Market Report: US interest rate rumours whip shares into a frenzy

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SHARES were in a rare old tizzy as stories of higher US interest rates swept through the stock market.

But trading in the cash market was again thin, with futures activity dominating the proceedings.

Even so it was enough to send the FT-SE 100 index crashing 58 points at one time. When New York opened more confidently than had been predicted blue chips managed a modest recovery with the index closing 37.6 down at 3,218.1.

The expiry of the March futures contract ruffled a few nerves but was comfortably accommodated, with much of the ducking and diving completed earlier in the week.

The latest turmoil merely underlined the growing volatility of an increasingly fragile market. Despite the latest sharp setback the index remains comfortably above the level at which it started the week and could move ahead next week.

US interest rates, however, hold the key. Rumours swirled that President Bill Clinton had summoned the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, to an interest showdown meeting.

Mr Clinton, pressing for lower European rates, was seeking to persuade Mr Greenspan not to lift US rates next week, it was said.

Mr Greenspan has already increased rates once this year and many observers have been drawing attention to the US tendency to avoid one-off moves. In the past an increase has heralded a succession of upward adjustments.

But most City observers are still looking for lower British rates. A survey by the financial information group MMS indicated that cuts were expected in the next few months with many experts forecasting a 4.5 per cent rate at the end of the year. Most, however, expect a year-end 5 per cent.

Bond markets, devastated by the first US interest move, were ravaged by the fear of yet dearer money.

Government stocks joined in a worldwide retreat, falling by more than two points at one time. They closed with steep falls. Their discomfort was accentuated by stories of big Far Eastern gilt selling.

Rates were not the only factor seized on by a jittery market, seemingly looking for excuses for despair. The sharp fall by Hong Kong shares took its toll. The colony's market was hit by worries about Chinese intentions, fears that China will lose its 'favoured' trading relationship with the US and talk of unit trust investors cashing in.

HSBC, the old Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, fell 37p to 787p and Cable and Wireless 11p to 541p. But Standard Chartered shook off the market weakness with a 22p gain to 1,160p.

It was a poor day for a debutant but Partco, although not achieving best hopes, touched 229p, closing at 224p against a 200p issue price.

Hanson failed to hold an early gain following Thursday's investment presentation, ending 2.5p down at 281.5p. A US meeting is expected next week.

Willis Corroon, the insurance broker, gained 6p to 234p following Hoare Govett comments; Unigate rose 7p to 360p with SG Warburg favourable and HP Bulmer fell 8p to 429p as Barclays de Zoete Wedd made cautious noises.

Profit warnings created some heavy damage. Anglian, the double-glazing group, fell 28p to 287p; Borthwicks, the flavouring group, lost 2p to 53.5p; Davenport Vernon, a motor dealer, reversed 20p to 132p and Sherwood, a clothing group, 19p to 151p.

Allied Leisure slumped 16p to 27p following a dive into losses and the departure of Richard Carr, chief executive. He sold 1.5 million shares, reducing his interest to 5.06 per cent.

McCarthy & Stone, the retirement homes group, rose 1p to 73p following a pounds 15.5m cash call; Shandwick, the public relations company, improved 2.5p to 58.5p on an pounds 18.9m rights issue.

Fisons dipped 1.5p to 132p as Capital, the US fund management group, continued to lighten its load. It now has 5.1 per cent against 6.32 per cent.

Ahead of the Opec meeting oils were mostly lower. Enterprise Oil fell 2p to 411p following a late Thursday placing of 3.5 million shares at 408p. Exploration Co of Louisiana, recently singled out by a widely followed US investment pundit, jumped 13p to 79p. The group has interests off mainland China.

Lucas Industries, the aerospace and car component group, rose 4p to 219p. The long-awaited arrival of George Simpson from British Aerospace will take place at the start of next month. The group has interim results on Monday and up to pounds 25m is expected.

Thorn EMI was weak, down 22p at 1,122p as the market fretted about the outcome of the long-running contract battle between the singer George Michael and Sony, the Japanese music giant.

Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising group frequently tormented by rumours of bids and management upheavals, jumped 9p to 149p in late trading.

The FT-SE 100 index ended 37.6 points down at 3,218.1 and the FT-SE 250 index lost 21 points to 3,865.6. Turnover was 609.4 million shares with 33,756 deals. The account ends on Friday with settlement on 5 April.

Specialeyes, the loss-making chain of opticians, rose 3p to 14p. The excitement followed the disclosure that in this week's agency cross director Tim Franey had acquired 500,000 shares, lifting his interest to 11 per cent. The group is Britain's fourth- largest optician with 70 outlets. On Wednesday Specialeyes announced sharply reduced losses - from pounds 2.27m to pounds 481,000.

Buckingham International, the stuggling hotel group created and controlled by the Jivraj family, has at last completed the sale of its Holiday Inn, Lisbon. The price was pounds 9.6m. Under new chief executive John Clark, ex- JA Devenish, it has been striving to reduce its debts. Buckingham stacked up losses of pounds 62.5m after a pounds 60m write-down. The shares rose 0.5p to 6.5p.

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