MARKET REPORT : Zeneca takeover rumours return in late trading surge

If it is Friday it must be time to get the old Zeneca takeover rumour going again. That appeared to have been the thinking among dealers yesterday as shares in the drugs giant surged in late trade to close at a record high of 1895.5p, up 78p.

In the event bullish comments from US investment bank Merrill Lynch were behind the excitement this time.

Analyst Nigel Barnes said Zeneca's shares were worth 2050p, or $100 per ADR, based on his forecast of 22 times forecast earnings in 1998. He feels the shares should trade at much less of a discount to its US peers given the expected strong growth in Zeneca's new products and prospects for gains in other US drug stocks. Merrill made similar arguments for SmithKline Beecham earlier this week, saying the shares, down 23p yesterday to 922p, were worth 1000p.

US investors have also shown renewed interest in Zeneca shares since the company's chief executive David Barnes spoke at the brokerage's healthcare conference last week.

A volatile session saw the FTSE-100 index move in a 50 point range before closing 19.3 down at 4336.8. Financials were weak ahead of next week's raft of results from the sector. Standard Chartered, reporting finals on Wednesday, dipped 16p to 793p, while Guardian Royal Exchange, posting figures a day earlier, shed 6.5p to 289.5p and Commercial Union was off 12.5p at 708.5p ahead of final figures on Wednesday.

Partly paid shares in Railtrack steamed ahead to close at a record high of 446p, up 23.5p on the day in volume of 7.5 million shares, making it the best performing blue chip. Sentiment was helped by Railtrack's plans, announced on Thursday, to spend pounds 4m a day over the next 10 years improving the rail network's stations, tracks and signalling.

Reckitt & Colman benefited from NatWest support. The shares added 17p to 795p as the broker urged investors to add to their holdings. Compared to its European food peers, Unilever, Nestle and Danone, NatWest said Reckitt looked very inexpensive and was the only one that held any speculative appeal or was in a position to initiate a share buy-back or pay a special dividend.

GKN's good run continued. Shares in the engineering group rose another 12p to 947.5p on further consideration of a favourable US court ruling that could reduce multi-million damages awarded against GKN by up to 30 per cent. Kleinwort Benson and Credit Lyonnais also weighed in with buy recommendations, the latter arguing the shares were worth 1000p.

BOC jumped 34.5p to 994p following recent results. US buying in the healthcare- to-industrial gases group was evident as Goldman Sachs raised its target price from 1025p to 1050p and Merrill Lynch expressed support.

Euro Disney held at 110p. The Paris theme park operator announced just before the market closed that Philippe Bourguignon is leaving his post as chairman and chief executive to join rival leisure group Club Mediterranee. He will be succeeded by Gilles Pelisson, Euro Disney's president and chief operating officer.

NFC, the freight transport group which BBC boss Sir Christopher Bland chairs, topped the list of FTSE-250 risers, motoring ahead 9.5p to 166.5p. NatWest was active in pushing the stock on the back of its analysts' recommendation to clients to accumulate the shares.

NatWest thinks the 32 per cent underperformance of the shares since last August is undeserved, given the restructuring potential. The proposed management buy-out of express parcel delivery unit Lynx sets the tone, with the BRS distribution arm seen as the next obvious candidate for disposal. With a capital value of pounds 200m plus an annual capital expenditure requirement of pounds 80m, selling BRS would significantly alter NFC's operational and financial position.

Rumours persisted that Mirror Group, which has a 46 per cent stake in The Independent, was about to swoop for Midland Independent Newspapers, unchanged at 140p. Sources at the Mirror played down the speculation.

Pace Micro hit a new low of 158.5p before recovering to close a net penny higher at 162p as the latest deadline set by satellite broadcaster BSkyB for the award of its digital set-top box contracts passed without incident.

Some bottom-fishing was seen in Dailywin, whose shares have been in the doldrums since the Hong Kong-based watchmaker warned of lower second-half profits and a dividend cut. They came off their low of 50p, touching 54.5p at one stage before settling at 51.5p.

Taking Stock

Sunderland held at 752.5p. Wimpey has bought the football club's historic Roker Park ground for pounds 1.3m - some pounds 300,000 more than its carrying value in Sunderland's books. Wimpey plans to build 120 homes on the site, something it is becoming rather adept at in the North-east. It recently bought neighbouring Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park stadium, which Wimpey is turning into 139 houses.

Emerald Energy slipped 0.75p to 6.25p. News that the independent energy explorer expects to start the first well in its Colombian drilling programme on 10 March left analysts unimpressed. Execution-only broker ShareLink said the stock was the most popular buy among its clients in the last week following excitement over drilling prospects.