US caution sends ICI shares tumbling

MARKET REPORT
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The Independent Online
Imperial Chemical Industries, once regarded as the bellwether of the UK's industrial health, was in ragged retreat as an influential US investment house made cautious noises.

Smith Barney stopped short of advocating that the shares should be sold. But its decision to change its recommendation from buy to neutral was enough to send them tumbling 25p to 678p.

ICI has suffered in recent months from a steady stream of US selling. The Smith Barney caution can only increase transatlantic nervousness, and could drive the shares below their 12-month low of 660p.

Last month the group produced profits of £514m - comfortably above stock market expectations. More than £700m is expected this year.

Even so, many regard the shares as fundamentally overvalued and the unchanged dividend illustrated the management's caution.

The rest of the market soon lost an early glow and shares drifted lower. The FT-SE 100 index fell 9.3 points to 3,011.8 although ex-dividend cuts were responsible for nearly two-thirds of the decline. New York's vault to a peak on Friday was responsible for the opening enthusiasm; continuing currency uncertainty caused the subsequent erosion.

Electricities again held centre stage. Northern Electric dived 70p to 738p as profit-takers took the view that the group's almost indecent rush to reject the revised Trafalgar House bid would keep it free from the predator's clutches. Trafalgar, still pressing its case and enjoying support from shareholders with more than half of the Northern capital, lost 2.5p to 57.5p

The partly-paid generators went in opposite directions. National Power fell 1.5p to 172p but PowerGen added 0.5p to 186p.

Costain, the troubled builder, had a torrid session. After touching 9p, the shares closed 0.5p off at 11p. Trading was heavy, with Seaq putting volume at almost 62 million. Still, even the Costain activity and a sprinkling of tax-efficient bed and breakfast deals could not lift turnover from a depressed 540.5 million shares.

A big seller of Royal Bank of Scotland failed to contribute to the volume. Throughout the day more than 5 million shares were on offer as the price shaded 1p to 409p. As the market closed the shares still hovered, seemingly unwanted.

British Gas was another down 1p - to 283p - with a meeting with Scottish fund managers making little impression.

Standard Chartered put on 7p to 277p on talk that it planned a link with Hambros, up 2p at 201p. The theory was that Hambros would take a stake in a Standard subsidiary.

The old bid favourite United Biscuits crumbled 12p to 342p as Smith New Court told clients to sell. Results are due on Thursday; about £156m is expected, against £84.6m.

Inchcape, the international trader, was another bid candidate to fall from favour. Rumours that Jardine Matheson, the Hong Kong group, had abandoned its plans to swoop on the company prompted a sudden rush of selling. The shares fell 8p to 305p, with Seaq putting turnover at more than 4 million.

But another bewhiskered bid stock was back in the takeover spotlight. Fisons, the pharmaceutical group, jumped 5.5p to 149p. The shares have surged from a 105.5p low in January, their progress coinciding with strengthening rumours that the group was due to sell its burdensome scientific instruments side.

The sale was duly arranged and many feel Fisons has in the process enhanced its status as a bid candidate. If it survives as an independent group it is felt prospects are much brighter under the new management team.

Eurocamp, running camping sites on the Continent, fell 14p to 249p as the expected trading statement turned out to be much less encouraging than had been expected. Bookings are up by approaching 10 per cent in a market that has been increasingly difficult since the New Year.

Tottenham Hotspur's FA Cup success lifted the shares 11p to 169p.

Edmond Holdings, the builder, added 5.5p to 24.5p in belated response to the 25.5p bid from unquoted Roxylight Properties. Behind Roxylight are the property developers Charles Miller and Henry Gwyn-Jones. Last year they paid £7.5m to Blue Circle Industries for the house builder Saxon Developments.

The rush to the backwater 4.2 market shows no sign of abating. The latest company to signal its intention to launch its shares is Wynnstay & Clwyd Farmers, which has animal feed, livestock and fertiliser interests as well as 12 retail outlets. Profits last year were £1.53m against £1.12m. Dealings are due to start next month; Tilney & Co is the broker.

Shares of Fine Art Developments, the greeting card group, are near their 12-month low at 332p, up 7p. Profits are expected to be little changed at £38.5m but London Wall Equities is looking for up to £43m next year and regards the shares as a buy. FAD could have a jewel tucked away - it still has 15 per cent of the German-controlled Grattan Warehouse mail order group.

The FT-SE 100 index fell 9.3 points to 3,011.8 and the FT-SE 250 index 4.8 to 3,315.6. Turnover was 540.5 million shares with 24,480 bargains. Gilts gave ground.

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