Web fever lifts the gloom of a weary retreat

Market Report

INTERNET MANIA enlivened a dreary market. A deal involving the Daily Mail & General Trust and the planned appearance of a first-ever FTSE Internet subsector encouraged investment surfers into action.

But they were unable to save Footsie from its fourth fall on the run, and even supporting shares had to contend with sellers outpacing buyers.

Footsie fell BY 61.3 points to 6,140.6, making a four-day decline of 195.1. It was last below 6,200 two weeks ago.

Daily Mail ignored the retreat. The "A" shares jumped 127p to 3,230p after the group disclosed an "extensive Internet programming agreement" with the Freeserve Internet access operation of Dixons.

The electrical retailer has been riding the Net tide since the launch of Freeserve. Its shares gathered further strength on the Mail link, climbing 37p to 1,290.5p.

The impending launch of the index subsector is seen in some quarters as further recognition of the market power now commanded by computer companies.

IT shares have boomed since they were given their own sector last year and a further reclassification, which will give a clearer identity to Internet shares, is expected to intensify the Web fever.

VossNet, up 17.5p to 112.5p, was one early beneficiary; the share rise caught the company on the hop and it felt obliged to make a statement saying it was unaware of any reason for the advance. The shares were 41.5p last month.

Easynet, another likely constituent of the index, added 5p to 377.5p and Netcall 2p to 65p.

However, the Internet performance was decidedly patchy. Most of the Web companies are tiddlers and the total value of the Internet brigade represents only 0.03 per cent of the market.

Footsie International, which runs the market's array of indices, intends to split IT companies into two sections, one covering hardware and the other software and computer services. These sectors will in turn be divided into six subsectors.

After Tuesday's brief flirtation with 10,000 points, the Dow Jones weakened during London trading, extinguishing any hope that Footsie would move back into positive territory. Worries that tomorrow's futures and options expiry, the last in the tax year, could be a particularly tense affair also undermined sentiment.

Supporting indices weakened, with the mid cap off 34.4 points at 5,485.3 and the small cap 0.9 at 2,374.9.

Imperial Chemical Industries, apparently on US buying, was the best performing Footsie constituent, gaining 23.5p to 572p. Unloved, old fashioned conglomerate Tomkins, soon to drop out of the blue-chip index, rose 9p to 223.5p after Salomon Smith Barney set a one-month target of 250p.

Firmer oil prices buoyed BP Amoco, up 31.5p to 1,001p, and Shell, 9.75p to 397p. British Aerospace, with its arms-for-oil contracts with Saudi Arabia, also benefited, up 9p at 403p.

J Sainsbury, with a little help from Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, firmed 6.5p to 355.5p. Tesco, 1.25p firmer at 161p, was thought to be meeting analysts. Imperial Tobacco was puffed 6.5p higher to 637.5p following investment meetings.

Allied Domecq, the drinks group with an investment meeting scheduled for last night, fell 14.5p to 468p. Kingfisher's much vaunted figures left the shares 17p off at 793p.

Bass was as flat as yesterday's pint, down 29.5p to 902.5p, as the Czech government allowed two of the country's major breweries to merge, a decision that seems to undermine the position of Bass-owned Prague Breweries. The approval of the deal cast doubt on Bass's mid-European policy.

Britax International, the car equipment group, moved ahead 6.5p to 147p on talk that a buy circular is being prepared. The Smiths Industries figures failed to impress; the shares slumped 106.5p to 953p, dragging others lower. TI, the engineer, fell 29.25p to 423.75p in sympathy.

Profits warnings left their mark. Devro, proving that sausage skins are even more dangerous than banana skins, issued its fourth warning within a year and the shares were fried 40p lower to 143.5p.

Datrontech, a distributor of computer components, shaded to 25.5p after a cautious statement.

MR, a computer group, rose 20.5p to 138p on bid talks, and printer Wace rose 6.5p to 81.5p after the US group Schawk trumped the Applied Graphics offer with an 80p-a-share shot. Applied said it was "actively considering increasing its offer". Litho Supplies gained 16.5p to 135p after a management buyout loomed.

Prestwick, a maker of printed circuit boards, fell 3p to 14.5p following a denial of a bid approach. And clothing group Leslie Wise, once thought to be the vehicle for the Joe Bloggs jeans group's share quote, fell 0.5p to 9.5p after saying that meetings with possible reverse takeover candidates had "not progressed beyond the initial stage". The group is now planning to return cash to shareholders.

Bid talk still drifted around. Hillsdown Holdings hardened 2p to 79p as some felt that a strike could materialise. MMS Petroleum moved ahead again, putting on 10p to around 45p.

Cedar, a computer group, jumped 19p to 117.5p on talk of a deal with Volvo. Another computer company, Northamber, fell 3.5p to 150p after meeting analysts.

Football shares were ruffled by reports that the BSkyB bid for Manchester Utd could be blocked. Man U, ahead of the Champions' League clash with Inter of Milan, fell 21p to 219p. Newcastle Utd lost 5p to 90p.

Brick maker Blockleys fell 3p to 36.5p as the Ennstone/Natural Building Materials-inspired shareholder revolt failed, with the three threatened directors retaining their boardroom positions.

Proteus International, the health care group, was unchanged at 36p as Nomura International lifted its shareholding to 9.1 per cent.

Property tiddler Hampton Trust firmed 2.5p to 19p. It has sold a property for pounds 18.5m. Deanes edged up 0.25p to 2.75p after selling a property for pounds 1.9m; the cash will reduce group borrowings.

SEAQ VOLUME: 1 billion


GILTS INDEX: 116.19 +0.47

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