Who's eating who in 1997?

A look ahead at next year's big contenders and a look back at last year's big action

Insurance, the media and that old chestnut, the utility sector, are the City's firm favourites for the most takeover action in 1997.

Southern Electric and Yorkshire Electricity, the last two regional electricity companies (RECs) to remain independent, are widely expected to fall to US bids after a pre-election carve-up of the sector.

Water companies, led by Severn Trent, Anglia, Wessex and South West Water are also seen as likely prey in the New Year unless the election and a Labour government intervenes.

Despite the last minute surge among the RECs and record City bonuses, the total value of bids and deals for 1996, however, is expected to come in below last year's record pounds 68.1bn.

And the total is likely to drop further in 1997, according to a poll of stock market analysts by the Independent on Sunday, especially if Labour wins the election.

As with utilities, so with the media: further consolidation in the TV industry is tipped to pick off the last remaining small ITV companies.

Yorkshire Tyne Tees, where Granada holds a 24 per cent stake, heads media analysts' lists, followed by HTV - where United News & Media holds sway over 20 per cent - Grampian and Border.

Pearson is also cited - if new chief executive Marjorie Scardino fails to deliver on a radical restructuring plan - as well as Carlton, which owns Central TV, Westcountry and the London weekday franchise.

EMI, however, is the sector's favourite candidate for a huge bid, with interest from the US or Seagram of Canada or possibly even closer to home.

"It may sound far-fetched, but don't rule out a Pearson/EMI deal or Pearson/Carlton. It will be a key year for Carlton. It is regularly undervalued and will be judged against what Granada and United do," one media analyst said.

Speculation also continues to swirl around the insurance sector, following Royal and Sun Alliance's merger earlier this year and Axa's recent link- up with UAP in France.

General Accident's shares were buoyed to a record by market gossip before Christmas and Commercial Union is also widely tipped, following a breakdown of talks with BAT and rumoured interest from Germany's Allianz. One analyst went as far as to suggest that the mighty Prudential might also not be immune from a bid.

Off the beaten track, Imperial Tobacco - recently demerged from Hanson - was most frequently cited for a deal, with Philip Morris and BAT the favourite contenders.

Wickes, the troubled DIY group, is also almost universally expected to fall to the likes of Kingfisher or RMC, after completion of its pounds 50m refinancing in January.

Food to builders' merchants group Harrisons & Crosfield has also had a hard time of it in 1996, with the shares dropping to levels which might attract a bidder.

Elsewhere, oil analysts also expect exploration group Premier Consolidated to fall following a spate of recent takeover activity in the sector. Premier's stock has so far been largely immune because of the 25 per cent stake held by Amerada Hess of the US. Amerada is thought to be a seller, however, delivering a useful platform for an approach.

One perennial favourite that does not make the list this time is Zeneca. Analysts still believe the group is one of the few quality, independent drugs companies around.

Takeover speculation, however, has pushed the share price out of reach of any sensible suitor, analysts say.

That will come as welcome relief to Sir David Barnes, Zeneca's chief executive, who has been harried by takeover speculation almost weekly since the drugs group demerged from ICI in 1993.

"I wish it would go away entirely. The real price is not the unsettlement it causes me, but that to the staff," Sir David said last week. "But even they are pretty much inured about the talk that has now gone for three years."

Top takeover tips for 1997

1 Imperial Tobacco

2 Wickes

3 Southern Electric/Yorkshire

Electricity

4 Severn Trent and the water sector

5 Yorkshire Tyne Tees and the small regional ITV companies

6 EMI

7 General Accident

8 Commercial Union

9 Premier Consolidated

10 Harrisons & Crosfield

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