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Market Report: Stocks buffeted, but Standard raises Asian flag

STANDARD CHARTERED was an oasis of stability in a blustery day for London blue chips. The Hong Kong bank was a steady riser throughout the session, helped by a mixture of bid rumours and positive political events.

While the FTSE 100 see-sawed on the back of events in Russia and the departure of the US Treasury supremo Robert Rubin, Standard Chartered kept its eye on the ball and rose 49.5p to 1,047.5p. The jump made it the best blue-chip of the day, even though volume was a thin 2.5 million. The more adventurous traders whispered that a predator is lurking in the background.

They believe Standard's Asian exposure is becoming attractive to a number of American banks. Chase Manhattan was mentioned as a potential buyer, but a bid could come from a number of medium-sized American banks.

The interest has apparently been triggered by US financial wizards' willingness to re-enter the Far East. After months during which they would not touch Asian companies with the proverbial bargepole, the Yanks' banks are keen to cash in on the predicted recovery in the region.

Standard is certainly a prize target as it controls billions of pounds of Asian assets and deposits. Of course, there were also more pedestrian reasons to buy Standard - such as a sharp rise in the Hang Seng index overnight and an easing of the political tension with China after the Nato bombing blunder - but the market is never keen to let go of a juicy takeover rumour.

The improving diplomatic situation helped HSBC, Standard's Hong Kong rival, to rise 23p to 2,140p after its mammoth share placing.

The rest of the FTSE 100 had a very uncertain session, swinging in a 100-point arc before settling 35.2 points lower at 6,343.1. The sacking of the Russian prime minister and Mr Rubin's retirement caused a 95-point fall in the early afternoon as Wall Street tumbled. However, the selling abated towards the end of the session, helped by the Dow's recovery. The smaller indices followed their leader, and the FTSE 250 finished 43.1 lower at 5,806.9, while the Small Cap was down 4.6 to 2,581.6.

The insurers had a good day. CGU was the catalyst, soaring 24p to 913.5p after analyst-pleasing first-quarter figures. Norwich Union, up 3.75p to 437.75p, joined the party with a mildly upbeat annual statement. The sector optimism boosted Royal & SunAlliance, 20.5p better at 534.5p, but Sun Life missed out and shed 23.75p to 488.5p after warning of slower growth.

Legal & General lost 5p to 169.25p in heavy turnover despite continuing rumours of a bid. Lloyds TSB, down 2p to 892p, is still mentioned as a potential bidder, although it could be distracted by its interest in a US player. If Lloyds does not strike, European financial groups could have a pop at L&G.

Telecoms were well bid. BT rose 32p to 1,040p on hopes of cost savings from its teleworking plans. Orange firmed another 20p to 872p on bid hopes, while Energis surged 65p to 1,660p amid vague talk of further stake selling by National Grid.

Rentokil Initial was still reeling from Tuesday's admission that it would not meet its 20 per cent earnings growth target and closed 18p lower at 273p - a 12-month low. It has lost a over quarter of its market value in two days.

Cable & Wireless crashed 40.5p to 805p after a surprising profit warning, but Cable & Wireless Communications put on 24p to 652p on whispers Microsoft might buy a stake.

A falling oil price hit BP Amoco, down 45.5p to 1,093.5p and Shell, down 17p to 460.75p. British Energy slipped 20p to 597p despite the expected pounds 432m cashback and rumours that it might bid for the electricity unit of Hyder, up 10p to 771p.

Saatchi & Saatchi stole the mid cap limelight, rising 10.5p to 236.5p, near its all-time high. The media agency was said to have won contracts from a couple of big clients in the US.

London International, the condom maker, rose 7p to 194.5p in heavy trading. The 230p-per-share cash bid from Safeskin of the US is believed to be very near.

The engineer Morgan Crucible was also in the bid frame, putting on 23p to 337.5p as talk of a US or European predator persisted. Chemicals group Croda was 17.5p better at 252.5p after positive first-quarter results. The computer group ITNET logged on a 16.5p rise to 355p after winning a pounds 60m contract from a London council, while bid talk pushed the waste management group Shanks & McEwan 9p higher to 220p.

The plant hire company Ashtead collapsed 32p to 178.5p as brokers slashed profit forecasts after meeting the management. Rival Hewden Stuart was also affected, losing 7p to 158p. Macfarlane, a packaging minnow, soared 6p to 80.5p in huge volume of 1.95 million; the rumour is that a rival is lining up a bid at a hefty premium.

The data processing group Dicom shot 41p higher to 325p after announcing a listing on Germany's Neue Markt. Heavy German buying is expected. Servomex, the electronics group, surged 48.5p to 181.5p after a 185p offer from rival Fairey, up 2p to383.5p.

The engineer McLeod Russel fell 27p to 76p after a profit warning, while poor profit saw rival Carbo crash 2p to 14.5p.



GILTS INDEX: 109.04 +0.36

VOLEX, a manufacturer of power cables, is seen as vulnerable to a bid. The shares soared 24p to 430p yesterday amid rumours that a predator is sniffing around. They topped 660p last summer.

Volex has just completed a $25m (pounds 15m) acquisition of a US cable business, and some believe it could be targeted by a US rival keen to get its hands on Volex's cable assets. A strike by a UK cable group is also a possibility.

INSURER Britannic was the latest victim of Sets, the automated trading system. Yesterday morning the stock soared 350 per cent after a couple of orders for 900 shares went through at 5,000p when the price was 1,134p. The stock was suspended. After a brief inquiry, the Stock Exchange blamed the bizarre trade on a typing mistake by a sleepy dealer. The firms involved in the deal agreed to cancel the transaction.