Market Report: Festive retail woes 'may have been overcooked'

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The Independent Online

Whisper it quietly, but could Christmas on the high street not be the horror show everyone is expecting? The mood around the retailers might be at rock bottom at the moment, but there are some in the Square Mile who believe the current level of concern may be overdone.

One of them is Seymour Pierce's Freddie George, who yesterday said that while the retail sector won't exactly be ecstatic over its performance during the festive season, it "might not be quite as bad as expected".

Citing signs that sales have been picking up ahead of the big day while pointing out that there is one more Saturday for shopping than usual, the analyst said he believed trading will have been less "painful [than] in 2008, the most recent 'annus horribilis'".

However, Mr George was not wholly positive. While he thinks the retailers' performance pre-Christmas will be better than expected, he added that, unlike in 2008, there will be "no relief spending" afterwards and warned that "life is not expected to get easier any time soon".

Investors were certainly not in a mood to be optimistic, especially following a profits warning from troubled chocolatier Thorntons, which slumped 37.5 per cent to 23.25p on the fledgling index.

Home Retail was driven back 2.7p to 79.9p after Mr George said he was most concerned about its Argos chain, thanks partly to competition from internet shopping and price-slashing supermarkets.

However, B&Q owner Kingfisher and fashion chain SuperGroup were also deep in the red, sinking 5p to 240.3p and 16.6p to 480p respectively, even though they were picked out as among the analyst's favourite stocks.

Despite Moody's warning late on Tuesday that the UK's AAA credit rating could be at risk, the FTSE 100 shot up in early trading. Yet those hoping the traditional "Santa rally" might finally be starting to gain momentum were left disappointed, with the top-tier index having dropped 29.86 points to 5,389.74 by the bell.

Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays were among those tracking back during trading, as, after strong early rises off the back of the ECB offering three-year loans to the banks for the first time, the former finished just 0.15p stronger at 19.82p while the latter edged up 0.55p to 171.95p.

Lloyds, however, managed to keep hold of its gains, closing 1.32p better off at 24.94p. Exane BNP Paribas gave the group a major push by upgrading its rating to "outperform" and claiming its current price "discounts too much risk".

Sage retreated 7p to 284.8p, following tech stocks around the world down after Oracle's second-quarter figures late on Tuesday missed expectations, which is the first time the US software giant has failed to meet forecasts in a decade. Meanwhile, the engineer GKN was lifted 3.3p to 178.85p amid vague speculation, played down by dealers, over possible contract wins.

Gem Diamonds was in sparkling form on the FTSE 250 thanks to Goldman Sachs. The broker pointed out its large share of the market for diamonds above 10.8 carats and claimed that it would therefore benefit from an expected tightening in supply of larger stones thanks to demand from emerging markets.

Goldman's analysts also praised the growth potential of its Letseng mine, and with vague bid speculation continuing to do the rounds, Gem Diamonds shifted up 9.3p to 191.75p.

Diamonds were clearly in vogue yesterday. Petra said it had sold a blue stone for $1.45m (£930,000) to set a record and powered up 6.75p to 116.75p on its first day on the main market after leaving AIM.

There was no let-up in the punishment being handed out to Ocado in the wake of its profits warning at the start of the week, as the online grocer ended up being pegged back 4.55p to 52.85p. It has been a woeful December for the group, with its share price having now fallen for 12 straight days, during which time it has shed more than 40 per cent.

Down on the Alternative Investment Market, Hutchison China MediTech was racing ahead. The China-based drugs group jumped up 21.67 per cent to 320p after agreeing a deal with pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca to develop its cancer product Volitinib.

Carpets maker Victoria climbed 20p to 295p on the fledgling index after claiming a consortium, including former chairman Alexander Anton, was attempting a power grab and wanted to replace its independent non-executive directors.

In what was the first new listing on the London Stock Exchange since July, construction services group Bilfinger Berger's infrastructure fund was brought to market at 100p a pop, and by the bell it had risen to 103p.

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