FTSE almost static as traders await Budget speech

The London market edged lower today as investors stayed on the sidelines ahead of Alistair Darling's imminent Budget announcement.

The London market edged lower today as investors stayed on the sidelines ahead of Alistair Darling's imminent Budget announcement.

The FTSE 100 Index was 10.6 points lower at 5663.1 after another failed attempt on the 5700 mark with little serious action ahead of the British Chancellor's statement.

A positive start following a strong finish on Wall Street was reversed as ratings agency Fitch predicted a slower recovery for Portugal than over European nations, raising more spectres over sovereign debt repayment.

US futures signalled a lower opening for the Dow Jones Industrial Average this afternoon. The dollar strengthened against the euro and sterling, pushing the pound back below 1.50.

In London travel firms were in the spotlight as Thomson Holidays owner TUI Travel said demand for holidays was continuing to improve strongly.

TUI edged 0.6p to 303.6p as shares took a breather after gaining 10% in recent weeks, but fellow tour operator Thomas Cook surged to the top of the leader board - adding almost 3% or 6.7p to 262.5p.

Also featuring prominently on the risers board was hedge fund giant Man, which added 4.7p to 247.4p or 2% despite another fall in assets under management in a trading update.

Investors took heart from a better recent performance by its AHL fund and its decision to hold the dividend unchanged.

Industrial engineering firm Smiths was another gainer after the firm lifted interim profits 7% despite flat sales and said it was "well-placed" for the rest of the year. Shares gained 26p to 1165p.

But fourth quarter figures from supermarket Sainsbury's failed to add momentum to its shares, up just 0.3p at 328.4p as it confirmed expectations for a further slowdown in sales, up 1.7% in the 11 weeks to March 30.

Top-flight fallers included life and pensions giant Arriva and InterContinental Hotels, down 16.8p to 384.8p and 18p to 1022p respectively after the stocks turned ex-dividend - meaning shareholders will no longer be entitled to the latest payout.

All Bar One pubs group Mitchells & Butlers gained 2% or 7.2p to 298.3p in the FTSE 250 after the firm announced a strategic review which will see it concentrate on growing its food business.

Low cost carrier easyJet was also in the spotlight in after confirming that Guardian Media Group chief executive Carolyn McCall is to become its new boss. Shares in the airline ticked 4.4p lower to 449.1p.

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