Roche rumours provide a shot in the arm for Zeneca

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The Independent Online
Zeneca, the drugs group split from Imperial Chemical Industries two years ago, was given a powerful shot in the arm by rumours of an imminent takeover bid from Hoffman La Roche, the big Swiss pharmaceutical group.

The shares jumped 36p to a 1,000p peak before settling at 992p. In a week they have climbed from 931p.

The old ICI drugs arm has enjoyed a steady flow of bid speculation during its brief independence. But with Wellcome falling to Glaxo and Fisons seemingly on course to swallow Medeva, Zeneca has become the last significant UK medical bid target.

Many observers believe its days of freedom are drawing to a close. As if aware of its vulnerability, Zeneca attempted to merge with Wellcome but found itself outmanoeuvred by Glaxo.

Whether Hoffman will emerge as the eventual predator remains to be seen. The cash-rich Swiss group was said to be thinking in terms of a 1,250p- a-share bid.

The drugs industry is dominated by huge international groups and although tiddlers may continue to thrive, sheer size is now regarded as all-important and the likes of Zeneca (market capitalisation pounds 9.3bn) face hostile takeover strikes or the acceptance that they must indulge in defensive mergers.

Indeed there were also stories that Zeneca was about to buy a stake in Pharmacia, the Swedish pharmaceutical group, or expand its agrochemical side.

Most other drug shares had difficulty joining another stock market advance, which took the FT-SE 100 index to a new high since February last year. It gained 31.6 points to 3,376.6.

But turnover left much to be desired, failing to top 500 million shares.

Another firm New York display with increasingly hopeful talk that the next interest rate move will be downwards lightened the atmosphere but the absence of determined big buyers could produce worries about the fragility of the advance.

Holidays in many European centres reduced trading in government stocks, which managed only marginal advances.

Cadbury Schweppes, due to start City investment meetings, gained 4p to 485p. Talk of persistent US buying, stemming from the takeover of Dr Pepper/Seven- Up, gave the shares a helping hand.

Lucas Industries improved 4p to 194p, with SG Warburg suggesting a switch out of BBA. The Lucas warrants, allowing a subscription at 172p, expire this month.

Securicor, with 40 per cent of Cellnet, continued to feel the impact of the Government's reluctance to allow BT to acquire full control of the mobile telephone operation. The "A" shares lost 35p to 965p and the ordinary shares 23p to 1,520p. Security Services, controlled by Securicor fell 33p to 830p. BT, with 60 per cent of Cellnet, rose 3.5p to 400.5p.

British Aerospace, awaiting the GEC counter-bid for VSEL, rose 10p to 542p. Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull describes BAe's VSEL options as "either an expensive victory or humiliating loss".

Metro Radio edged ahead to 478p as bid speculation was prompted by the decision of Chrysalis and Capital Radio to sell their stakes, representing 37.6 per cent of the capital. Emap and Daily Mail & General Trust are the favourites to buy the unwanted shareholdings.

Chiltern Radio, unchanged at 316p, is expected to make a statement today about last week's bid from the GWR radio group. Since GWR pounced, the first radio bid since the Government's decision to change the media ownership rules, Chiltern is known to have cast around for a white knight.

Radstone Technology, a computer systems supplier, overshadowed a 57 per cent gain in year's profits to pounds 2.27m with a warning that profits could be down this year. The shares responded with a 21p fall to 106p. Electrocomponents jumped 32p to 619p on its figures.

Laura Ashley, the troubled retailer, rose 5p to 81p as the clamour of a US bid grew louder. The US businesswoman Georgette Mosbacher is said to be keen to buy the founder Sir Bernard Ashley's 34 per cent stake but the company insists he is not prepared to sell.

Spring Ram, the bathroom and kitchen group, slipped 1.5p to 39.5p. Kleinwort Benson has put a sell sign on the shares and sharply reduced its profit forecasts from pounds 15m to pounds 11m and from pounds 29m to pounds 16m.

Tinsley Robor, making CD packaging, jumped 9p to 74p following comment in the Independent on Sunday.

The day's newcomers made headway. Silk Industries, a textile group, closed at 135p from a 125p placing price; Gradus, producing carpet trims, went to 126p from a 122p placing.

Claremont Garments, which sends 90 per cent of its output to Marks & Spencer, held at 322p. Trades in 250,000 shares attracted attention, with some wondering about the possibility of a US bid.

At one least stockbroker, Dennis Murphy Campbell, has produced a buy recommendation and there was talk of an encouraging investment meeting at another City stockbroker. DMC expect profits this year to climb from pounds 15m to pounds 19m.

o Shares of Wyndeham Press climbed 5p to 155p, a new high, after profits doubled to pounds 3.5m. The acquisitive group is expected to produce pounds 4.1m this year. The company, formerly SWWood, is attracting a growing following among institutional shareholders and today its chief executive, Brian Bedson, who has transformed the group, is in Scotland meeting leading investors. Wyndehan says it expects to make "further strategic and earnings enhancing acquisitions".

o Tullow Oil may package its promising Pakistan oil and gas interests into a separate company and seek a share listing in Pakistan. The Irish group, which made a positive City presentation yesterday, would retain a half-share in the venture. Its shares are 52p, a peak. Thirty months go they were as low as 8p.