress maker Relyon Group sunk 55p to 242.5p after blaming the poor furniture market for a shortfall in profits.

The textile group Dawson International unravelled 2.5p lower to 18p after talking of a tough trading environment.

SEAQ VOLUME: 929m

SEAQ TRADES: 76,343

GILTS INDEX: n/a

SEAL ICE, a maker of ice cubes, yesterday appointed a liquidator and withdrew from the junior Ofex market. The company, which produced up to 3,000kg of ice per hour at its Peterborough plant, bowed out unchanged at 112.5p.

Seal Ice had a market value of over pounds 1.6m and sales of pounds 390,000. It said in March that its search for a backer had failed and could no longer continue to trade due to its financial troubles.

SHARES IN Arsenal Football Club soared 10,000p to 210,000p yesterday after the Ofex-traded company announced a new three-year sponsorship deal with the computer group Sega.

The contract allows Sega to publicise Dreamcast, its new video games console, on the Gunners' home and away shirts from next season. The deal, worth about pounds 12m, is thought to be the largest-ever sponsorship for a UK football club.

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