Oil shares attract attention

MARKET REPORT The FT-SE 100 index rose 4.6 points to 3,174.7 and the FT-SE 250 index 6.7 to 3,489.3. Turnover was 757.3 million shares with 21,816 bargains. Gilts were higher.
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Oil shares flared, with British Petroleum climbing to a new peak as the crude oil price turned in another impressive performance.

With, for example, Brent crude around a 12-month high, oil shares are attracting attention, with some talking glibly of oil even rivalling gold as the world's favoured safe haven investment.

BP climbed 7p to 443p. At the time of Robert Horton's dramatic departure from the chairmanship in the summer of 1992, the price had collapsed to around 180p. Many were forecasting it could sink much lower, with the group seemingly deep in the red.

In the event the shares steadied and, as new management got to grips with the group's deep-rooted problems, edged higher.

Many analysts, as our Investment Column said yesterday, expect the oil price to hold above $18 this year. And with chemical prices firm the oil giants are expected to make determined headway this year.

Shell was also strong, gaining 6p to 722p, and Enterprise Oil added 10p to 399p. But Lasmo, the subject of an unsuccessful Enterprise bid last year, missed the fun, little changed at 163.5p.

The rest of the stock market, helped by the oil blue chips, managed to end a three-day losing streak with a modest 4.6 points upturn to 3,174.7. Calmer currency markets, with some talking about a sterling rally, took some of the heat out of higher interest rate speculation. But currency trading was thin ahead of next week's G7 meeting.

Main event of the day was confirmation of Compagnie Financiere Richemont's bid to mop up the 39 per cent minority in Rothmans International, the cigarette group.

The planned offer was clearly leaked, with, it was claimed, South African buying through Switzerland. Rothmans shares started to move ahead in early trading, with the market at first sensing a Hanson strike, then settling for a special dividend payment. The price had risen from 488p to around 540p when Richemont's intention was confirmed. It closed at 606p, with the 625p cash offer announced after hours.

The market expected a bid but Rothmans was not high on its list of candidates. Vendome, the luxury goods group where Richemont also has control, was unchanged at 478p.

Cable and Wireless had a difficult session, falling 11p to 403p. Vague rumours of a break-up bid were submerged by bearish comments from SG Warburg and NatWest Securities' advice to switch from Cable to Vodafone.

Warburg says Cable's earnings will stagnate for the next three years because of lower contributions from its Hongkong Telecom offshoot. NatWest believes the Cable valuation is "stretched". Vodafone, weak on Wednesday, rallied 4.5p to 187.5p.

General Cable, the cable group, made the predictable subdued debut. Sold at a cut price 190p, against earlier hopes of 255p, the shares closed at 186p. The high was 192p; turnover was printed at 7 million shares.

TeleWest, the first cable television operator to arrive on the market, slipped 2.5p to 151p in sympathy. It was sold at 182p in its November flotation.

GEHE, the German group, continued to raid the market for shares of its AAH target. Through Cazenove it has lifted its stake to 26 per cent, with Norwich Union and Equitable Life among the institutions to have accepted the German cash. GEHE has also won acceptances representing 2 per cent. AAH was off 1p to 440p.

Asda, the supermarket chain, continued to edge forward, reaching 79p; Kwik Save, the discount food retailer, managed a 1p gain to 595p as takeover talk faded.

Cautious statements damaged building and related shares. Travis Perkins, the builder's merchant, fell 12p to 272p as it said its rate of sales growth was slowing; the builder Crest Nicholson's warning on first-half profits lowered the shares 8p to 65p. Properties were weak, with MEPC down 10p at 375p.

House of Fraser, the department stores chain, dipped 8p to 144p on its results and the expected restructuring plans lowered Brown & Jackson 1p to 1.75p. Dixons gained 4.5p to 241.5p, with Robert Fleming said to be positive.

RTZ slipped 8p to 799p, with a number of houses making cautious noises, reflecting the weaker copper price. Morgan Crucible, the industrial materials group, slipped 2p to 337p despite a profit upgrading from ABN Amro Hoare Govett. The investment house raised its estimates by £3m to £84m and by £5m to £96m.

Electricities were firm, helped by a positive presentation at Panmure Gordon and the long-awaited requisition for a special meeting of Northern Electric shareholders. Northern gained 10p to 777p. Trafalgar House, which made a 950p-a-share offer, firmed to 52p.

Pilkington edged ahead to 177p as it announced a £500m contract from General Motors for automotive glass. Pearson rose 12p to 557p on its print reorganisation; Mirror Group Newspapers shaded 5p to 135p following figures.

The lower-than-expected loss at USAir finally filtered through to British Airways, up 6p at 408p. But cross-Channel competition continued to erode P&O, off 5.5p to 559p.

PTS, a central heating and plumbing group which slipped on to the stock market earlier this month, rose 4p to 96p in busy trading. Behind the advance was a British Gas decision to make the company one of its main plumbing suppliers. PTS (plumbing trade supplies) was started by its managing director, Ray Swindale. The shares were floated at 90p.

Developments seem likely at Alvis, the defence vehicle group. The shares rose 2.5p to 90p, a near five-year high, in brisk trading. The group is known to have a strong order book, but there are suggestions that the recent strength of the shares could herald takeover activity. There is also talk that Alvis could sell its stake in a Singapore group.