Market Report: Takeover speculation pushes up insurers

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The Independent Online
SHARES of the composite insurers defied end-account lethargy yesterday as the stock market speculated about the intentions of the South African entrepreneur Donald Gordon.

On Thursday Mr Gordon's TransAtlantic Holdings disclosed it had picked up 400,000 shares in Sun Alliance, the UK's biggest general insurer, taking its stake marginally above the 3 per cent level, thereby requiring a disclosure.

Hopes that the Gordon excursion would lead to a full bid pushed Sun Alliance shares 15p higher to 350p. Other insurers moved ahead on the suspicion that any takeover action would encourage Continental groups to jostle for a bigger share of the UK market through bids.

Commercial Union rose 12p to 588p; General Accident 11p to 582p and Royal Insurance 4p to 289p. Guardian Royal Exchange edged ahead 3p to 178p.

With the French Union des Assurances de Paris, Mr Gordon took control of the Sun Life Assurance group in 1991. Any bid for Sun Alliance would represent a hugely ambitious move, even for the French/ South African partnership. And it would almost certainly attract a counter-offer or prompt Sun Alliance into an attempted liaison with another group.

Rumours of takeover bids for UK insurers were rife before many ran into heavy losses, prompting the sector to underperform. But with the composites expected to be back into profit this year overseas groups may feel the time is ripe to pounce, particularly if Sun Alliance is embroiled in bid action.

Last year Sun Alliance lost pounds 130m. A profit of about pounds 90m is likely this year with pounds 250m pencilled in for next year. Many observers believe that without a bid the shares are overpriced.

Takeover speculation also haunted Evered Bardon and Hogg Robinson.

In remarkably busy trading Evered rose 3p to 58p, equalling its best level of the year. It is widely believed that the aggregates group is up for sale.

Some members of the Tom family, who are big shareholders, are said to be keen to cash in following Evered's decision to slash its year's dividend from 5.59p to 2p.

The group is heavily indebted and needs to make disposals or raise new funds. Peter Tom, chairman, is said to have had talks with a number of would-be buyers, but one, RMC Group, has denied any interest.

Hogg jumped 14p to 204p on talk of a bid from Airtours, which failed to win control of the rival Owners Abroad earlier this year after an acrimonious encounter. Airtours, which took over the Pickfords travel shops chain last year, is said to want Hogg's 200 outlets.

But it is unlikely to be interested in Hogg's financial and transport businesses. It may, therefore, merely be negotiating the purchase of the shops. Airtours, with figures later this month, rose 5p to 306p.

Securiguard, which has collected a bid (from Rentokil), rose 4p to 302p on expectations of a higher offer. Rentokil, down 8p at 181p, produced an out-of-the-blue 270p bid last month.

The rest of the market drifted forlornly with the FT-SE 100 index falling 22.9 points to 2,829.9 in tired trading. The Government's unpopularity and dwindling hopes of lower interest rates were responsible for much of the damage.

BT, down 11p to 407p, had another difficult session, with the MCI deal causing anxiety. Since the link was announced BT has fallen 19.5p, hardly an encouraging performance ahead of the government share sale. Vodafone Group dipped 1.5p to 454.5p. US investors now have 18.55 per cent.

Standard Chartered, the banking group, fell 5p to 745p after a large line went through.

Dunhill Holdings, the luxury goods group, was hit by disappointing profits and a cautious trading statement. The shares fell 44p to 335p. Rothmans International, which controls Dunhill, fell 9p to 610p.

Forte, the hotel group, continued to reflect Kleinwort Benson's new- found enthusiasm, up 7p at 207p.

Headline Book made a spectacular return after the acquisition of the 125-year-old publisher Hodder & Stoughton. Suspended at 290p, the shares surged to 405p.

But, in percentage terms, the best performer was little Butte Mining, up from 1.75p to 2.5p on rumours it is about to establish a partnership to develop deposits in Montana.

The FT-SE 100 index retreated 22.9 points to 2,829.9 and the FT-SE 250 index 8.5 to 3,175.1. Turnover was 625.6 million shares with 32,400 bargains recorded. The account starts on Monday. Settlement will be on 28 June.

Aminex, the Irish exploration group, held at 20p. The shares have climbed from 4p this year. East West Oil, which has strong links with Eastern Europe, has established a 25.2 per cent stake and is the largest shareholder. It is rumoured to be keen for Aminex to expand by acquiring oil and gas interests in the former Soviet Union. Any deal is likely to be financed by a mixture of cash and shares.

Northern Foods dipped 7p to 245p. Year's profits are due on Wednesday and the market is looking for an impressive performance - about pounds 155m against pounds 126.2m. But worries are growing about longer- term prospects. Changes in the dairy industry could hit the group. And profits may suffer from the expected decline in door-to-door milk deliveries and increasing competition from supermarkets.