FTSE stays close to opening mark

Weaker oil stocks and a blow to confidence in the online gaming sector kept the FTSE 100 Index close to its opening mark today.

The Footsie stood 1.2 points lower at 5792.3 by the close, even though the Dow Jones Industrial Average surged more than 100 points ahead in early business.

Oil giants BP and Royal Dutch Shell provided the main drag on the market after the price of crude oil slipped towards 60 US dollars a barrel.

BP closed 3.5p lower at 643p, while Royal Dutch Shell eased 12p to 1868p – the pair accounting for around 20% of the value of the Footsie.

The heaviest fall came from Party Poker owner PartyGaming as investors reacted to a report from the United States that an online gambling prohibition bill was about to go before the House of Representatives. With investors keen to book profits after a strong run, PartyGaming fell 5p to 123.5p, while second-tier rival 888 Holdings eased 9.75p to 187.75p.

Among other top flight fallers, Tate & Lyle slipped 2% after the company said it was looking into whether a rival product in the United States infringed its intellectual property rights. Shares were 12.5p lower at 604p.

Real estate companies did their best to prop up the market after British Land impressed analysts with a 4.6% increase in the value of its property portfolio in the final three months of the year. Shares rose 12p to 1198p, while Land Securities cheered 3% or 47p to 1815p and Hammerson added 8.5p to 1097p.

Rolls-Royce also gained 11.5p to 439p after Merrill Lynch raised its forecasts in the wake of last week’s results. A positive note by Citigroup had a similar impact on Cadbury Schweppes, lifting the confectionery company by 6.5p to 555p.

Furniture retailer MFI took centre stage in the FTSE 250 Index as shares surged by 17% in the wake of a significant landmark in its overhaul process.

Analysts said the sale of Hygena Cuisines netted much more than expected, raising hopes that the ailing company had sufficient resources to carry out its revival plan without the need for a rights issue.

Shares in the FTSE 250 Index company were up 12.75p to 86.25p as all eyes turned to the company’s trading and restructuring update due later this month.

MFI’s improvement was matched by other stocks in the retail sector, with B&Q firm Kingfisher up 2.25p to 228.75p ahead of a trading update on Thursday.

Elsewhere, British Airways slipped 1.75p to 323.5p, as it emerged that it had received a request for information from European and US authorities relating to alleged cartel activity involving BA and other airlines and cargo operators. BA said its business was run in full compliance with all competition laws.

The biggest Footsie risers were Rolls-Royce up 11.5p at 439p, Land Securities ahead 47p at 1815p, Old Mutual up 3.75p at 181.75p and Morrisons ahead 2.75p at 193.5p.

The biggest fallers were PartyGaming down 5p at 123.5p, BG Group off 18.5p at 658.5p, ICI down 7.75p at 343p and Tate & Lyle off 12.5p at 604p.

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