The old adage holds true as sellers take control

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The Independent Online
Sell in May and go away - one of the stock market's more hackneyed expressions is looking ominously appropriate.

Yesterday shares were again in ragged retreat, with the FT-SE 100 index falling 15.7 points to 3,707.3. It has given ground on each of May's five trading days, falling more than 100 points in the process.

Even the supporting FT-SE 250 index, which was for weeks in rampant form, has found May too much. It has wilted on four of the five days.

The sudden change of mood coincides with a flagging New York, with the Dow Jones Average said by some to be heading for 5,000 points, another government election rout and the bewildering power vetos from the Board of Trade.

Even a couple of mega-bids have failed to rouse enthusiasm and it is beginning to look as if shares could be set for an indifferent run.

Hopes still linger of further interest rate cuts and more takeover action. But with gilts in the doldrums and shares showing signs of tiredness, the temptation to take some of the profits which have been created in the recent bull run may prove irresistible.

J Sainsbury, despite its first profits fall as a quoted company and a market rush to cut profit forecasts, was the best-performing blue chip, up 15p to 372p. The dividend policy and share buy-back plans impressed. There was also an inclination to look upon the shares as a good recovery play.

Other superstore chains caught the Sainsbury habit, with Argyll up 8.5p to 336.5p and Tesco 5p to 272p. Watson & Philip, the convenience stores chain, fell 16p to 514p on the departure of its chief executive, David Bremner, to Sainsbury.

Lucas Industries was again busily traded as bid speculation continued to swirl around. The car components group said Varity, the US group with which it was involved in talks, was unlikely to mount a bid but few had expected it to do so. A Lucas offer for Varity - or a bid for Lucas from another source - are the possibilities intriguing the market. The shares fell 6.5p to 227p.

Some recent takeover favourites came to grief. Harry Ramsden plunged 54p to 383p and London Clubs 28p to 508p. Cadbury Schweppes lost 13.5p to 492.5p, despite a positive trading statement, and Thorn EMI gave up 29p to 1,759p.

Pearson, which was up 14p to 702p, remained in the bid spotlight with the South African Anton Rupert, of Rothmans fame, emerging as the rumoured predator. Wm Morrison, the supermarket chain where it is said that family pressures could provoke corporate action, edged forward 2p to 173p.

Cable and Wireless enjoyed a late run as AT&T was again put forward as a likely bidder. The shares closed at 476p, up 6p.

Talk of action at Guinness, which is likely to be prompted by Bernard Arnault, the French entrepreneur, was behind a 7p gain to 479p, and the poorly performing Grand Metropolitan for a time enjoyed another speculative whirl, only to finish little changed at 426.5p.

Smith & Nephew remained in demand, ahead 6.25p to 201.75p. Since its skin-growing link with a US group was announced last week the shares have risen 14.25p, a remarkable display for a share more accustomed to moving in fractions of a penny.

Rank Organisation rose 7p to 539p, still reflecting a positive analysts' meeting and talk of a leisure deal.

Flying Flowers was little changed at 173p. It duly announced takeovers worth pounds 5.3m and is raising cash through a placing and open offer at 157p.

Albert Fisher, the food group, firmed to 52p. A subtle market re-rating may be on the way. Profits for the year ending August could be pounds 42m, with some looking for pounds 50m next year.

Bluebird, the toys group, fell 11p to 221p. The shares were 385p in November. There is talk of disappointing US sales.

Hawtin, the leisurewear group, gained 1.75p to 52.75p on the pounds 4.8m building products sale and Dorling Kindersley managed a 12p gain to 641p on CD- Rom expansion hopes.

Two AIM newcomers made solid debuts. La Senza, the lingerie and nightwear fashion chain, ended at 156p from a 150p placing and Reflec, making reflective ink, went from 40p to 48p.

There could be some dramatic new-issue action today. Maiden, the outdoor advertising group, is expected to enjoy a 50p premium and could even touch 300p from its 220p flotation.

The pharmaceutical group Vanguard Medica could hit 480p from its 450p flotation.