Housebuilders have been the hardest hit in the construction sector by the dramatic fall in the market over the past 15 trading days
Sparked by fears over war in Iraq and a rise in oil price, the fall in the FTSE 100 index was highlighted by an unprecedented 11-day tumble, which finally ended on Tuesday.

In the five days to Tuesday this week the all-shares market fell 6.4% – although the market as a whole still outperformed housebuilders, whose shares dropped 6.7%.

John Messenger, vice-president at investment bank Morgan Stanley, said fund managers tend to hold large amounts of stock in housebuilders, which is why it is one of the first sectors in which shares are sold in a downturn.

Messenger added: "The market indicates that there is a risk to the consumer that will have an effect on discretionary spending, such as housing."

According to Messenger's figures, the best performing firm in the market was glassmaker Pilkington, which was 6.9% ahead of the market over the five-day period. The aggregates industry as a whole was 2.2% ahead of the market.

And in contrast with housebuilders, contractors have also proven their resilience. The all-share index fell more than 10% between 1 January and Wednesday, but Amec's shares were up 28.3%, Mowlem's 19.7% and Carillion's 17.9%.

There is a risk to the consumer that will affect discretionary spending, such as housing

John Messenger, vice-president, Morgan Stanley

Leslie Kent, an associate at analyst JM Finn, said the construction sector as a whole was showing "relative strength". Although the index of FTSE 350 builders was down 4.4% between 6 and 28 January, the market as a whole tumbled 12.8% in the same period.

Kent said this relatively strong performance meant construction shares would be among the first that fund managers would buy when the upturn started. He said: "In the past builders have shown relative weakness [in a downturn]. Maybe it's coming good for them at last."

Support services firms fell badly at the start of the week – Amey's shares tumbled to a 12-month low of 23p by close of trading on Tuesday. In trading on Wednesday, its share price was even threatening fall below the 20p mark.

However, Michael Donnelly, a senior analyst at Bridgewell, said support services were still likely to trade well this year despite a rough 2002. He said: "There were a number of asymmetric shocks last year, what with one-off accountancy changes and problems with Amey."

n In an statement made at consultant High-Point Rendel's annual meeting on Wednesday, chairman Tony Palmer revealed that the Birmingham-based firm is in talks with a potential buyer.