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FTSE 100 closes end of week lower as markets lack direction

  • FTSE 100 closes nearly 22 points lower
  • US indices still in red
  • Top Footsie laggard is Land Securities Group

5.05pm: Footsie closes lower

FTSE 100 index closed lower to end the week, as global markets were under pressure.

Britain’s benchmark of leading shares closed down nearly 22 points at 6,529, with property and investment groups and banks taking a hit. Over the week as a whole, Footsie shed around 0.25%.

Midcap FTSE 250 was also lower, shedding over 187 points at 20,108.

“It has been a directionless session, lacking any real driver to prompt substantial market movement, and so in the absence of any real news flow a degree of profit-taking prevails,” said Chris Beauchamp, analyst at trading group IG.

“Given the scale of the move since mid-November, which has restored upward movement to the FTSE 100 after a miserable mid-year, it is not surprising that investors are looking to wind back positions, and those that aren’t certainly don’t have much of a compelling reason to keep piling in.”

The market analyst added that the next two weeks will throw up a little economic data, but with little or no scheduled corporate news, markets will be at the mercy of US stimulus talks and Brexit discussions.

3.30pm: US stocks do an abrupt about-turn

US stocks quickly retreated from modest opening gains on Friday, dropping back from record highs as traders cautiously awaited coronavirus stimulus package news ahead of a weekend deal deadline.

After around an hour of trading, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 150 points, or 0.5%, at 30,151.45, while the S&P 500 also shed 0.5% and the Nasdaq Composite slipped 0.1%.

Connor Campbell, a financial analyst at Spreadex commented: “Congress still hasn’t been able to pass the vastly-reduced stimulus bill – $908 billion against the $2.2 trillion discussed prior to the election – due to disagreements over whether or not the Federal Reserve should be prevented from using certain emergency lending programs in the future.

“Senators ostensibly have until Friday evening to hash out their issues. However, Mitch McConnell, has said that they will keep talking over the weekend and extend the funding deadline if needed.”

In London, things were also taking on a negative hue, with the FTSE 100 down 14 points at 6,537.

3.00pm: Positive start on Wall Street does not last long

US indices opened higher as expected before quickly doing an abrupt about-turn.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 115 points (0,4%) at 30,188, the S&P 500 was 17 points (0.4%) weaker at 3,706 and the Nasdaq Composite was 35 points (0.3%) softer at 12,730.

There might have been an element of profit-taking after indices hit new highs yesterday. Today is likely to be the last full-blooded trading day before professional traders slope off for their Christmas break and many will have been tempted to bank profits ahead of their year-end bonus assessments.

The danger is that next week might actually see some trade-worthy news, as lawmakers are set to burn the midnight oil to finalise a -fiscal stimulus package to put before Congress.

In London, there are precious few profits to be banked and the FTSE 100 index is now in negative territory, down 5 points (0.1%) at 6,545.

2.15pm: London dormant

The Footsie retreated into its shell over the lunchtime session, with the weakness of financial stocks proving a drag on the index’s progress.

London’s index of leading shares was up 6 points (0.1%) at 6,556.

Next PLC (LON:NXT) was off 2.0% at 6,782p on reports it is teaming up with a US investor to pick over the bones of Top Shop owner Arcadia.

Sky News said the UK fashion firm is considering hooking up with US investor Davidson Kempner to put in a bid for Philip Green’s failed retail empire ahead of Monday’s deadline.

12.30pm: Subdued start in store for US equities

US markets are expected to make a tentative start at traders await the outcome of negotiations over the US$900bn fiscal stimulus bill.

The Dow Jones was expected to open just 13 points higher at 30,316 while the S&P 500 is on course to edge 3 points higher to 3,725.

The Nasdaq Composite is seen opening 9 points lower at 12,753.

“Investors are willing to believe that more fiscal stimulus will arrive; it’s just a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’. The current state of the US economy clearly warrants more financial support. Thursday’s initial jobless claims were worse than expected, while US consumers evidently reined in their spending in November. The pandemic is still claiming lives at an alarming rate and the total number of US Covid-19 cases has now exceeded 17 million,” said Han Tan, a market analyst at FXTM.

“The fresh injection of government funds into the economy would serve as justification for the already-lofty valuations in US equities. The longer risk assets are made to wait, the bigger the concern of a pullback as fiscal stimulus ‘fatigue’ sets in,” the FXTM analyst suggested.

On the subject of US COVID-19 cases, there were 223,000 new cases reported yesterday but stripping out the surge in cases in California, US cases fell by 7.9% from a week earlier, said Ian Shepherdson at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

“Test positivity remains elevated, but it has peaked, and we expect to see a modest but clear decline over the next few days before the holidays throw the numbers into chaos again. The positivity rate clearly was pushed higher by travel and socialising over Thanksgiving, and another increase in early January is a good bet,” Shepherdson postulated.

In the US stock market, media group Vivendi could be in focus after it said it would sell off another tenth of its subsidiary Universal Music Group to consortium spearhead by Chinese holding company Tencent.

As for US macroeconomic data, economists are bracing themselves for current account data for the third quarter to reveal the largest deficit since the gloomy days of the credit crunch in 2008.

On the other hand, the Conference Board’s Leading Indicator for November is expected to post a seventh consecutive month of expansion.

“Neither report is likely to move markets, leaving investors focused on any signs of progress in negotiations to agree a fiscal stimulus package that would be acceptable to Congress,” said Daiwa Capital Markets.In London, the FTSE 100 is up 19 points (0.3%) at 6,570.

11.30am: Possibility of weekend crunch negotiations in Europe and Washington spoiling traders’ holiday plans

London’s leading shares have made modest headway in light trading.

The FTSE 100 was up 18 points (0.2%) at 6,566 with traders’ minds on horse-trading by politicians here in Europe and the US.

“Both negotiations are being fiercely fought right up to the wire,” said Craig Erlam at OANDA Europe, who is in the camp that thinks both the Brexit deal and the US fiscal stimulus package will get over the line.

“It seems the first to be ticked off will be a stimulus deal and spending bill in Washington, with both sides appearing very close to agreement after months of wrangling. It may just turn out to be a bridge to another package in the new year but that’s better than the alternative and sees the country through to the new administration, providing critical support in the interim,” Erlam opined.

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly warned lawmakers that a weekend vote may be necessary. At the very least, work will likely carry on into the next couple of days. Combined with the European Parliament’s insistence on a deadline for Brexit talks of Sunday, there’s an unusual amount of weekend risk in the markets which may weigh on sentiment as the day progresses,” OANDA Europe’s senior market analyst added.

“Of course, deadlines have come and gone in both cases – granted, far more on the Brexit side – and I’m not sure anyone will be entirely surprised to see talks still ongoing on Monday or even right up until the new year,” he ventured.

Today is the last meaningful liquidity day of the year, according to Stephen Innes at Axi, and if he is correct then traders won’t be overly happy to see their early Christmas festivities interrupted by the need to check their smartphones periodically to see if there have been any breakthroughs in either discussion.

Cryptocurrency traders, one suspects, never take time off and who can blame them when the price of Bitcoin is currently going through the roof, as it is prone to do every few years.

The current rally in the price of Bitcoin is very different to 2017 when the cryptocurrency nearly reached US$20,000, according to Nickel Digital Asset Management.

“This is because unlike three years ago, current buying is driven by corporates, major institutional holders, dedicated funds, and retail platforms such as Square and Paypal,” the investment manager said.

The 2017 surge, on the other hand, was probably “arguably the combination of a cross-border transfer squeeze and a speculative bubble”.

Well, who doesn’t enjoy a cross-border transfer squeeze now and then but this time around we are asked to believe that the explosion in the Bitcoin price is the real deal, because the COVID-19 crisis and the extraordinary monetary and fiscal response to it has triggered a fundamental and ongoing repricing of risk assets, “within which bitcoin, the ultimate monetary hedge, has a central role to play”.

“Many institutions are using bitcoin to cover tail risk of currency debasement and inflationary pressure, triggered by the recent large-scale monetary expansion,” Nickel said.

All that being said, Bitcoins are not as nice to look at as tulips

By recent standards, it has been a relatively sedate day for Bitcoin, which is up US$137 dollars (0.6%) at US$22,904.

10.15am: Packaging stocks drive the index higher

After a hesitant start, the Footsie has wiped out yesterday’s losses, helped by sterling’s wilt on foreign exchange markets.

The FTSE 100 was up 38 points (0.6%) at 6,589, with packaging stocks to the fore; Bunzl PLC (LON:BNZL) is up 3.0% at 2,456p; Smurfit Kappa Group plc (LON:SKG) is 2.1% to the good at 3,540p and Mondi PLC (LON:MNDI) is 1.5% firmer at 1,819.5p.

The packaging sector is sensitive to fluctuations in the global economy and with independent advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration voting yesterday to support the authorisation of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate for emergency use, traders seem to be hopeful that some sort of return to normality may be on the horizon.

Halma PLC (LON:HLMA) moved up 1.7% to 2,482p after it offloaded its fibre optics business for US$38mln.

Retail stocks seem little affected by this morning’s retail sales figures, which were not as bad as feared.

Retail sales volumes fell 3.8% month-on-month in November, which was the first decline for seven months and not a surprise given the lockdown was in force in England for much of the month.

“Retail sales have been supported in recent months by the release of pent-up demand following the first lockdown. While consumer fundamentals have weakened amid rising unemployment and limited earnings, the furlough scheme has provided appreciable support. Additionally, the household savings ratio reached a record high of 29.1% in the second quarter, increasing the purchasing power of many consumers.

“Despite falling month-on-month, retail sales volumes were still up 2.4% year-on-year in November, although this was a slowdown from a gain of 5.8% year-on-year in October. Retail sales volumes in November were still 2.6% above February’s pre-lockdown level,” reported Howard Archer, the chief economic advisor to the EY ITEM Club.

“It is notable that November’s fall in retail sales volumes was substantially less than 18.2% month-on-month fall in April that followed the 23 March lockdown,” Archer added.

8.30am: Caution at week’s end

London’s leading equities got off to an indecisive start on Friday, with concerns over the Brexit negotiations offset by sterling’s decline against the dollar as a result.

The FTSE 100 was up 2 points at 6,553, helped by demand for miners, where share price gains were just about outweighing losses on UK-focused banks, out of favour as a result of worries that a Brexit deal will not be concluded.

This morning’s data release from the Office of National Statistics revealed that overall UK retail sales declined by 3.8% month-on-month in November. Economists had predicted a fall of around 4.1%.

Clothing retailers and booksellers – if there are any left that have not been wiped out by tax specialist Amazon – had a particularly tough month. Clothing sales were down 19% from October’s level and book retailers saw their sales slump 40%.

In contrast, food sales grew by 3.1% and sales of household goods edged up 1.6%.

The proportion of sales taking place online rose to 31% from 28.6% in October, with the value of online sales up 74.7% year-on-year.

“The November lockdowns were like Groundhog Day for non-essential retailers. Those without an online presence were simply forced to close their doors again for weeks and watch the online competition and the supermarket sector clean up but those with advanced digital platforms kept the virtual tills ringing as consumers shopped from their sofas, helping recoup bricks and mortar losses,” observed Susannah Street at Hargreaves Lansdown.

“The volume of goods purchased via online platforms remained 42% higher than in February before the coronavirus crisis hit. Shoppers browsing on-screen also appeared to bring forward their Christmas present purchases with the quantity of goods bought in November rising by 2.4% compared to last year.

“The change in consumer behaviour brought about by the pandemic is likely to be long lasting. Customers online and in-store are demanding a high level of convenience, consistency and safety. From online shopping and click and collect, to contactless payments and kerbside pick-ups, retailers will need to adapt quickly to these trends to thrive,’ she noted.

Away from the big caps, Synairgen PLC (LON:SNG) was London’s top riser with a 25% gain to 136p.

The respiratory drug discovery and development company has not only made changes to its SG018 Phase III trial of its SNG001 drug as a potential treatment for coronavirus (COVID-19) sufferers to speed up the process, It has also had its investigational new drug application to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to evaluate SNG001 as a treatment for patients with COVID-19 cleared, enabling Synairgen to initiate its SG018 trial in the US. Furthermore, the FDA has awarded SNG001 “fast track” status, which will shorten review timelines.

Meanwhile, to quote David Bowie, “the wall-to-wall is calling” for shareholders of United Carpets Group PLC (LON:UCG) as the company is proposing to delist from AIM.

An announcement such as this often leads to a share price collapse – see Octagonal PLC‘s plunge yesterday – but on this occasion, the share price has risen 12% to 5.875p, thanks to the co-founders offering to buy out shareholders at 6.25p a throw.

Proactive news headlines:

Synairgen PLC (LON:SNG) has tweaked the Phase III trial design of its SNG001 coronavirus (COVID-19) treatment to speed up the study. Following discussions with the regulatory agencies, the trial – known as the SG018 trial – has been amended to remove the lower dose arm, which will reduce the number of patients required to complete the placebo-controlled trial from 900 patients to 610 patients. Changes have also made to the primary endpoints, which are now ‘time to hospital discharge’ and ‘time to recovery’.

Scancell Holdings PLC (LON:SCLP) said it has selected a candidate for its coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine, SN14, that it believes has several advantages over those already approved. In a statement, Scancell said SN14 targets both the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid (N) protein and the key receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the spike (S) protein and is based on a modification of its ImmunoBody DNA vaccine technology. Fifteen vaccine candidates containing different S and N components combined with a variety of targeting technologies were evaluated for the best T cell and antibody [immune] responses.

EQTEC PLC (LON:EQTEC) said it has signed a call option and exclusivity agreement relating to the purchase of land for the Billingham waste gasification and power plant project. The deadline for signing the agreement has previously been delayed three times as EQTEC and its development partner, Scott Bros Enterprises, did their due diligence. Under the terms of the option agreement, the purchase price for the project site will be GBP8.6mln, less the consideration of GBP260,000 for the grant of the option. The option may be taken up any time up to February 28, 2021.

Great Western Mining Corporation PLC (LON:GWMO) has said it expects to pour its first precious metal from a bulk sample at Mineral Jackpot in Nevada before the year-end. The first concentrate should be recovered from the circuit within the next few days and smelting of the material within the next two weeks, the AIM-listed group said. Great Western noted that a magnetic survey over the northern part of the MJ area has also highlighted existing known structures together with potential new linking structures and extensions to the south-east.

Trident Royalties PLC (LON:TRR) (FRA:5KV) said its wholly-owned subsidiary TRR Services UK Ltd has entered into a binding, conditional agreement with Bellatrix Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Orion Resource Partners, to acquire a portfolio of three existing royalties over the Pukaqaqa Copper Project in Peru for a total consideration of approximately US$3.0mln worth of new Trident ordinary shares. The company said the acquisition is being made directly of two of the royalties and the via the purchase of Tiomin Peru S.A.C, a Peruvian company which owns the third. Pukaqaqa is majority-owned and operated by NYSE and TSX-listed Nexa Resources, an established South American mid-tier miner.

Touchstone Exploration Inc (LON:TXP) has entered a long-term natural gas sales agreement with the National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago Limited (NGC), covering all future gas production from the Ortoire block. It will allow the recent discoveries at 80%-owned Ortoire to be delivered into production, starting with the Coho-1 well which was drilled successfully in 2019. Coho-1 when tested, this time last year, flowed at a rate of 46mln cubic feet of gas per day which is the equivalent of 7,671 barrels of oil per day. “This agreement provides a stable, multi-decade revenue stream for Touchstone to fully develop the world-class asset at Ortoire,” said Paul Baay, Touchstone chief executive in a statement.

Gfinity PLC (LON:GFIN) said it achieved operational profitability in October and November, the first time this has been done since its IPO in December 2014. The AIM-listed group also announced the sale of its holding in Esports Awards for GBP500,000, after acquiring it in 2017 for GBP138,000, with the proceeds to be used to boost growth in its strategy. In an update, Gfinity chairman Neville Upton will tell investors at the group’s annual general meeting on Friday that the positive momentum seen at the start of the current financial year has continued, and the esports media firm is also on track for a strong performance in December 2020.

Zephyr Energy PLC (LON:ZPHR) has announced the start of drilling for the State 16-2 well in Utah’s Paradox Basin. Detailing the programme, Zephyr noted that the well will be drilled as a “mildly deviated” well (at a maximum inclination of 8 degrees) down to a vertical target depth of 9,815 feet. It aims to acquire up to 100 feet of continuous core from the targeted Cane Creek reservoir. Chief executive Colin Harrington described the start of drilling as “a watershed moment” for the company.

Gore Street Energy Storage Fund PLC‘s (LON:GSF) said the capacity of its portfolio of battery assets had risen to 239Mw by the end of its latest half-year. Alex O’Cinneide, the fund’s manager, noted that the capacity has increased further since to 320Mw, of which 110 Mw was based at operational sites. The group also recently completed a GBP60mln fundraise to help fund a pipeline of developments that will potentially take capacity up to 1.3Gw out of which 80Mw is expected to executed shortly, said O’Cinneide. Over the six months to end September 2020, Gore Street’s net asset value (NAV) per share rose to 97.3p (2019: 94.6p) including an earlier GBP23.7mln fundraise.

Applied Graphene Materials PLC (LON:AGM) said its customer, Halo Autocare has launched a car wax that uses the company’s Genable graphene dispersion technology. It is the second graphene-enhanced wax polish product launched by Halo Autocare that uses the Genable technology. Adrian Potts, the chief executive officer of Applied Graphene Materials (AGM) waxed lyrical about its collaboration with Halo Autocare. “Our graphene products have demonstrated exceptional performance in an increasingly broad range of applications and our focus on delivering graphene nanoplatelets in a format that makes them easy to adopt in practical applications is supporting continued product momentum,” Potts said in a statement.

Arix Bioscience PLC (LON:ARIX), a global venture capital company focused on investing in and building breakthrough biotech companies has announced the completion of the previously announced sale of its portfolio company VelosBio Inc. to Merck & Co (MSD) for a final all-cash consideration of $2.75bn. The trade sale of VelosBio generates gross proceeds of $187.0mln (GBP138.5mln) to Arix, representing a 12.5-times return on its original investment of $15.0mln (GBP11.8mln) and an internal rate of return (IRR) of 328%. The tax treatment of this transaction will be detailed within Arix’s 2020 Annual Report and Accounts, to be published in March 2021.

European Metals Holdings Limited (LON:EMH) announced that all resolutions were passed at the Annual General Meeting of the company held on December 17, 2020. All resolutions were passed by way of a poll called to determine the outcome of each resolution put before the meeting. Resolution 4, Approval of 10% Placement Facility, was a special resolution and was passed with the requisite 75% majority, it added.

6.50am: Dull start anticipated as Brexit negotiation worries weigh on sentiment

While US markets continue to hit new highs, UK stocks seem intent on stepping gingerly (and backwards) into Christmas.

Spread betting quotes suggest the FTSE 100 will slip by 23 points to 6,528 in early deals on Friday and if the performance of sterling is any indication, the reason for the gloom is the progress – or lack of it – of the Brexit negotiations.

Sterling is down by around half a cent against the US dollar – a currency that itself is under pressure – signifying that the noises coming out of the Brexit talks are not hitting the right note.

“The talks appear to be stuck on some elements of the level playing field, namely around the EU’s EUR750bn economic recovery plan, as well as the thorny issue of fisheries, and with the European parliament setting a deadline of this Sunday to be able to ratify the current text of a deal, it is possible that 2021 could well see various contingency plans swing into operation before a final deal can be ratified,” reported Michael Hewson at CMC Markets, who believes it is still likely that a deal will be made, albeit not necessarily by Sunday’s deadline.

“PM Boris Johnson went on the record by saying that the EU’s stance on fishing was not reasonable and that the talks could well founder unless the EU shifted substantially on its current position,” Hewson noted.

As mentioned, US indices broke new ground yesterday with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising 149 points to 30,303, the S&P 500 climbing 21 points to 3,722 and the Nasdaq Composite gaining 107 points at 12,765.

Asian markets don’t seem to have got the memo this morning, however, with Japan’s Nikkei 225 index down 38 points at 26,769 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index 255 points in the hole at 26,423.

In London, the corporate news schedule is one that would be recognised by Old Mother Hubbard but then it is a Friday and we are getting close to Christmas.

On the macro front, UK retail sales data is slated for release, with economists expecting a 4.1% month-to-month drop in sales volumes.

This survey is skewed towards larger retailers, noted Samuel Tombs at Pantheon Macroeconomics, “who probably will have coped with store closures better than smaller ones”. He reckons sales volumes will be down 5.5% print for total sales volumes.

There is also a survey from the CBI into the manufacturing industry, due out later in the morning. The previous reading for its measure of the total orders balance, calculated by subtracting the percentage of respondents reporting a decline in orders from the percentage reporting an increase, was minus 40.

Around the markets:

  • Sterling: US$1.3534, down 0.49 cents
  • 10-year gilt: 0.289%, down 1.24 basis points
  • Gold: US$1,846.90 an ounce, down US$3.50
  • Brent crude: US$51.22 a barrel, down 28 cents
  • Bitcoin: US$23,122, up US$355

6.45am: Early Markets – Asia/Australia

Shares in Asia-Pacific were mostly lower on Friday as The Bank of Japan extended its special program aimed at easing corporate financing pressures amid the COVID-19 pandemic by six months.

In Japan, the Nikkei 225 slipped 0.16% while South Korea’s Kospi gained 0.19%.

China’s Shanghai Composite fell 0.24% and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index traded 0.80% lower.

Shares in Australia fell, with the S&P/ASX 200 closing 1.2% lower.


Proactive Australia news:

Alkane Resources Ltd (ASX:ALK) has confirmed the large-scale potential of Boda discovery within the Northern Molong Porphyry Project in central New South Wales after reorientated drilling returned broad zones of high-grade gold and copper.

Nelson Resources Ltd (ASX:NES) has started a maiden diamond drilling program at Grindall prospect within its 100%-owned Woodline Gold Project in the Fraser Range, Western Australia.

Salt Lake Potash Ltd‘s (ASX:SO4) (LON:SO4) (OTCMKTS:WHELF) (FRA:W1D) A$5 million share purchase plan, which forms part of its equity financing to raise up to A$57 million, has opened today.

White Rock Minerals Ltd (ASX:WRM) (OTCMKTS:WRMCF) is encouraged by results at Last Chance gold target in Alaska, including a peak gold assay of 1.2 metres at 24.8 g/t from Sidewinder West, and will undertake an aggressive follow-up drill campaign in 2021.

DomaCom Ltd (ASX:DCL) has entered into an exclusive Heads of Agreement with leading Australian Islamic financial group Crescent Group to deliver a pioneering Islamic home finance product.

Twenty Seven Co Ltd (ASX:TSC)(FRA:U9V) has secured regulatory approval for extensive reverse circulation (RC), diamond and auger drilling at the highly prospective Mt Dimer Mining Lease in WA’s Goldfields.

Paradigm Biopharmaceuticals Ltd (ASX:PAR) has received positive feedback from the Type-C meeting with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Zilosul(R) for the treatment of osteoarthritis.

Auroch Minerals Ltd (ASX:AOU)(FRA:T59) has completed its acquisition of 80% of the shares in Eastern Coolgardie Goldfields Pty Ltd (ECG), the company which holds the high-grade Nepean Nickel Project.

Perseus Mining Ltd (ASX:PRU) (TSE:PRU) (OTCMKTS:PMNXF) hit an important milestone with the first pour of gold at its Yaoure Gold Mine in Cote d’Ivoire, nearly five weeks ahead of schedule, in line with its ‘stretch target’ of December 2020.

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