Mixed signals from Celltech

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The Independent Online
Some people in high places still seem committed to Celltech. Although the fledgling biotech firm was the source of much dismay recently when trials of a drug under way at the German company Bayer were scrapped, two directors have been busy buying shares. Mr P Fellner bought 18,000 shares at 257p each to take his holding to 151,492, and Mr J Jackson bought 15,000 shares at the same price to raise his holding to 100,000. At the same time, however, Mr S Siddall offloaded 15,000 shares at 257p, so cutting his stake in Celltech to 10,080 shares.

At Waterford Wedgwood, the fine china and glass group, Mr R Niehaus bought 400,000 shares. The company has experienced difficulties in recent years.

One of the larger sales last week came at the football giant Manchester United, where Amer Al Midani, a long-serving non-executive director, sold 500,000 shares on Tuesday at 590p each to net pounds 2.95m. All told, he has raised over pounds 10m from selling United shares since the start of last year, when he had a stake of over 4 per cent. Football shares have been through a rough patch recently, and his latest sale comes after the shares hit a high of 733p in February. It is thought he will use the proceeds to fund other business interests.

A pat on the back for Corporate Services Group, which has been ranked by accountants Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu as the 92nd fastest-growing company in the world in a forthcoming survey. Deloitte ranked companies by their five-year sales record. Corporate Services' compound growth was just over 58 per cent. Whether it is a pointer to future performance is another matter, but analysts forecast profits of pounds 29m this year, with earnings of 14.1p a share. On that basis, the shares trade at an undemanding forward p/e ratio of 12.8 times, at 200p a share.

Ahead of the Budget, a snapshot of the economy comes from Hays Accountancy Personnel, which has interviewed 450 finance directors around the country. The full results of the survey will be announced on Thursday. In terms of profitability, 59 per cent of FDs said their businesses had improved from the previous quarter. Of businesses with a turnover of more than pounds 250m, 72 per cent reported an increase in profitability. Manufacturing, it would seem, remains a weak spot: almost a third had seen their turnover fall, compared to only 8 per cent of service groups. Finally, companies are making staff work harder than ever, with 61 per cent of finance directors stating that the workload per employee had risen. That, coupled with pay restraint, as the survey also reveals, is one reason why the feelgood factor remains so elusive.

If corporate Britain is in rude health then there must be a temptation for the Chancellor to devise ways of increasing the tax burden on the corporate sector. However, the implications for inflation seem positive.

Nevertheless, the market has had a rough time of it over the past week with the FT-SE 100 closing at 4,593.9, its fifth successive fall and a drop of 4 per cent since the record high it had hit the previous Friday.

The market is dogged by worries - of another round of interest rate rises by the Bank of England, and of a Budget with higher taxes. Also, sterling has soared to a five-year high against the mark. That strength, of course, will only serve to hamper exports - so sectors like engineering which are particularly vulnerable to a strong pound will weaken further in the weeks ahead.

With the Halifax due to make its debut on the FT-SE 100 tomorrow, the shares were one of the few to buck the trend, jumping 23.5p to 768.5p as institutions snapped up the stock. The shares were also the most heavily traded, with a volume of 48.2m.

BAT also enjoyed a late flurry, as news emerged from the US of a deal to end tobacco litigation. The shares closed 4.5p up on Friday, at 586.5p. Under a tentative agreement announced in Washington, the US tobacco industry would pay $368.5bn (pounds 224m) over 25 years to help states recoup tax money spent treating smokers. The industry would also admit to the ill-effects of smoking and accept regulation of their products and advertising.