Market Report: Takeover talk takes mid caps to dizzy heights

AS BLUE CHIPS dillied and dallied the long neglected second liners enjoyed another exhilarating session, spurred by an array of takeover stories.

Footsie managed a mere 0.6 points gain to 6,013. The mid cap index soared 93.5 to 5,215.3 and the small cap rose 15.2 to 2,169.8.

What has been dubbed the middle-rank momentum produced the extraordinary sight of more than 20 per cent of the mid cap constituents achieving gains of more than 5 per cent.

Top of the pile was Weir, the engineering group that has long been one of the stock market's takeover favourites.

As if to prove that even the most bewhiskered old bid chestnuts eventually fall, Weir confirmed an approach, likely to be from a US group, and consequently soared 62.5p to 294.5p. The shares have joined in the sudden rush to climb aboard the engineering bandwagon, advancing from less than 200p in the past few days.

The boys in dark glasses who were pointing to a Weir bid on Monday were behind a 10.5p jump to 74p in hard-pressed cable and construction group BICC.

The company looks vulnerable and with the aggressive Wassall group sitting on 9.3 per cent it is not difficult to get a bid story swirling around the market and provoking a remarkable 18.5 million share turnover.

The latest rumour suggested a 90p a share bid from an unlikely source, General Electric Co. The excitement prompted the City's takeover panel to order a statement from Wassall which, maintaining the air of uncertainty, produced the following gem - "Wassall continues to monitor its investment and this may or may not lead to an offer for BICC."

Engineer BBA was another metal basher on the bid conveyor belt, jumping 58p to 454.5p. Others higher included Meggitt, 21.5p to 171p; TT, 19p to 175p; and TI, 40p to 410p.

Builders, too, caught the takeover bug. They have been encouraged by a recent round of top-of-the-range profit performances and hopes of lower interest rates.

But it is the expectation of further consolidation that is providing much of the current enthusiasm. Berkeley, the up-market house builder, has made no secret of the attraction of Fairview, the builder demerged from Hillsdown Holdings in October.

Berkeley, strong on Monday as stories of a strike circulated, rose a further 11p to 503.5p and Fairview added 8p to 95.5p.

Barratt Developments rose 27p to 250.5p and Beazer, another takeover candidate, 16p to 172p.

Footsie engineers were also prominent but not strong enough to give the index much impetus. Still, there was strong two-way trading with the market enjoying yet another heavy trading session with turnover topping 1.2 billion.

The opening weeks of this year have represented what is probably the longest and busiest run of market trading. Day after day turnover has topped 1 billion, a relatively rare event last year.

With the computerised order book recording trades as a single transaction as opposed to a double entry under the old market making system, it would appear that volume has increased even more than the official figures indicate.

Mind you, odd trades continue to appear on the order book. Burmah was the subject of some strange inputs with the opening trade a 12,000 deal at 848.5p; the last recorded transaction was 1,353p shares at 668p. For the record Burmah closed up 3p at 790p.

The BTR/Siebe merger was belatedly cleared by the High Court but dealings in the new engineering complex, BTR Siebe, will not occur until tomorrow.

Daily Mail & General Trust, the newspaper publisher, appears to be the most likely to snap up the vacant Footsie berth; the "A" shares were little changed at 3,196p and the ordinary shares edged ahead 12.5p to 2,937.5p.

British Land, another Footsie contender, put in a late bid, rising 33p to 493p, following meetings with analysts.

Rolls-Royce, with Henderson Crosthwaite positive, climbed 18.5p to 281p. But Kingfisher suffered an early fall when its Castorama home improvements off-shoot failed to gain the expected place in the Paris CAC-40 index. The shares later recovered, ending 10p higher at 635p.

Banks remained firm on merger hopes with National Westminster Bank up 41p to 1,196p. The outstanding star of the sector was Allied Irish Banks - at one time up 95p.

The shares, in busy trading, closed 73p ahead at 1,262.5p as stories swirled of a Lloyds TSB or Deutsche bid. Price was said to be 1,500p. AIB refused to comment. Bank of Ireland also joined the fun, up 27.5p to 1,397.5p.

BSkyB lost 29.5p to 439.5p as pressure grew that it should cede some of its TV football rights and hesitation mounted ahead of interim figures.

Telecoms took a breather with Colt Telecom down 51p at 1,290.5p.

Hanson, with Schroders positive, jumped 52.75p to 466p. Williams, the security group, led the Footsie leader board, gaining 43.5p to 372.5p.

Reckitt & Colman, on the departure of chief executive Vernon Sankey, jumped 50.5p to 870p as some wondered whether the household products group looked particularly vulnerable to a takeover strike.

Iceland, the retailer, warmed 10.5p to 261p as Credit Lyonnais made positive noises, drawing attention to its home delivery service. Last year's profits are expected to be pounds 55.5m, up from pounds 43.4m.

Profit warnings took their inevitable toll. James R Knowles slumped 21p to 44p after the construction consultant warned of a profits hit, and Staffware plunged 70p to 190p once the software group said escalating costs would hurt year's results.

Lynx, the computer group, surged 23.5p to 213.5p as Dresdner Kleinwort Benson set a 350p target.

SCI Entertainment firmed 3.5p to 45p, against a 181.75p peak. The computer games group, which was back in profits in the first half of its current year, is near to releasing its new Carmageddon game on all console formats. Interim profits were pounds 506,000 against a pounds 1m-plus loss.

SEAQ VOLUME: 1.2bn

SEAQ TRADES: 78,559

GILTS: 116.53 -0.25

AVAILEON, a little contract caterer, is hungry for expansion. Under the direction of Mira Hyams-Meme it is picking up new up-market contracts, including London's St. James's Park and Leamington Spa's Pump Rooms, although profits are unlikely this year.

But, if deals continue to flow and St. James's is as lucrative as hoped, profits could be achieved next year, accompanied by a dividend. The shares are a depressed 2.5p.

JBA, the software group, added 25p to 142.5p as the unquoted Specialist Computer Holdings let it be known that it was a near 3 per cent shareholder.

SCH is run by Peter Rigby, whose family is reputed to be worth more than pounds 400m.

He could feel the time is right to descend on JBA, which fell to 50p last month on a loss warning. Around Christmas 1997 the shares touched 1,257.5p.

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