Market Report: Vodafone at an all-time high as telecoms re-rating continues

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The Independent Online
Dealers' phones were ringing for telecoms stocks as the wholesale re-rating of the sector continued apace. Vodafone has been the biggest beneficiary over the past few weeks, and yesterday was no exception. The shares, which floated below the 150p mark, reached another all-time high last night, closing at 403.5p, with more than13 million shares traded.

Analysts say talk of bid speculation was wide of the mark. Instead, they pointed to an upgrade of cellular stocks around Europe, with Scandinavian companies like Netcom and Europolitan currently in favour.

Shares of UK cellular phone groups have been lagging behind their European peers, so the recent renaissance seems long overdue. Added to that, Vodafone's subscriber numbers for the final quarter of the year are looking good, experts say. Buy notes from Societe Generale and "accumulate" advice from Merrill Lynch also helped the shares along the way.

The numbers came up for Orange too, although the vagaries of the new Sets system played their part here. At one point the group shot up 17p, but volume was a fairly light 1 million.

Most other stocks in the sector were on the rise, with BT adding 1.5p to 475p. There was one notable - although not, recently, unusual - exception. Ionica prepared to exit the second division as it dropped another 5p to 102.5p.

Footsie had a down and an up day, starting the session in negative territory, but ending most definitely positive after a strong start on Wall Street. Having drifted as much as 34 points down after lunch, the index ended well above the 5000 mark again, up 60.6 points at 5142.9.

Talk of a bid early next week for Delta, the electric cables and industrial services company, sent the shares up 4.5p to 260.5p. Nearly 770,000 shares were traded, after dealers speculated that a bidder could offer pounds 3 a share for the company. Menvier-Swain, another company in the sector, was taken over by Cooper Industries last month for pounds 164.5m, so the market obviously feels it's high time for further corporate action.

Billiton was the most wanted blue chip, up 7.25p to 155p. The base metals company, which demerged from the South African mining group Gencor in July, sent the shares into freefall recently when it issued a gloomy outlook on trading. But it finally bounced yesterday after a series of meetings with institutional investors. The house brokers have also put out buy notes.

Financial stocks were once again being asked for after reports of a merger between UBS and Swiss Bank Corporation. Lloyds, encouraged by an SBC Warburg buy recommendation, jumped 28p to 760p; Royal Bank of Scotland rose 20p to 740p; and NatWest - the perpetual bid target - surged 14.5p to 940p.

BTR was spurned, though, after it issued warnings on three fronts. The company said sterling continued to cause problems and advised that the troubles in Asia could also have an impact. Moreover, it alluded to difficulties in South America. The shares closed 25.5p poorer at 182.5p. An array of analysts' downgrades are expected to follow. In the meantime, SBC Warburg reckons the company has a break-up value of 200p.

BOC had a mixed time. The president of its US gases operations, Seifi Ghasemi, quit, and sent the shares tumbling 32p to 943p at one point. However, they staged a recovery, and ended 5p better at 980p.

British Biotech topped the second-line fallers, shedding 11p to 107.5p, after Societe Generale said it was overvalued. Ashquay Group did better, closing 3p up at 31.5p on the back of a 178 per cent increase in interim profits.

Landround, the travel promotions company, was another to benefit from good results. The company, which floated on AIM in August, announced a 49 per cent increase in profit before tax and flotation expenses of pounds 506,000. As a result, the shares zoomed up 10p to 107.5p.

Several exporters breathed a sigh of relief, after the pound weakened. Siebe closed 21p richer at pounds 12.42; and British Steel edged up 0.5p to 139p at close of play. Smiths Industries also put on a spurt, notching up another 30p to close at 880p.

Harrisons & Crosfield meanwhile soared 6.5p to 123.5p after selling its Edward Baker Petfoods business for pounds 106.3m.