Oils gush as sector stages the mother of all recoveries

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The Independent Online
Not for the first time the stock market found itself admitting it had made a mistake. On Monday oil shares were driven lower as the long- suspected United Nations oil-for-food pact with Iraq was agreed.

A day later oils, with the crude price ahead, enjoyed something of a gusher, making by far the biggest contribution to the FT-SE 100 index's 11.2-gain to 3,789.4.

Quite clearly, Monday's decline owed much to an old-fashioned jobbers mark-down as attempts were made to buy in stock.

In the event the market came round to the view that little had changed, the Iraqi influence would be marginal and the supply pool, with back-door deliveries now emerging through the front door, would be little changed.

A bizarre lunchtime rumour suggesting a US strike for British Petroleum contributed to the rally. Exxon was the US name in the frame. BP, priced at more than pounds 32bn, was the improbable target for a mid afternoon strike.

The witching hour came and went and BP had the satisfaction of seeing off the bid that never was. Its shares were at one time up 13.5p; they closed 9p better at 578.5p.

Shell, without any help from bid speculation, rose 10.5p to 937p and Enterprise Oil put on 12p to 472p. Lasmo added 6.5p to 183p.

The market, in the broader sense, paid little attention to the better- than-expected figures from Marks & Spencer and to British Biotech's positive presentation for its cancer drug. More records on the other side of the Atlantic were once again treated with comparative indifference with shares remaining under the political whip and another Government monopolies probe - this time into the bids for South West Water - causing yet more ripples of unease.

However the takeover of the accident-prone utility is expected to be cleared eventually and its shares were little changed at 659p. Bidders Severn Trent, off 7p at 559p, and Wessex, 9p at 302p, expressed disappointment. Other waters caught in the regulatory net included Thames, off 5p at 551p and United Utilities, 13p at 558p. Electricities, too, suffered from fading bid hopes with old takeover favourite Yorkshire Electricity off 17p to 730p.

Railtrack had a much more subdued session with the price unchanged at 220.5p after touching 223p. Turnover, after Monday's heroics, was a relatively insignificant 19.4 million shares.

Bank of Scotland rose 9p to 279p (after 283.5p) on stories Standard Life, the insurance group, was holding presentations to encourage buyers for its 32.2 per cent interest. Royal Bank of Scotland, nursing ambitions to become the dominant banking force in Scottish, is rumoured to be keen to snap up the stake and launch a bid which would almost certainly be contested and run into monopoly problems. Royal was unchanged at 536p.

British Biotech touched 3,788p in early trading, ending at 3,315p, up 285p. Glaxo Wellcome retained its firmness, gaining 20.5p to 871.5p.

BAA, the airports operator, was lowered 17p to 507p after a parliamentary committee suggested it should examine the possibility of separating the running of its Gatwick and Stanstead airports from Heathrow.

Marks & Spencer, the best-performing blue chip, jumped 29.5p to 462p and British Airways, following figures on Monday, climbed 13p to 568p.

Thorn EMI remained strong, up 27p to 1,796p, as the market continued to buzz with stories that the signalled demerger into music and rental operations will be thrown into confusion by a bid. The other theory is the music side will attract predatory attention as soon as it is freed.

Profit warnings took their toll. FII, a shoe group, crashed 185p to 283p and Neotronics Technology, a gas detection business, 18p to 50p.

On AIM, African Gold slipped 0.5p to 18.75p despite a sharp profits increase and Ask Central, the restaurant chain rose 12p to 128p. Standford Rook held at 488p after its decline on Monday.

Acorn Computer gained 15p to 303p, highest since the mid-1980s when the shares topped pounds 10. They have been encouraged since going into the equivalent of single figures in 1992 by Acorn's involvement with such US groups as Apple and Oracle and the development of an associate producing super computer chips. The group has made losses in its past two years.

Olivetti, the struggling Italian group, has cut its shareholding to 54.4 per cent to accommodate American demand for the shares which have risen from around 100p in the last six months.