Markets head for end of year records

LEADING SHARES in London and New York are on track to end the century at their highest-ever levels.

With only two and a half days' trading remaining, the FTSE 100 index closed yesterday at a record 6776.8, up 48.2 on the day and topping the previous closing high of 6742.2 reached on 3 December. At 11.59am the index hit an intraday high of 6803.1.

This means the index has risen by more than 1,000 points from its 1999 low of 5770.2 on 10 February.

On Wall Street in early trading the Dow Jones Average was up 182.2 at 11,385.8, against the previous closing high of 11,326.06.

As for much of the year, London's gains were led yesterday by technology and pharmaceuticals shares, helped by life assurance. Misys was up 56p at 940p, and Astra Zeneca up 60p at pounds 25.25. Information technology hardware and personal care were among the laggards.

But while the booming consumer economy has helped to push the stock market to new heights, in October it combined with the strong pound to drive down exports and suck in imports, according to figures yesterday that show the UK's global trade gap has widened.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the deficit on trade in goods with the rest of the world rose from September's pounds 1.7bn to pounds 2.3bn - the largest gap since July. Exports fell by 3 per cent while imports rose 1 per cent.

Meanwhile, early estimates of trade with non-European Union countries in November showed the deficit narrowed from a record pounds 2.1bn to pounds 1.9bn. But this was worse than the pounds 1.8bn deficit expected in the City.

The global trade gap was expected to widen after October's record non- European Union deficit. But the final outcome was better than the pounds 2.6bn forecast by economists.

However, they said the balance was flattered by trade in oil and erratics, and warned that sterling would pose a threat to the economy if it remained strong.

But the pound is likely to be propped by higher interest rates in the new year.

A rise is regarded as almost inevitable in January or February after Wednesday's publication of the minutes of the November meeting of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee showed that eight of the nine members had either voted for a rate rise or hinted that one was needed soon.

Outlook, page 13