Sears misses the party as blue chips hit another peak; MARKET REPORT

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The Independent Online
Sears has missed yet another stock market party. As blue chips clutched at another peak and many retail shares continued to display their investment appeal, poor old Sears, the creation of the legendary Sir Charles Clore, slumped to its lowest for four years.

With the market apparently sensing that big potential sellers lurked the shares fell 4p to 87p.

They have been under intense pressure as the group's management has struggled desperately to revive the fortunes of the sprawling Freemans mail order to Selfridges department store group.

Last month Sears displayed its grief for all to see when interim profits crashed to only pounds 2.5m. It was, the market hoped, the nadir for Liam Strong, the former British Airways man drafted in four years ago to revitalise the business.

Part of Mr. Strong's recent misfortune related to the cost of extricating the group from the Facia debacle, when it sold shoe shops to the unquoted business which folded soon after the deal. One of the stories putting the shares under renewed pressure yesterday was the Facia saga would continue to haunt Mr Strong and he would be forced to increase the provisions already earmarked.

Sears desperately needs to enjoy a strong Christmas run. It would, in the eyes of institutional shareholders, be the last straw if any Christmas feelgood influence was undermined by more provisions being heaped on those already announced.

The FT-SE 100 index ended a roller-coaster session with a 10.6 points gain to 4,038.7, overtaking last week's peak. Second-line shares, once again, failed to join the fun.

It was a strong New York performance which provided the inspiration for the blue chip charge. Trading was again moderate with, despite the record breaking performance, little sign of any significant institutional interest. Still Barclays de Zoete Wedd stoked the fires of enthusiasm by raising its Footsie year-end forecast from 3,750 points to 3,900 and suggesting a 4,300 level at the end of next year.

Takeover rumours kept some traders on their toes. Manchester United could only manage one goal over the weekend but the shares notched a 45.5p gain to 559p (after 595p) on reports that sporting entrepreneur Mark McCormack was considering a strike.

Commercial Union was pulled back into the frame with the shares improving 9.5p to 677.5p on suggestions of a deal with ABN Amro, the Dutch financial group which owns securities house Hoare Govett.

Smith & Nephew, down 4.75p at 211.5p, was also caught in the bid fever. A 2.86p dividend payment accounted for part of the fall. But with a 17.8 million turnover there was talk that the dividend technicality masked some determined US buying. The group's skin-repairing venture in the US appears to be making significant progress.

Blenheim, although 10.5p off at 473.5p, remained in the bid arena. VNU, the Dutch group which picked up a near 15 per cent interest in a dawn raid last week, is free to return to the market today. There is speculation it will buy again, putting pressure on United News & Media, said to be the other possible bidder still lurking.

Smiths Industries, results tomorrow and presentations later this week, flew 13.5p higher to 790p. A 3.5 million agency cross at 559p lifted TI Group 13p to 569.5p.

Prudential Corporation firmed to 477p with Lehman Brothers making buy noises. The insurer is due to report its new business figures for the first nine months of the year tomorrow. Its US operation, Jackson National Life, is doing well with Lehman looking for 20 per cent underlying profits growth in the next three years. The US offshoot is likely to underline its progress when it makes investment presentations in London next month.

Oils were subdued with Lasmo, ahead of a 30-page Panmure Gordon buy note, unchanged at 220p.

Tullow Oil continued to suffer from last month's "disappointing" Pakistan drilling results, falling a further 5p to 86.25p. But Pan Andean, devastated by a dry drill in Bolivia, managed to put on 4.5p to 44.5p. With the Bolivian excitement at its peak the shares touched 135.5p. Bula Resources improved 0.25p to 2.75p on an encouraging statement on its Russian development.

British Gas fell 4p to 184.5p on the expected reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Verity, the current hot stock following its signalled development of a wafer-thin sound system, added, a further 1p to 31.5p.