Market Report: Supermarket merger talk lifts a dull day

THE STOCK market never lets go of a good takeover rumour - particularly one that looks eminently feasible. For the umpteenth time the story of an Asda takeover of supermarket rival Safeway was given a whirl and, in heavy trading, Asda shares added 2.75p to 154.75p and Safeway 8.5p to 298.5p.

There were, it was alleged, some shrewd buyers chasing the shares. Whether they decided to alight on the supermarket twosome on a particularly dull, uneventful session may, of course, have been pure coincidence.

Asda and Safeway have talked merger. Eighteen months ago the two abandoned discussions when it became apparent that Westminster would not be too happy about any deal.

But, argued yesterday's buyers, times change and with the new wealth creation attitude at the Department of Trade and Industry, the supermarketeers had been tempted to resume talks.

Since the earlier negotiations ended, there have been a number of flurries as stories have circulated of new talks. The shares of the two chains are well below their peaks. Asda hit 218.75p last year; Safeway topped 400p two years ago.

Footsie spent the day fretting about New York and reduced an 82.2 points deficit to 9.7 at 5,770.2 when US shares displayed rather more resilience than expected. It was the sixth fall on the trot. Undercard shares weakened although takeovers, real and rumoured, continued to cast their spell.

Any share which had been surfing higher on the back of, sometimes vague, Internet associations come under pressure. Dixons fell 41.5p to 982.5p and Reuters 39.5p to 793.5p. EMI, with the added discomfort of any lack of takeover action, lost 30.75p to 421.75p. Psion, with a profits warning to boot, retreated 115p to 832.5p.

But BSkyB, on its better-than-expected digital TV expansion, gained 60.5p to 474.75p despite a sharp profits fall. Its digital success ruffled Carlton Communications, one of the two rival Ondigital providers, down 38p to 596p. Granada, the other Ondigital adventurer, lost 8.5p to 1,126.5p.

Unilever, in retreat for most of this year, rallied 36.5p to 582.5p as the market indulged in another of its favourite games, arbitraging between the British and Dutch ends of the food and soap behemoth.

National Power rose 11.5p to 511.5p and United Utilities, 9p to 812p. The two admitted having held merger talks.

GRE, the insurance group, fell a further 2.75p to 344p as bidder Sun Life & Provincial gave up another 9p to 460p. The bid was worth around 390p when it was agreed.

Banks were firmer with Lloyds TSB, figures tomorrow, up 7p to 758p. Allied Irish Bank, said to be a Lloyds target, was given another whirl but, after an early 37.5p gain, settled for a 6p plus at 1,111p.

Booker, the cash-and-carry chain, was another bid candidate to run out of steam. At one time up 7p, the shares ended 1.5p higher at 67.5p.

But excitement intensified at Field, the packaging group. The shares firmed 12.5p to 356p after a bidding war between two US groups erupted. Shorewood launched an agreed 350p a share offer, topping a 320p shot from Chesapeake which let it be known that it may well return to the fray.

Cleveland, a property group, held at 101p after rejecting a "wholly inadequate" offer, and loss adjuster Pycraft & Arnold firmed to 66.5p after a cash and shares offer from Fishers International, a financial services group.

Eclipse Blinds, up 30p at 87.5p, said it was in talks and Pubs `n' Bars held at 55p after confirming it was talking to the Real Leisure pubs chain. Lionheart, a household goods group, succumbed to profit taking, falling 0.5p to 5.5p, after saying it was in talks with a potential bidder.

Vaux, the brewing and hotels group rocked by a boardroom brawl, frothed 28p higher to 301.5p on the belief that the row has left the group open to a takeover strike.

Monument Oil & Gas flared 4.5p to 41.5p with corporate activity in the oil industry prompting suggestions that it could soon be a target.

Reunion Mining, which has admitted bid talks, rose a further 12.5p to 88p, and GB Railways, which denied bid action, steamed ahead, adding 13.5p to 178.5p.

Racal Electronic fell 10.5p to 378p ahead of a Henderson Crosthwaite investment dinner at London's Howard Hotel. Henderson was also at the nearby Savoy Hotel where Ramco Energy, unchanged at 230p, was the subject of an investment dinner.

British American Tobacco fell 20p to 613p following reports that rival Philip Morris had been successfully sued by a smoker who contracted cancer.

Johnson Matthey, the metals group, eased 12.5p to 440p as analysts left to examine its American operations.

Phytopharm, developing drugs from plants, sprouted 26p to 201.5p following coverage of the potential lurking in South Africa's vegetation.

Keystone Software fell 4.5p to 12p. It is aiming to raise pounds 1.5m through a placing and open offer at 10p a share.

SEAQ VOLUME: 958.2m

SEAQ TRADES: 70,661

GILTS INDEX: 115.74 +018

WILLIAM BAIRD, the textile group, may be in play. The shares rose 10p to 96p after a 7p gain on Tuesday.

Some buyers have been attracted by the 13 per cent dividend yield. But there are also suggestions of corporate action with, perhaps, a venture capitalist looking at the strength of the group and pondering a break up bid. Baird has said it expects last year's profits before exceptionals to be around pounds 30m.

MATALAN, the discount clothing chain, has defied the retail gloom. The shares rose 13p to 465p, highest since last spring's flotation. They seem destined to move into the FTSE 250 index after next month's quarterly review. There is already evidence of tracker funds preparing for the group's elevation. Engineer Rotork arrived in the mid cap index yesterday, ending 3p higher at 399p, a peak. It replaced advertising group Abbott Mead Vickers.

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