Market Report: Worries over insurers add to a bleak picture

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THE ACCOUNT ended in the red yesterday, with many share prices hitting fresh lows for 1992 amid further concern about the depressing economic picture painted by Barclays and British Petroleum. Worries about the composite insurers' impending results season deepened the gloom.

Analysts expect all five composites to post losses for the first half of this year, and are forecasting dividend cuts by two of them.

The outlook for the sector has become more gloomy following the recent wave of bad news from the housing market.

Sun Alliance and Royal Insurance are more exposed than the others to the domestic mortgage market, and observers say it will be some time before they overcome this problem.

The reporting season starts with General Accident on Tuesday. While GA, down 5p to 380p, is expected to hold its interim payment, the City believes it will eventually have to bow to making a dividend cut at the year- end. Interim losses are forecast to fall sharply from pounds 102m to at least pounds 52m.

Commercial Union, which releases results on Wednesday, is set to announce a small increase in losses from pounds 26.3m to pounds 30m- plus, but could be able to raise its dividend. Shares in CU closed off the bottom at 430p, down 5p.

Dividend cuts, however, are expected from Guardian Royal Exchange, unchanged at 116p, and Royal Insurance, which fell 13p to a 1992 low of 167p. A maintained dividend is on the cards at Sun Alliance, down 7p to 251p, despite the likelihood of the company chalking up losses possibly as high as pounds 165m.

While thoughts about historic results rattled the market's confidence yesterday, there was a general belief that the outlook for the industry was improving with the companies starting to benefit from a hardening in insurance rates.

Banks had a mixed session yesterday. Barclays gave up Thursday's gain, dropping 10p to 324p, while National Westminster advanced 3p to 318p. Standard Chartered eased 3p to 407p, with Smith New Court advising clients to sell.

Merchant banks were softer following Kleinwort Benson's results on Thursday. KB eased 8p to 234p, and SG Warburg dropped 10p to 240p.

In addition to the economic problems at home, the market's mood was also subdued by poor overnight performances on Wall Street and in Tokyo.

There was a notable absence of new time buying ahead of the next account. Only 476 million shares had been traded by the close of dealings.

The FT-SE 100 share index recorded a deficit throughout the day, and at one time was off by more than 32 points. It closed down by 27.5 at 2,350.1, perilously close to the year's low of 2,348.0 and some 27.1 points down on the account.

Confirmation of job losses, and the winter closure of one hotel undermined Euro Disney, which declined by 27p to 935p. Eurocamp, which has trading links with the theme park, fell 6p to 302p.

As expected, some analysts adopted a negative stance towards Thorn-EMI, although the shares recovered falls in the morning session to close 1p better at 712p.

In oils, BP, down 10p on Thursday's halved interim dividend and pounds 711m net loss, lost a further 11p to 185.5p - a low for 1992. Lasmo finished 4p lower at 132p, and Shell suffered some profit-taking and slipped 7p to 454p.

British Gas softened 4.5p to 226.5p, as Sir James McKinnon, director-general of the Office of Gas Supply, made a further reference of the gas tariff market to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Builders and property suffered another bout of housing jitters and many recorded yet more lows. Redland dropped 6p to 406p, RMC lost 17p to 454p, and Pilkington slipped 4p to 81p in reaction to flat results from its French competitor Saint Gobain.

MJ Gleeson's dramatic tumble continued apace, with the shares declining by 52p to 583p.

There were a couple of switch situations. Kleinwort Benson advised selling out of Guinness, off 5p to 530p, and Bass, down 14p to 517p, into Grand Metropolitan, 5p better at 417p.

Similarly, UBS recommended switching from Marks and Spencer, down 6p to 303p, into Boots, steady at 424p.

Unilever bucked the trend and climbed 12p to 953p on better than expected second-quarter figures arising from a good early summer in northern Europe.

Northern Foods declined by 21p to 420p, being one of only a few to be subjected to a profit downgrading. BZW has trimmed its forecast by pounds 7m to pounds 155m.

Share prices had another depressing session, with most leading equities recording large losses. Movement in the FT-SE 100 share index remained in negative territory throughout the day, closing at 2,350.1, down 27.5 points. The FT 30 share declined by 24.6 points to 1,749.6. Only 476 million shares had been traded by the close.

Frogmore Estates, the property group, continued to slide, losing a hefty 33p to 199p yesterday for a total drop of 65p over the account. The price topped 300p in June before Regalian Properties sold its entire stake of nearly 4 million shares at a reputed 265p each and at a loss of around pounds 4m. Little more than a year ago Frogmore staved off a 310p takeover bid from Southend Estates.

Shares in Porvair, the specialist plastics maker, are rated a buy by Credit Lyonnais Laing at the latest price of 155p. Porvair recently acquired Accumatic which, Laing says, offers product and market synergies as well as being cash generative. The broker has lifted its profit forecast by pounds 100,000 to pounds 2.75m for 1993, and added 0.4p to earnings per share projections to 12.5p.