FTSE marginally up at close

London’s leading shares index failed to gain significant ground today after a raft of blue-chip results overshadowed optimism in the US and merger talks in the mining sector.

FTSE marginally up at close

London’s leading shares index failed to gain significant ground today after a raft of blue-chip results overshadowed optimism in the US and merger talks in the mining sector.

The FTSE 100 Index closed 5.4 points ahead at 5796.1, just inches away from its six-month high of 5,800, after US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said the world’s largest economy had recently shown signs of improvement.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a multi-billion pound merger between mining giants Glencore and Xstrata boosted the heavily-weighted resources sector and lent support to the wider market.

However, shares in Unilever, AstraZeneca and Royal Dutch Shell were all lower after their full-year figures disappointed investors.

The pound was down at 1.58 against the US dollar, after strong unemployment data in the US boosted the greenback, while sterling also slipped against the euro to 1.20.

In London, consumer products giant Unilever sank to the bottom of the FTSE 100 Index after full-year figures showing a 1% rise in operating profits included a slowdown in sales volumes in the fourth quarter.

It said price hikes, coupled with weak consumer confidence, meant growth in sales volumes slowed to 0.1% in the final three months of the year, fuelling fears of slowing growth in emerging markets. Shares were off 91p at 1994p.

Pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca was down 3%, after fourth quarter profits came in lower than expected, while it also warned that 2012 revenues and profits were likely to be lower.

The firm, which is struggling to replace a series of blockbuster drugs as their patents expire, announced plans to cut another 7,300 jobs by 2014.

Its shares fell 105.5p to 2984p while rival GlaxoSmithKline was down 28.5p at 1396p ahead of its results next week.

Shell was also under pressure after its fourth quarter earnings came in below expectations, although it still managed to post a profits haul of £18.1bn (€21.7bn) for the year as a whole, a jump of 54% on a year ago.

Trading in the final quarter of the year was impacted by a squeeze on refining margins and lower American natural gas prices, causing its shares to shrink 28.5p to 2297.5p. Rival BP, which posts figures on Tuesday, was down 5.1p at 477.9p.

Miner Xstrata said it had been approached by commodities trader Glencore with a potential merger opportunity – which propelled both companies to the top of the risers’ board.

Xstrata shares were 10% or 111p higher at 1230.5p, and Glencore – a relative newcomer to the London market – rose 29.95p to 461.7p amid talks about creating a firm worth more than £50bn.

The latter already owns a third of Xstrata and is keen to develop as a stronger challenger to heavyweights Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.

Fellow miners were boosted by the improved sentiment, with Vedanta Resources up 72p at 1323p and Randgold Resources ahead 120p at 7420p.

The biggest Footsie risers were Xstrata up 111p at 1230.5p, Glencore ahead 29.95p at 461.7p, Vedanta Resources up 72p at 1323p and Icap ahead 19.3p at 381.3p.

The biggest Footsie fallers were Unilever down 91p at 1994p, Severn Trent off 56p at 1501p, AstraZeneca down 105.5p at 2984p and ARM Holdings off 15.5p at 577p.

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