Footsie in negative territory

Concerns over the margins achieved by UK insurers helped drag the FTSE 100 Index into negative territory today.

Concerns over the margins achieved by UK insurers helped drag the FTSE 100 Index into negative territory today.

Royal & Sun Alliance and Norwich Union owner Aviva were among the heaviest blue-chip fallers despite posting higher profits, contributing to the Footsie falling 18.9 points to 5358.6.

The top flight had previously hit a three-and-a-half year high after chalking up three consecutive sessions of gains.

Profits of £1.32 billion from Aviva were at the top end of expectations but failed to prevent shares falling 2% or 13p to 644p.

An element of profit-taking after a recent strong run was a factor, but analysts pointed to the pressure on UK margins as rivals fight for new business.

It was joined on the fallers board by general insurer Royal & Sun Alliance, which lost 2p to 92p, even though improved profits showed its recent recovery remained on track.

Amongst others in the sector, Prudential lost 12p to 525p and Friends Provident slipped 1.5p to 177.5p.

The weakness in the insurance sector spread to banks, with HBOS off 13p at 890.5p and Lloyds TSB down 5.25p at 468.75p.

Those managing to make it into positive territory today included BAE Systems, which lifted 1% or 3.25p to 323p on the back of a broker upgrade, making it the second best blue-chip performer.

BAE was beaten to the top by mining group Rio Tinto, which rose 22p to 2054p. Other miners making gains today included BHP Billiton, advancing 5.5p to 852.5p, and Xstrata, adding 4p to 1269p.

Oil stocks were again providing the market with a degree of support as the price of a barrel of crude in New York rose above 65 US dollars.

BP lifted a penny to 654.5, while investors also cheered Royal Dutch Shell - up 9p at 1945p.

Among other risers, telecoms group O2 gained 1.25p to 145.5p as rumours about bid interest from Deutsche Telekom resurfaced.

Elsewhere, Arla Foods fell 8% or 5.5p to 64p after higher oil and utility costs forced it to warn on profits. Second-tier rival Dairy Crest was also down 6% or 33.25p at 481.75p.

Estate agents chain Countrywide edged downwards after posting sharply lower profits for the first half of its financial year.

Shares slipped half a penny to 337.5p after it saw house sales fall by nearly a third – although its chairman said he hoped the worst was over for the property market.

A series of second tier housebuilders also fell into the red, including McCarthy & Stone, down 14.5p to 515p, Bovis Homes, weakening 14.5p to 610.5p, and Wilson Bowden, off 12p to 1088p.

The highest Footsie risers today were Rio Tinto up 22p to 2054p, BAE Systems adding 3.25p to 323p, O2 up 1.25p to 145.5p and Exel adding 8p to 983p.

The heaviest fallers were Carnival off 84p to 2951p, Prudential down 12p to 525p, Reckitt Benckiser off 37p to 1680p and Royal & Sun Alliance down 2p to 92p.

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