Market Report: Blue chips pay price for poor trading reports

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The Independent Online

A host of Britain's major companies delivered trading reports to the City but few got full marks and most were punished by sharp fall in their share price.

It was a predictably mixed bag, with the figures bearing the scars of the credit crunch in the form of plundered profits, write-offs and gloomy predictions about trading over the coming months.

The roll-call of losers included FTSE 100 stalwarts such as BT, down a thumping 11.9 per cent, food giant Unilever and drinks group SABMiller. But there were some positive performances, chiefly from drug groups AstraZeneca and Shire.

Despite a 51 per cent drop in underlying profits, HBOS shares climbed to the top of the leaderboard with a 19.25p rise to 290.5p, helped by smaller-than-expected writedowns and forecasts of a stronger second half, which went some way to lifting the gloom surrounding the banking sector.

HBOS, the country's larg-est mortgage lender, indicated that it may be prepared to unload some businesses and parts of its mortgage book if the price is right. The mood was also lightened by speculation that the stock overhang from its recent rights issue is well on the way to being placed, which should ease selling pressure on the shares.

Leading shares started promisingly on the back of a strong overnight showing on Wall Street. The FTSE 100 gained 35 points before losing ground and ending 8.8 points down at 5,411.9. The FTSE 250 was down 29.6 points at 8,856.7.

BT ended at the foot of the FTSE pile after first-quarter earnings missed forecasts. Margins in its Global Service business are also coming under pressure due to rising energy costs, while the pension deficit has increased to £600m. Broker Collins Stewart said the cash outflow was "dread-ful". The shares finished 23p easier at 173p, having traded as high as 327p during the last year. Carphone Warehouse dipped 3p to 189p after missing forecasts for both fixed line and distribution revenue in the first quarter. Fewer people moving homes mean there is less demand for connections. The company lowered its forecast for signing up new broadband customers for the year. A "big miss", said Merrill Lynch.

But strong sales of its cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor proved to be a tonic for the Anglo-Swedish drugs giant AstraZeneca, offsetting a weaker performance from its heartburn treatment Nexium and giving three month profits to the end of June a 14 per cent fillip to $2.28bn. There are also 12 drugs in late stage development. The shares gained 78p at 2,468p.

Shire, the country's third largest drug group, lifted its guidance for 2008 revenue growth to at least 20 per cent more than a year ago as it announced a 35 per cent rise in second-quarter sales. Business has been boosted by demand for its hyperactivity drug Vyvanse. The shares gained 29p at 831p.

Worries over the health of the high street persist, with one-time sweetheart Next under the cosh after a midweek trading statement and comments from its chief executive, Simon Wolfson, confirming the sector is in recession. The shares were one of the heaviest fallers in the FTSE 100, ending down 41p at 954p, having lost more than 45 per cent of their value in a year.

Data centre operator Telecity was wacked after Deutsche Bank's overnight placing of a weighty line of 12 million shares. The group had reported a strong set of first-half figures and encouraging progress on winning new business. The shares fell 32p to 238p but Citibank weighed in with a buy note, lifting its target price to 380p.

Among smaller stocks, Avocet Mining was walloped, losing more than 14 per cent of its value, on a disappointing outcome for gold production in the first quarter. The group said output from its operations in Malaysia and Indonesia fell 28 per cent. Its chief executive, Jonathan Henry, blamed it on "short-term operational issues". The shares finished 19p lower at 122p. They have been as high as 200p.

Another faller was Topps Tiles, which ended 1p lower at 48p having been down to 41p after a fall in sales of 7.7 per cent in the first 17 weeks of the year. Despite what it continues to call the challenging climate, the firm is pressing on with plans for 20 new stores this year. Brokers remain worried about prospects, particularly in view of the weak housing market. Altium Securities advised punters to sell.

Colliers CRE, the commercial property consultancy, was weaker after announcing increased half-time losses of £4.4m and the departure of its chief financial officer, David Doyle. He had been responsible for steering its acquisition prog-ramme but the flat market conditions mean a large part of his job has disappeared. The shares fell 2.5p to 40p, more than 70 per cent below its year's best level.

Encouraging drilling news from its oil exploration well offshore Cameroon propelled BowLeven up 37p to 250p, making it the biggest riser among AIM stocks.

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