Market Report: Investors' hopes for Home Retail bid take a knock

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The Independent Online

While rival Dixons was being toasted after hosting a drinks reception for City scribes, Home Retail powered down as investors in the Argos-owner hoping for a takeover approach were told to think again.

Speculation that a bidder could emerge has been one of the few supports recently for the group's share price, which has dropped by more than 50 per cent since last summer.

However, Bernstein's Jamie Merriman was doing his best to talk down the idea, saying there was "little likelihood of a private equity take-out pre-administration."

Although the analyst conceded that private-equity firms have been busy recently, with OpCapita buying both Comet and GAME, he pointed out that this was "only at low valuations" and highlighted Home Retail's high debt-to-capital ratio.

Mr Merriman, who gave the group an "underperform" rating in a bearish note on the retailers generally, also warned that "negative earnings revisions are still on the horizon".

Saying his earnings expectations are a fifth lower than consensus forecasts, he cited Argos' high exposure to the consumer electricals market where he claimed "a structural and cyclical decline [will] continue to play out".

It was a different story for Dixons, which invited a number of analysts to a west London Currys PC World megastore on Wednesday to share a drink with bosses. Espirito Santo's Caroline Gulliver said she "came away convinced [it] will emerge from the recession as the destination electricals and multi-channel specialist".

Meanwhile, Panmure Gordon's Philip Dorgan said the evening made him even more convinced of his "buy" advice, adding that "the improvement to its product, its stores and its operations over the last five years gives it a fighting chance of repaying its bonds this year".

The FTSE 100 was ahead for much of the session after Spain's latest debt auction went ahead with little drama.

However, despite vague rumours of a downgrade to France's credit rating being played down, the top-tier index closed 0.74 points worse off at 5,744.55, with disappointing US economic data not helping.

Fund managers Man Group and Hargreaves Lansdown finished at opposite ends of the top-tier index. The former continued to fall out of favour, with its slide of 6.2p to 93.4p meaning the stock has now lost nearly 39 per cent since last month.

At the same time, Hargreaves ticked up 27p to 508.5p following its latest update, with the group's assets under administration rising to £26bn.

A number of results from elsewhere in the world were having an effect on the Footsie. Rolls-Royce powered up 31p to 844p after Swedish defence firm SAAB beat forecasts with its latest update, while Morgan Stanley reiterated the engineering giant's "overweight" rating

There was less good news for WPP, with Sir Martin Sorrell's media behemoth retreating 4p to 855.5p after French rival Publicis warned it was expecting a slowdown in growth over the second-quarter.

Vodafone, meanwhile, climbed 2.45p to 172.35p as latest figures from US partner Verizon Wireless came in ahead of Wall Street's forecasts. Following the bell it was revealed the mobile phones giant had received a third extension to the deadline for it to decide whether to make a bid for Cable & Wireless Worldwide. The telecoms group had already slumped by 8.23 per cent to 34p on the FTSE 250 after India's Tata Communications pulled out of the race late on Wednesday.

Elsewhere on the mid-tier index, revived takeover rumours once again suggested blue-chip miner Rio Tinto (down 27.5p to 3,512.5p) could soon make a move for Kenmare Resources. The Irish digger jumped up 2.65p to 53.75p in response, although traders were treating it with a pinch of salt.

Exillon Energy shifted up 7.9p to 141.1p, with dealers saying it was in response to the Russia-focused explorer's recent weakness, while the move also prompted bid speculation to be reheated.

Having shot up 55 per cent on Wednesday thanks to hopes positive drilling news could be on its way, the lack of an announcement from Borders & Southern did not stop the Aim-listed firm advancing another 17.36 per cent to 126.75p.

Fellow Falkland Islands explorer Rockhopper was 1.75p better off at 379.25p as City voices noted the return of rumours over a possible farm-out deal with US giant Anadarko. The group said in January that it expected to find a partner for its Sea Lion field within three months.

Research firm Synairgen was lifted 23.81 per cent to 52p after releasing encouraging results from a study of its SNG001 drug designed to stop asthmatics getting viral infections.