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Markets remain edgy despite interest rate cut

Swiss stocks took a hammering this week along with the rest of the world's markets, despite a quarter point cut in the Swiss National Bank's target range for interest rates.

Shares in Switzerland seesawed their way through the week, diving more than five per cent on Thursday in a Europe-wide sell-off, as continuing financial jitters in the US dragged down global markets.

News that the Swiss National Bank had cut its target range for interest rates by 25 basis points to 2.75 to 3.75 per cent failed to help equities rally.

The bank said on Thursday that the rate cut "was appropriate given the reduced risks for price stability and the increased economic uncertainty".

Dragging down the Swiss Market Index (SMI) of blue chip shares on Thursday was Zurich Financial Services, which saw its share price tumble by 20 per cent, following a drop in earnings, and a warning of worse to come.

The company's chairman and chief executive, Rolf Hüppi, promised to spin off Zurich Re, the group's reinsurance subsidiary, and to make disposals to raise up to $4 billion, after revealing a drop in net profit of 5.5 per cent to $2.096 billion (SFr3.587 billion) in 2000.

There was better news at Switzerland's largest travel group, Kuoni, which reported an increase in net profit of almost a third at SFr115 million ($66.9 million). However, the figures were below expectations and masked a weak performance in its European business unit.

There was bad news for 800 employees of the Swiss-based specialty chemicals company, Clariant, which announced that their jobs were to go at its operation in Germany.

The group made the announcement after releasing figures which showed that net income decreased by 14 per cent to SFr505 million because of costs relating to its acquisition of British chemical group, BTP.

Numbers were better at the Von Roll group. It had made a loss of SFr102 million in 1999, but it was back in the black after chalking up a net profit of SFr6 million last year.

Finally rumours of a possible takeover of the pharma-business of US-based DuPont surfaced earlier this week, with Swiss pharmaceutical firms, Novartis and Roche, reportedly interested in bidding for the unit.

Britain's Financial Times newspaper said on Monday that a deal would be a rare opportunity for a European firm to acquire a strong position in the US at a reasonable price of less than SFr17 billion.

by Tom O'Brien


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