MARKET REPORT : Takeover rumours lift volume

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The Independent Online
The FT-SE 100 index was lowered 24.4 points to 3,170.1 and the FT-SE 250 index 10.6 to 3,482.6. Turnover was 607.5 million shares with 20,971 bargains. Government stocks gave ground.

When the stock market drifts aimlessly and trading is thin, the temptation to enliven proceedings by producing a few exciting takeover rumours often proves irresistible.

Yesterday was just such a session. With the Easter influence continuing to linger and genuine investment trading reduced to a trickle, the bid rumours, some of them golden oldies, were soon swirling and, no doubt, managed to top up, if modestly, the day's volume.

It was, however, the US investment house Goldman Sachs that gave the day's turnover a measure of respectability. A programme trade, thought to be worth £100m, lifted the closing volume to 607.5 million shares.

United Biscuits was one to emerge from the rumour mill. An overnight trade of 100,000 shares set the tone. When another deal for long-term T-25 settlement appeared, the feeling grew that something was at last about to happen in one of the market's longest-running bid stories. The shares were quickly run up 9p to 349p with cash-rich Associated British Foods and Hanson touted as the interested parties. But yet another false dawn and the gain crumbled to 3.5p at 343.5p.

Kwik Save, the discount groceries chain, was another in the frame. Here Trafalgar House was the unlikely choice for predator. Jardine Matheson, the Far Eastern group, provided the tortuous link. It controls Dairy Farm, which in turn has a near-30 per cent interest in Kwik Save. Trafalgar, now closely related to Jardine Matheson, would buy the Dairy Farm interest and bid for the rest of Kwik Save.

The story was enough to knock Northern Electric, a real Trafalgar target, 13p to 767p. It was Trafalgar's assault on Northern that created turmoil in the sector with, after the industry regulator's intervention, calls for a special Northern shareholders' meeting to overturn the board's opposition to Trafalgar.

A seven-year standstill agreement limiting Dairy Farm's involvement in Kwik Save ended last year. It is free to lift or reduce its interest.

Trafalgar shares were heavily traded although the price stirred just 0.5p to 51.5p. Kwik Save rose 6p to 594p. Two years ago the shares reached 843p.

The possibility of another buyer for Kwik Save was also canvassed. Asda, the revitalised supermarket chain, has been remarkably strong - heralding, some think, corporate action. While most of its rivals gave ground Asda gained 1.25p to 78.5p in busy trading. Dairy Farm was up 4p to 67p.

Smith & Nephew, the health care group, attracted a sudden burst of interest, gaining 4.25p to 173p, on rumours of a bid from Johnson & Johnson, the US giant. Smith sheltered behind the tried and tested refusal to comment on market rumours.

RJB Mining gained another 4p to 420p on continuing speculation about Hanson's intentions. The bidder-for-all-seasons was also said by some to be eyeing BOC Group. Hanson slipped 2p to 237p

Fisons, which has admitted merger talks with Medeva, recovered 5p to 179p on suggestions Zeneca may barged into the affair. Such talk was painful for Medeva, down 11p to 246.5p; Zeneca was little changed at 894p.

Barclays, the banking group thought to be on the verge of a US securities acquisition, was undermined by caution on the banking sector by Crdit Lyonnais Laing, which changed its stance from overweight to neutral. Barclays retreated 15p to 634p and Lloyds 14p to 609p. Abbey National dropped 9p to 454p; National Westminster 8.5p to 542.5p and TSB 5.5p to 236.5.

AAH, where bid action has actually erupted, shaded to 441p in busy trading with signs that Cazenove was trying to buy for the bidder, GEHE, which already has nearly 23 per cent.

Some long-standing bid candidates failed to join the latest party. SG Warburg tumbled 19p to 730p; MR Data Management fell 7p to 87p.

The FT-SE 100 index finished the rumour-driven session nursing a 24.4- point fall to 3,170.1. The currency uncertainty, producing inevitable interest rate worries, was again an unsettling influence. The monthly Ken and Eddie meeting was seen as pointing to higher UK rates if the dollar continued to decline.

British Airways ended a volatile sesion clinging to a 1p gain at 402p, as its American associate USAir came in with better-than-expected figures.

Dollar weakness hit insurers with Commercial Union off 17p at 551p and General Accident 12p lower at 577p.

Prudential Corporation lost 12p to 314p as Kleinwort Benson said sell. It said its new chief executive, Peter Davis, faced "extremely important strategic and operational issues". Analyst Roger Harvey said he had identified 20 issues requiring important decisions.

The power sector had a mixed time. Smith New Court recommended a switch out of Midlands into Yorkshire. Its advice left Midlands down 5p at 640p but lifted Yorkshire, one of the sectors favourite bid candidates during the excitement earlier this year, 8p to 668p. CLL also turned positive on the sector; South Wales added 11p to 702p and London 5p to 640p.

Arjo Wiggins Appleton, the paper and packaging group, continued to give ground on worries about a boardroom rift. The shares lost 8p to 250p.

Upton & Southern, the struggling stores group, fell 0.5p to 3.25p. This week it announced an interim loss of £1.17m due to its disastrous acquisition of the Reject Shops. The battle for Southern Business, the photocopier distributor, has focused attention on Copymore, the office equipment supplier. It was in bid talks late last year but they broke down after one week. Shares of the family-controlled group are a tight market. They climbed 10p to 160p yesterday, reaching the level they touched just before those short-lived bid talks were announced. TLS Range, which has a fleet of 4,800 vehicles that are hired out on short- and long-term contracts from 14 depots, should nearly double profits to £3.3m this year, the stockbroker Henry Cooke, Lumsden believes. It is looking for further progress to £4.5m next year. Heny Cooke thinks that the shares should motor to 60p. They fell 4p to 46p yesterday.