Market Report: Utility shares buffeted by a tidal wave of selling

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The Independent Online
UTILITIES were again under intense pressure as worries grew about a much more restrictive regulatory approach.

On Thursday UBS highlighted the tougher outlook facing the privatised electricity groups, which hitherto had been powered by rich profit margins and attractive dividend yields.

The stockbroker clearly hit a raw nerve and provoked a wave of selling with, it was said, US investors prepared to dump stock.

Among electricities East Midlands fell 4p to 590p; Eastern 17p to 646p and Manweb 14p to 710p. Norweb, which has heightened anxiety by deciding to sacrifice its pure electricity status by getting involved in telephone networks, declined 10p to 654p.

The generators also fused, with National Power off 9p at 438p and PowerGen 18p to 489p.

Waters plunged down the proverbial plughole with Anglian off 19p to 498p, Northumbrian 24p at 625p and Thames 17p to 496p. They, too, are expected to suffer the electricity treatment.

Just how deep has been the recent distress of the utilities is illustrated by their dramatic slide from the high points achieved earlier this year. East Midlands has crashed from a 717p peak; Eastern from 725.5p and Manweb from 850p. PowerGen is down from 582p and Thames from 611p.

The rest of the stock market survived the utilities bloodbath relatively well. The FT-SE 100 index slipped 8.2 points to 3,120.8.

Shares had dillied and dallied ahead of New York's opening. Some investment houses were apprehensive about Wall Street's reaction to the latest Japanese political upheaval. In the event US shares appeared unruffled.

End-account considerations also contributed to what were occasionally brisk, but exceedingly dull proceedings.

A big trade in the Spring Ram Corporation was the main talking point. Many suspected that the former chairman and co-founder, Bill Rooney, had severed his connections with the bathrooms group by selling his shareholding.

But Mr Rooney remains on board. The seller was Lazard Freres which, in a deal with Barclays de Zoete Wedd, sold 32.2 million shares (7.56 per cent) at 55.75p. BZW placed the stock, some ex-dividend, at prices around 57p.

Mr Rooney started the business in 1979. For much of the last decade it was a City high flyer, achieving profits of pounds 36.2m in the year ended January 1992.

But Spring Ram came to grief last year, suffering a pounds 36.4m loss. Mr Rooney had been forced to quit as chairman in September but said he would keep his shareholding.

He did not, however, take up his rights entitlement when the group raised pounds 42.2m, offering shares at 53p earlier this year. BZW placed his nil-paid rights with institutional investors.

The shares dipped 4p to 59p.

The Concorde report on Wellcome's anti-Aids treatment had been discounted. The shares fell just 2p to 555p. The report, as expected, said AZT, known as Retrovir, offered no long-term benefits to HIV-positive patients who had yet to contract Aids. Wellcome responded that Retrovir was 'unquestionably the best weapon available' in the battle against the disease.

Glaxo Holdings lost 9p to 604p on indications of a rival to its migraine drug. Amersham International suffered from negative comments from Kleinwort Benson, falling 30p to 1,044p. Chirosciences, placed at 150p in February, edged away from its 113p low, gaining 2p to 118p.

Kleinwort, however, was in a more indulgent mood over the brewer Whitbread. An upbeat assessment pushed the shares 6p higher to 523p.

BT fell as James Capel cut its profit expectations but Prudential Corporation edged ahead on favourable Hoare Govett comment.

British Airways attracted buy recommendations from NatWest Securities and Greig Middleton. The shares rose 2p to 424p. On Thursday the airline reported another impressive set of passenger figures. For the year just ended NatWest is looking for pounds 307m and GM pounds 300m.

United Breweries touched 4.5p and closed at 5p following a signalled cash call after a property revaluation left it in breach of its banking covenants.

Acorn Computers continued to move ahead in anticipation of next week's product presentation, up 7p at 75p. But Hi-Tec, the trainers group, is feeling the impact of a persistent seller, falling 5p to 76p. The shares have fallen from 90p this week.

Trading warnings cut the engineer Triplex Lloyd 13p to 133p, the builder AH Ball 3p to 28p and Galliford 6p to 42p.

The newcomer Rugby Estates made a subdued start, ending at its 115p placing price. But Trafficmaster, supplying computer screen warnings of traffic jams, continued to ignore any hint of congestion. The shares, floated last month at 130p, reached 205p, up 19p.

Alpha Airports, split from the Forte hotels group in February, is due to announce year's figures on Monday - pounds 19.2m was forecast at the time of the share sale. What could create a little excitement is Alpha's first deal; there is talk it is lining up airport catering operations in the US. The shares, sold at 140p, slipped 2p to 167p. Forte still has a 25 per cent interest.

The regeneration of B Elliott, once one of the country's leading machine tool makers and now engaged in specialist electrical and mechanical engineering, continues. The shares, a mere 0.5p in 1992, were unchanged at 79p following a pounds 1.1m US takeover. It is acquiring Dynamote Corporation. To help finance the deal, Beeson Gregory placed 1.4 million shares at 74p.

The FT-SE 100 index ended the trading account down 8.2 points at 3,120.8; the FT-SE 250 index fell 8.7 to 3,755.5. Turnover was 894.4 million shares with 33,253 bargains. Settlement is on 18 April. Government stocks gave gound.

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