Woolworths and Argos keep FTSE dowm

Retailers held the London market back today after the collapse of a potential bid for Woolworths and news of flat sales at Argos.

Retailers held the London market back today after the collapse of a potential bid for Woolworths and news of flat sales at Argos.

Electricals specialist Dixons, clothing group Marks & Spencer and health and beauty chain Boots all lost ground as the sector came under fresh pressure from investors.

Oil firms were hit by a fall in the price of US light crude to stand just over $50 a barrel and there were few takers for mining stocks, contributing to a bad day for the FTSE 100 Index which had tumbled 15.4 points to 4945.4 by the close.

The London market started on the wrong foot when private equity firm Apax Partners walked away from a possible offer for second-tier retailer Woolworths.

The move shocked investors who fear it will dampen the interest of venture capitalists in the retail sector and a quarter of the value was wiped off Woolworths shares.

Woolworths lost 13.5p to 41.5p, while larger high street rival Boots faded 7.5p to 640p after broker Panmure recommended selling the stock in the wake of the move by Apax.

Among other retailers, Dixons shed 3p to 149p and Marks & Spencer weakened 0.5p to 355.25p.

A further blow to confidence in the retail sector was delivered by GUS which retreated 12p to 901.5p after saying shoppers had cut back on buying furniture and white goods at its high street catalogue chain Argos.

In other sectors, the slide in the oil price from recent record highs dragged BP and Shell into the red, down 7p and a penny to 540p and 482p respectively.

Lower metal prices hit demand for mining stocks just a day after they claimed the top four positions on the Footsie fallers board.

BHP Billiton fell 3% or 21.5p to 674p, Antofagasta dropped 25p to 1200p and Xstrata weakened 37p to 974p, while steel maker Corus also suffered – off 5% or 2.75p to 52.75p.

Rolls-Royce was the highest Footsie riser with a 3% or 8.5p gain to 256.75p after saying it expected underlying profits for 2005 to be significantly ahead of market hopes under international financial reporting standards.

Drugs stocks also lent support to the top flight after US pharmaceutical groups gained on the back of a positive first quarter trading statement from Merck.

GlaxoSmithKline was the best performer in the sector with a 29p gain to 1253p, while AstraZeneca added 28p to 2241p and Shire Pharmaceuticals picked up 12.5p to 626p.

Elsewhere, Carphone Warehouse fell 0.25p to 162.75p despite forecasting annual pre-tax profits at the top end of expectations and a continued strong performance.

The highest Footsie risers today were Rolls-Royce Group up 8.5p to 256.75p, GlaxoSmithKline rising 29p to 1253p, Shire Pharmaceuticals up 12.5p to 626p and Morrisons up 3p to 203.25p.

The heaviest fallers were Corus Group down 2.75p to 52.75p, Xstrata off 37p to 974p, BHP Billiton down 21.5p to 674p, and British Airways off 7p to 264.5p.

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