Sticking with ex-mutual benefits smarter investors

MARKET REPORT
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The Independent Online
The "smarter investor" stayed with Alliance & Leicester when the former building society became a bank. Their shares, which opened at 542p nearly three weeks ago, yesterday reached 626.5p with a 41p gain.

The 600,000 members who elected to sell their entitlement through auctions organised by stockbroker Cazenove collected 533.7p a share.

During its stock market life A&L has only briefly been below the auction price when it touched 533p.

The share performance has made nonsense of most of the forecasts drifting around in the weeks before the flotation. In the few days ahead of the debut opinion hardened with estimates of the opening price stretching to 540p.

The shares of the unlucky 600,000 were parcelled up and sold through auction to institutional investors. The highest price paid was believed to be 575p.

The rip roaring A&L success is due to the headlong bull market in general and the money share boom in particular. Banks, insurance companies and anything with a financial inclination has become hot property as fund managers strive to adjust their portfolio weightings to the exploding financial sector.

They need to build their holdings in the likes of A&L and the other converters, Halifax and so on, from a zero base. In the meantime, they have to settle for greater exposure by buying into existing quoted companies.

Their problem is underlined by Abbey National, where private investors still have around half the capital eight years after conversion.

Abbey shares stretched to a new peak of 884.5p, up 36p, and Lloyds TSB put on 24.5p to 602.5p. HSBC led the banking pack with a 91p surge to 1,795p; National Westminster, Standard Chartered and General Accident were others in demand.

Stories persist Halifax intends to use its quoted muscle for bids soon after it arrives next month. One possible target is seen as Norwich Union, the insurance group due to float a few weeks afterwards.

Financials were a large factor behind another upbeat market display, with Footsie surging to a new peak of 4,580.4 points, up 42.9. For much of the session it was lower in the water but a heady New York opening turned the tide, underpinning the strength of financials. It was, however, once again a market of the haves and have-nots. Second and third liners drifted with the FTSE 250 index off 8.6 points.

J Sainsbury, the superstores chain, continued to prosper from hopes its profit decline had been arrested; it was also helped by stories of a meat tie-up with Marks & Spencer. A Sainsbury spokeswomen described the rumour as "pure speculation" and then said: "We never comment on rumours."

However, according to market sources, the two retail giants plan a joint operation to re-established the appeal of British meat. They intended to sell under a joint brand name through specially created departments in their stores. Sainsbury rose 11p to 360p; Marks firmed to 505.5p.

BTR was the day's casualty, crashing 36.5p to 231p following its profit warning. A big deal, thought to be by SBC Warburg, increased the discomfort. Warburg is thought to have sold around 80 million shares at 219p, having picked them up at 215.5p.

MEPC, the property group, added 18.5p to 493p on Hammerson bid stories but British Land gave ground on rights issue fears. Storehouse continued to encounter the alleged wall of negative sentiment, off 1p to 208.5p, a low.

United News & Media's attempt to move into digital television lifted the shares 13p to 755.5p. but BSkyB, with Henderson Crosthwaite moving from hold to sell, fell 5.5p to 595.5p. HTV shaded to 305p after a lunchtime meeting with Henderson.

House of Fraser, following a Henderson-hosted dinner at London's Ritz Hotel, firmed 2.5p to 174p and Rank was little changed at 444.5p after the stockbroker's dinner at the Howard Hotel.

Cable & Wireless put on 5p to 501.5p; Hong Kong Telecom results were encouraging but the company remained silent about its future HKT relationship.

Railtrack jumped 20p to 447.5p; the second instalment of 190p is due next month. Stagecoach advanced 19.5p to 618.5p as its South West Trains off-shoot escaped further penalties.

Aston Villa continued to find the going soggy, falling 120p to 950p against an 1,100p placing. Pan Andean Resources lost 14p to 34.5p on the seeming break down in its relationship with BHP.

Taking Stock

Petra Diamonds lost a little lustre although the signalled trading statement suggested a significant discovery. Its Northern Cape Province prospect in South Africa has produced stones representing 30.81 carats per 100 tonnes, a particularly high yield. Other finds are expected. The shares fell 7p to 57.5p against last week's 30p placing.

Ask Central, the latest restaurant venture of the Kaye family (Golden Egg and Garfunkels) gained 22.5p to 217.5p. It is expected to double profits to pounds 1.4m this year. The company, raising pounds 5.3m through a rights issue, is valued at pounds 1.75m per restaurant; PizzaExpress is at pounds 3.2m.

Jordec, the nuclear decommisioner, produced interims of pounds 204,000 and could make pounds 500,000 this year with pounds 1m next. The shares are 51.5p.

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