London’s benchmark FTSE 100 Index again flirted with the 4200 barrier today before slipping back below its opening mark.
The blue-chip index spent much of the session in positive territory but eased following a weak start to trading in New York, eventually closing 4.9 points lower at 4180.7.
The performance, which ends a week-long upward run, came as investors struggled to find reasons to enter the market.
The mood was not helped by the Bank of England’s latest quarterly inflation report, which economists said gave few clues about the future direction of UK interest rates.
Pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca was among the session’s most watched stocks after it announced it had received regulatory approval in the US for its cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor.
Shares cheered by as much 3% before settling 2% higher, or 47p to 2536p. Rival GlaxoSmithKline also benefited with a 9p gain to 1220p.
Insurers continued to benefit from the improved mood on the market, with Prudential up 7.5p at 412.5p, Aviva 6p ahead at 494p and Legal & General up 1.25p at 99.25p.
But the lacklustre performance of the Footsie also reflected the fact that a number of blue-chip stocks went ex-dividend – meaning the price of individual shares lost the value of their previously announced shareholder payout.
Analysts said this factor, which impacted stocks including Barclays, Lloyds TSB and Shell, could have wiped as much as 16 points from the top flight.
Scottish & Newcastle was the worst hit – down 19.25p to 368.75p – as the brewer also suffered from a broker downgrade in the previous session.
Among banks going ex-dividend, Lloyds TSB fell 14p to 430p, Barclays eased 12.75p to 478.75p and Royal Bank of Scotland slipped 38p to 1626p.
Outside the top flight, those shares under pressure after going ex-dividend included packaging firm DS Smith, down 5.5p at 160p, and Northern Foods, which lost 4.5p to 160p.
Among companies reporting today, construction and rail maintenance firm Balfour Beatty added 12p to 200p after lifting its dividend payout 11% and reporting a 6% rise in underlying half-year profits.
But Balfour was beaten to the top of the FTSE 250 Index risers board by hotels group Millennium & Copthorne which attracted interest among investors following results last week. Millennium shares rose 10% or 27.5p to 292.5p.
Brickmaker Baggeridge was another company on the way up – gaining 6p to 126.5p - following its forecast that profits would be significantly better than market expectations.
Heading in the opposite direction was soft drinks maker Nichols, down 8p to 134.5p, following half-year results showing the impact of cost-cutting measures on its bottom-line figures.
The biggest Footsie risers were Cable & Wireless up 3.5p at 123.5p, Reuters ahead 6p at 246p, Land Securities Group up 20p at 840p and Mitchells & Butlers ahead 6p at 257p.
The biggest fallers were Scottish & Newcastle down 19.25p at 368.75p, Smith & Nephew off 14p at 400p, Lloyds TSB down 14p at 430p and Barclays off 12.75p at 478.75p.