NatWest said to be wooing Abbey National once more

MARKET REPORT

Are Abbey National and National Westminster Bank talking mergers again? Shares of the two financial giants edged ahead as some speculators were prepared to bank on what would be Britain's largest financial get- together taking place.

The stock market, of course, never likes to see a good story fade away and on another uneventful day was happy to encourage the Abbey habit.

The proposed Grand Metropolitan/Guinness merger has underlined that major corporate deals are still in the forefront of City thinking and prompted the market to salivate about other possible mammoth mergers.

Abbey and NatWest held talks earlier this year. They foundered, probably on price.

Many believe, however, that NatWest is more keen on the deal than Abbey and will have to indulge in some unfamiliar sweet talk to win over the former building society.

In market capitalisation terms NatWest is the bigger of the two. But there is not much in it and it would face an uphill struggle if it made a predatory strike.

Abbey, which roared to 961p last month on talk of a deal before succumbing with other financials, rose 16.5p to 843.5p in brisk trading and NatWest was also busily traded, adding 9.5p to 737p.

Insurance shares, awaiting the Norwich Union arrival, produced a smattering of gains with Prudential Corporation up 22.5p to 627.5p and Commercial Union 15p to 672.5p. In the grey market Norwich was 339p.

Among smaller merchant banks the disclosure that Cater Allen, the old discount house, had received a bid approach sent the shares bounding 121p to 562.5p.

Leopold Joseph gained 32.5p to 552.5p in sympathy.

The rest of the market managed to end its losing run with Footsie putting on 19.1 points to 4,576.2; at one time it was off 22.2. Steady gilts, hopes the weaker-than-expected Confederation of British Industry survey would dampen enthusiasm for an interest rate increase and a strong New York display combined to enliven the proceedings. Turnover, not high by recent standards, was swollen by a series of bed and breakfast deals.

BTR was the most heavily traded blue chip, falling 3.5p to 193.5p. A mystery trade of 4 million shares was clinched at an astonishing 160p. It was, seemingly, a sale resulting from an option. BTR said it was nothing to do with the trade.

The BTR shares slide, the price was 284p in March, is causing increasing disquiet in the City. Some institutions are clamouring for management changes, demanding chairman Elwyn Eilledge be replaced.

Lasmo, the oil group, was the best-performing blue chip, gaining 11p to 259p. The advance, which will do no harm to its campaign to retain its Footsie membership, was prompted by its successful bid for promising acreage in the Dacion area of Venezuela. Premier Oil firmed to 44.5p; an investment meeting is due later this month.

British Airways rose 20p to 715.5p on expectations the deal with American Airlines will, with minor adjustments, go through.

Boots, with its 44.2p special dividend already stripped out, shaded 2.5p to 692p. Moss Bros eased 4p to 268.5p after meeting analysts.

Railtrack, at one time up 23p on its results, was shunted backwards by the Whitehall reaction, settling for a 12.5p gain at 658p.

Imperial Tobacco put on a further 4.5p to 385p ahead of a US investment roadshow.

British Aerospace has still further to fly, despite more than doubling in two years, believes NatWest Securities. Analyst Bruce MacDonald reckons the shares should nudge 1,600p.

BTG, once British Technology, added 20p to 642.5p on rumoured Dresdner Kleinwort Benson support. Shield Diagnostic jumped 72.5p to 570p. At a medical conference today a detailed presentation on its treatment for detecting heart disease is expected.

Galaxy Media continued to welcome impresario Robert Stigwood, improving a further 25p to 200p. Polypipe was firm at 219p as Charterhouse Tilney continued to mop up shares for two institutions. Profits this year are expected to come out at pounds 32.5m, up from pounds 28.5m.

The departure of chief executive Bob Williams from the DCS computer group lowered the shares 29.5p to 275p.

Surrey, a betting business, attracted a flurry of interest as a number of crosses went through. The price held at 1p. Many see the company as an ideal shell. With a capitalisation of pounds 4.4m and losses for the past five years it needs beefing up.

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