Market Report: Takeover talk spices up the story at Reed

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The Independent Online
HARD-PRESSED Reed Elsevier could soon be the subject of corporate activity.

The publisher, which this week lost two directors and shamefacedly admitted it had been unable to attract a new chief executive, is, according to seemingly authoritative reports from Holland, still in talks with Wolters Kluwer about a possible merger. To add spice to the story, United News & Media, the Express newspaper group firm at 595.5p, is said to have agreed to take part in any Wolters strike.

Reed International, the British arm of the Anglo-Dutch publisher, responded with a 25p gain to 578p. The shares have been under pressure as Reed Elsevier's problems have mounted.

The Dutch stories apparently stemmed from a member of Wolters works council. It was claimed that despite an earlier rejection of a formal Wolters offer, merger talks were still being actively pursued. Reed Elsevier was said to have repulsed the bid because it feared a loss of identity. But if the latest talks should be successful it is almost certain that Reed International and Elsevier would be dismantled.

But Wolters, with or without help from United, was not the only possible predator in the frame. Reuters, the information group, was also dragged into the speculation; the shares rose 10.5p to 974.5p.

Reed International's strength occurred as blue chips drifted from their peak, despite the widely predicted base-rate cut. The half-a-point euro cut came too late to have any impact.

Footsie's eight day winning streak ended with a 35.3 points fall to 6,437.9; at one time it was off 68. The base-rate reduction had been discounted and with New York indecisive the modest Footsie setback caused little surprise.

Supporting shares, however, were in better shape. The mid cap index rose 15.5 to 5,514 and the small cap 9.6 to 2,420.7.

A number of old takeover favourites were dusted down. Arjo Wiggins Appleton, the packaging and paper group, improved 8.5p to 145p in brisk trading on renewed suggestions the French group Saint Louis, was preparing to sell its 40 per cent interest to a predator. Last year shares of the recovering group were down to 93.5p; they touched 315p five years ago.

Great Universal Stores rebounded 48p to 713p after a gaggle of analysts said the shares were oversold. The shares were around 850p at the start of March.

The base-rate cut and the signs of a high-street spending revival also helped GUS. Kingfisher, 28.5p higher at 851.5p, and, belatedly, MFI Furniture 4.75p to 39.25p were others to benefit.

Carlton Communications and Granada responded to the better than expected take up figures for Ondigital. Carlton rose 20.5p to 634.5p and Granada, seeing analysts and wining profit ungrades, 44p to 1,350p. CSFB lifted its target price by 65p to 1,415p.

Alba, the television and radio maker, clambered on the digital band, jumping 34p to 299p after Ondigital forecast sales of more than 100,000 Bush TVs incorporating terrestrial digital decoders.

Flextech, the broadcaster, improved 9p to 776.5p after Investec Henderson Crosthwaite signalled an 850p target but Next, the fashion chain, was lowered 18p to 789p as SG Securities switched from buy to hold.

P&O limped ahead 4p to 925.5p following a CSFB suggested price of 1,020p price and Cadbury Schweppes hardened 23p to 897.5p, encouraged by HSBC support. The investment house believes the shares could be worth 1050p.

The supermarkets took their referral to the Competition Commission in their stride. Asda, ahead of an investment meeting, firmed 1.75p to 149p; most others gave up a few pence.

BICC, predictably rejecting the Wassall "conditional" offer, eased 2p to 104p and European Leisure, turning down the Waterfall bid, gained 6p to 91p. Waterfall lost 1.5p to 55p.

First Choice, the holidays group, lost ground, off 8.5p to 176.5p, although stories of an Airtours strike resurfaced. Airtours climbed 30.5p to 492p. Amusement machine group Kunick added 2.25p to 17p on talk of a bid from Leisure Link, an unquoted group.

BWI, the engineer, gained 9.5p to 81p as the possibility of an offer increased; Servomex, the electrical group which is having bid talks, jumped 31.5p to 149p. WH Smith, on its Internet link, surfed 75p higher to 782.5p and Dixons also scored from its web connection, gaining 25p to 1,421p. Geo Interactive Media was another on the web, up 18.5p to 114p.

SmithKline Beecham fell 21p to 890p following The Independent report of a revolt by major shareholders over the group's rich rewards to directors. And AstraZeneca marked its third day as a quoted drugs behemoth with its third fall, down 52p at 2,823p. The shares have lost more than 200p since the merger became effective on Tuesday.

Imperial Chemical Industries gave up 17.5p to 559.5p. It sold Chance & Hunt, a chemical business, to its management. But the market is awaiting a rather bigger sale - worth some pounds 2bn.

Computacentre ended its decline since the arrival of rival Morse, recovering 43.5p to 573.5p and Eurotunnel improved 4p to 90.5p, reflecting buying in Paris.

Sherry FitzGerald, a Dublin-based estate agent, arrived on AIM and the junior Irish market, the Developing Companies Market. Placed at 157p the shares touched 180p before residing at 155p.

Ilion, involved in consultancy and training for the computer industry, slipped 1p to 83.5p. After the market closed it was revealed that Finance IT had picked up 6.6 per cent, lifting its stake to 11.8 per cent. Intriguingly, Finance IT represents Paul Kuiken, who is president and chief executive of Landis, one of Ilion's rivals, and Wayne Channon who was Ilion's chairman and chief executive until December. A bid is the obvious interpretation of their share-buying. In the past year Ilion's shares have come down from just over 200p; they were more than 400p in 1997.

SEAQ VOLUME: 931.6m

SEAQ TRADES: 90,389

GILTS INDEX: 114.15 -0.10

UNITED INDUSTRIES, the engineer, firmed 1p to 54p ahead of investment meetings.

The group took over the Neepsend steel group for pounds 14.4m cash in January last year and the researcher Hardman & Co expects the benefits to flow through this year, when it sees profits reaching pounds 7.4m.

However, last year profits fell to pounds 1.2m from pounds 3.6m.

The shares hit 75p last year; they were down to 41.5p in January.

DIRECTOR share buying produced a little cheer at Burn Stewart, the struggling Scotch whisky group. The price rose 2.5p to 15p after three directors, including the chairman, William Thornton, picked up 60,000 shares at 12p and 12.5p. Mr Thornton is the biggest boardroom shareholder with 9.5 per cent.

Burn, a large producer of whiskies for supermarkets, has been hit by tight margins; the shares once touched 144p.

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