STOCK MARKET WEEK : Hot money thrown at speculative shares as bull market roars on

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The Independent Online
As the FTSE 100 index breaks through the 4,000 level and enters unchartered territory, anybody who needs reminding that shares are at or near the top of a roaring bull market should take a look at the latest dealing figures from ShareLink, the execution-only stockbroker.

Its weekly list of the most popular trades by clients is a pretty accurate guide to the attitudes and behaviour of private investors.

From the evidence available, it seems a lot of them are using "hot money" made on profits from blue chips and throwing it at some of the most speculative shares in the known universe in the fond hope of making a quick turn and a fast buck.

Sadly, many of them will get their fingers badly burnt, if they have not already done so.

Take ShareLink's top 10 purchases in the week to 2 October.

Rubbing shoulders in the league table with the likes of British Telecom, Hanson and Railtrack are Pan Andean Resources (10th), Brent Walker (5th) and Memory Corporation (3rd).

Brent Walker, owner of the William Hill bookmaking chain, is the ultimate penny stock, worth little more than the value of its stock market quotation. It has assets of less than pounds 600m and liabilities running to more than pounds 1.4bn.

True, its shares shot up 40 per cent to 3.5p last week on news that Brent Walker would receive pounds 36m from Grand Met after overpaying for William Hill in 1989.

But with spreads - the difference between bid and offer prices - as wide as a penny, not even the most nimble of traders could get out of Brent Walker at a profit.

Pan Andean Resources is another cautionary tale. Up to 3,000 small shareholders were sucked into the AIM-listed stock in true South Sea Bubble fashion on bullish press reports about oil drilling prospects in Bolivia.

But the shares, as high as 135p a month ago, crashed by more than 100p last week after Pan Andean said the well it was drilling was dry. The circumstances surrounding dealings in the shares before the announcement are now the subject of a Stock Exchange inquiry.

Rising computer chip prices are apparently stirring renewed interest in loss-making semiconductor group Memory Corporation, another AIM-listed stock.

Memory, readers may recall, is the stock one reputable broker said would go to pounds 10 by 1998; another reckoned Memory would make profits of pounds 20m by then.

Instead the shares, over pounds 5 last year, languish at 55p and losses in the first six months widened to pounds 3.1m. You have been warned.

This week sees a steady trickle of company results, though the main focus of attention will be on any market-moving news to come out of the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth.

Lucas, the aerospace and auto components group merging with Varity of the US, will report for the last time as a single entity on Tuesday. The fact that Victor Rice, the new chief executive of Lucas Varity, will not be attending the results presentation speaks volumes about their relative unimportance for investors. For example, news about restructuring at Lucas and more detail about the benefits of merging with Varity are likely to be thin on the ground.

Nevertheless, analysts will be looking for clues about the state of the European automotive market, especially in France, which is giving them cause for concern. Broker NatWest believes the results will also provide evidence of an upturn in the fortunes of Aerospace, a persistent underperformer whose revival is essential if disposals in this division are to be achieved further out. For the record, NatWest expects operating profits for the year to July of pounds 225m versus pounds 173m a year ago.

On the same day, Manchester United announces its preliminary results. Still without a finance director following the departure of Robin Launders to Leeds, United is expected to unveil a drop in pre-tax profits to about pounds 13m from pounds 20m.

The main reason for the shortfall is that building work on a new stand at the club's Old Trafford stadium continued during most of last season, reducing crowd capacity and cutting gate receipts. But the shares, like the Double-winning team on the pitch, have been stellar performers this year, rising from below 200p to peak at 489p in June, days after Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB paid pounds 670m for the right to broadcast live Premier League football until 2001.

It later emerged that Manchester United had also received a 480p-a-share bid in May worth about pounds 300m from VCI, the video group chaired by the Channel Four boss, Michael Grade.

The talks eventually fizzled out after United's share price went above the amount VCI was prepared to pay.

The news caused consternation among fund managers, who claimed a false market must have existed in the shares during the takeover talks because the Stock Exchange was never informed.

This morning Moss Bros is expected to report a rise in pre-tax profit for the six months to July of about pounds 4.5m compared with pounds 3.2m last year. Analysts reckon the first-half performance was well flagged at the company's annual general meeting at the end of May, when the chairman, Neil Benson, told shareholders that sales across the group were up 12 per cent on a like-for-like basis.

They added that the benefits from the shops Moss Bros opened towards the last year-end have come through in the current year. Upbeat comments are also expected on the outlook for the menswear market, which is very buoyant at the moment.

Still in clothes retailing, Austin Reed should also report a strong set of interims on Wednesday, helped by a recovery in womenswear and an improvement in manufacturing. Pre-tax profits should come in at about pounds 1.9m, compared with pounds 1.4m last time.

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