Thursday lunchtime business bulletin

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley gets backing from senior directors; Fresh wave of speculation causes shares in technology firm Johnson Matthey to jump 8%; John Lewis achieves record festive sales.

Two senior directors at retailer Sports Direct International today revealed they had spent a combined £2 million on shares in the company.

Chief executive Dave Forsey and finance director Bob Mellors both moved to back up majority owner Mike Ashley’s claim yesterday that the Sports World and Lillywhites owner was ``significantly undervalued".

The executives both bought one million shares priced at 98.6p each yesterday. Today Sports Direct’s stock surged more than 7% to 108.5p, generating a paper profit of £100,000 each.

A fresh wave of takeover speculation caused shares in materials technology firm Johnson Matthey to jump by more than 8% today.

The blue-chip company is reportedly on the radar of Dow Chemical, lifting shares for a second successive session with a gain of 148p to 1891p.

The developments proved to be one of the few highlights from a lacklustre morning of trading, with the FTSE 100 Index 33.5 points higher at 6318.

One of the other noteworthy moves of the session came from ITV after the Competition Commission recommended pay-TV firm BSkyB reduce its controversial 17.9% holding in the company to below 7.5%.

Demand for baby cashmere clothing and iPods has helped John Lewis achieve a further week of record festive sales, the department store chain said today.

The company banked more than £101m in the week ending December 15, a 7.7% increase on the same week year earlier and 5% up on the previous record seven days ago.

John Lewis described its performance as "remarkable" amid fears of tougher trading elsewhere on the high street.

Andy Street, managing director, said: "Electronics and home technology led the way with an impeccable return.

The pound at noon was US$1.9879 compared to US$1.9970 at the previous close while the euro at noon was £0.7202 compared to £0.7185 at the previous close.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer