Market Report: ABF flavour of the day thanks to sugar outlook

There was a renewed appetite for Associated British Foods yesterday as analysts turned sweet on the group, arguing investors have missed how much of a boost it will get from sugar.

The world's second largest producer of the commodity advanced 9.5p to 949.5p after Credit Suisse upgraded its rating to "outperform", saying "the market seems to have ignored the huge hike in sugar prices around the world".

Pointing out that ABF has been the blue-chip index's weakest stock in 2011, its analysts said fundamental changes in the sugar market "should mean a rethink on ABF", adding that the group is "in the right market, with the right assets at the right time".

ABF, which also owns the clothing chain Primark, has been harmed recently along with the rest of the retailers by the increased cost of cotton, but Credit Suisse said "all the rhetoric and concerns about the Primark margin are of small significance for ABF's earnings when compared with movements in the world sugar price".

Analysts from Collins Stewart were similarly positive, starting their coverage of the group with a "buy" recommendation. Praising the ingredients companies generally, they said the sector operates "in a favourable environment with sales growth and profitability ahead of the market and food producer averages".

"Companies which have built dominant positions in attractive niche areas of the market and are now focused on margin improvement should be the first to return value to shareholders at long last," they added, choosing ABF as one of their favoured plays.

Overall, it was another day in the red – the sixth in a row – for the FTSE 100, as it was knocked back 97.05 points to 5,598.23. Events in Japan, North Africa and the Middle East continued to worry investors, while disappointing economic data from both the UK and the US added to their concerns.

Attention was also refocused on the economic health of the eurozone thanks to the decision by Moody's to cut Portugal's credit rating to A3 from A1. Many of the banks were left weaker, with Barclays and Lloyds Banking Group declining 10p to 282p and 0.93p to 59.45p respectively. HSBC was also down, 23.5p behind at 622.5p, as it went ex-dividend along with Standard Life, which was 11.2p lower at 199.5p.

Rumour mongers had something to excite them, however, with vague speculation spreading that the Belgian giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) could be considering a potential merger with the Grolsch-brewer SAB Miller.

Market voices responded cautiously to the chitter-chatter, pointing out that ABI has other issues on its plate, although Atif Latif, director of trading at Guardian Stockbrokers, said that if such a deal did materialise it would allow the group "to gain exposure to Africa and Latin America [where growth is still strong] and counteract the slow growth of the US market". However, despite the gossip, SAB Miller failed to catch light, edging up just 1p to 1,984.5p.

The tragedy in Japan continued to knock Arm Holdings over worries about its production, and the chip maker retreated 13.5p to 504p. Its mid-tier rival, Imagination Technologies, retreated even further, closing 31.8p worse off at 430.8p, after analysts criticised the group for not upgrading its estimates enough in its interim management statement.

At the other end, Hansen Transmissions – which has seen its share price rise as investors look for renewable energy options rather than considering nuclear power operators – was still moving up, increasing 2.03p to 48.94p. The favourable breeze behind the wind turbine gearbox manufacturer was given extra impetus by Peel Hunt's Andrew Shepherd-Barron initiating coverage with a "buy" rating.

A couple of big staffing changes were spooking investors; one of these took place at InterContinental Hotels, which slipped back 27p to 1,228p after announcing that its chief executive, Andrew Cosslett, is to leave at the end of June. Evolution Securities' Nigel Parson, who praised Mr Cosslett for his stewardship of the group, said the "market will be disappointed at [his] departure but he has a good sense of timing".

The analyst was less charitable, however, about the resignation of Mitchells & Butlers' chief executive, Adam Fowle, saying the "soap-opera that is M&B continues to run and run". The pubs group said it had not chosen a permanent replacement yet, and retreated 10.2p to 289.3p.

Back on the top-tier index, Tullow Oil was driven up 6p to 1,355p as investors had their first chance to react to the announcement on Tuesday evening that it had finally gained approval from the Ugandan government for its project in the country.

Down on the fledgling index, the fashion group French Connection was lifted 4.25p to 124p after revealing it had managed to achieve pre-tax profits of £7.3m. The annual sum was dramatically up from the £700,000 it posted in 2009, although the retailer's same-store sales dropped in the UK, Europe and the United States.

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