Window-dressing has Footsie flirting with all-time high

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Shares enjoyed a tantalising session threatening to challenge their all-time peak. In the trading vacuum, sandwiched between Christmas and New Year, the stock market is little more than a parody of its normal self with skeleton staffs often forced to cope with only token demand.

A few institutions, however, decided to take advantage of an actionless day and, according to some of the traders who journeyed to their offices, took the opportunity to improve their portfolio performance by nudging selected shares higher.

British Steel, the best-performing FT-SE 100 stock, was said to owe its 6.5p advance to 163.5p to gentle institutional support, reputedly on yield considerations. GEC, up 8p at 351p, was another to get the window-dressing treatment with the debate about boardroom changes offering the excuse. With New York staying in positive territory during the market's alleged trading session, Footsie managed an 18.1-point gain to 3,676.4, just 4 below the peak established at the start of the month.

Dixons is not a member of Footsie and, therefore, failed to make any contribution to the index advance.

It should, however, make a contribution from today. The electrical retailer is the Footsie replacement for the TSB banking group, merging with Lloyds Bank. TSB firmed to 399p and Lloyds 5p to 847p.

Suggestions of buoyant Christmas trading also helped Dixons, reporting interim figures soon, to score an 18p advance to 449p. Other retailers made headway on indications of their festive sales with Marks & Spencer gaining 6p to 442p. Allders, the department stores chain, edged 2p ahead to 167p with whispers of take overaction still audible. J Sainsbury managed a 4p gain to 383p despite a savage condemnation by Bill Myers, experienced analyst at Williams de Broe, the stockbroker.

He declares: "Something has gone wrong with the core Sainsbury's business. The supermarkets have delivered a first-half sales performance which is by far the weakest of the major grocers. "Adding to the misery, Sainsbury's margins are proving much less resilient than Asda or Tesco."

He expects profits in the year to end-March to come out at pounds 815m, uncomfortably close to last year's pounds 809m.

Forte's latest escape deal - selling its restaurants to Whitbread - prompted a 6p gain to 332p in, by the standards of the day, brisk trading. Whitbread rose 6p to 670p. Ladbroke, the betting and hotel group which had been the favourite pre-Christmas Whitbread target, shaded 2p to 150p. Granada responded to the proposed restaurants sale with an 8p gain to 643p.

If Granada should retire empty-handed from its Forte foray many suspect it will turn its attention to Pearson, the banking and media group. The shares gained 8p to 622p.

The sale to US group Mission Energy of National Grid's former pumped storage business failed to brighten electricities which collect most of the cash. The pounds 682m sale price was well ahead of most forecasts.

London Electricity slumped 111p to 588p, largely reflecting the stripping of the 100p special dividend announced in November.

Tate & Lyle, the sugar group, gained 6p to 468p as the long-running industrial dispute at its US AE Staley operation was resolved. The row has boiled since 1992.

The cold weather helped oils. British Petroleum, as it confirmed its pounds 2.3bn Algerian exploration project which could increase its world gas reserves by up to 30 per cent, flared 10p to 545p. Shell rose 5p to 860p.

Manchester Utd held at 195p as Fidelity, the big US fund management group, disclosed a 4.6 per cent shareholding.

Stanford Rook, developing a TB treatment, firmed 3p to 255p as it said it had raised pounds 1.75m through a 200p-a-share placing; Enviromed, the troubled health-care group, held at 26p as former director Ron Zwanziger and friends moved their stake to 18 per cent.

KS Biomedix, seeking to develop an arthritis treatment, continued to respond to its cash-raising exercise, gaining 11p to 141p and Electrophoretics' link with the Ministry of Agriculture to research BSE prompted a further 15p gain to 187p.

BTG, formerly British Technology Group, gained 70p to 1,095p following the Yamaichi projections.

Reunion Mining remained friendless. The African gold miner arrived last week through a placing at 80p. The shares have fallen each day since their debut and lost a further 10p to 56p.


r Archer-Daniels-Midland, the US agribusiness with 7.5 per cent of the Tate & Lyle sugar group. is displaying a taste for Acatos & Hutcheson, the market leader in own-label food oils and margarines.

The Americans acquired a 22.5 per cent Acatos interest last year as part of a joint venture. On Friday they picked up 420,000 shares lifting their interest to 28.7 per cent. Acatos is 245p against the 288p Archer paid for its opening stake.

r Tamaris, the fast-growing nursing home group, is leasing three homes, lifting its chain to around 12. The three properties will not make much contribution to current year's profits.

More deals are planned. Profits of pounds 1m are expected this year against pounds 322,000. The shares are 2p.