London’s benchmark FTSE 100 slumped to its lowest close in a month
Investors looked to both China and Ukraine today and did not like what they saw.
Nervousness about the health of the Chinese economy the world’s second-largest is not a sudden development.
Manufacturing and services data from the country are always examined closely by traders attempting to divine whether China, which is the biggest metals consumer, is poised for a major slowdown. But a number of unsettling developments in recent days have served to intensify investor unease.
There was China’s first ever corporate bond default last week, which has sparked a drop in copper prices amid fears that credit conditions are starting to tighten. The metal is widely used as collateral in Chinese financing deals and more defaults would prompt heavy selling of copper.
Poor Chinese exports data also set off alarm bells on Monday. A day later, speculation was rife that another company, Baoding Tianwei Baobian Electric, could default.
All of that conspired to send copper sharply lower once again today, with the metal reaching its worst level in 44 months in London before erasing its losses.
The FTSE 100 followed it down. At its worst, the benchmark index touched 6,598.36 in intraday trade and finished 64.62 lower at 6,620.9, a 1pc drop that took the FTSE to its worst close for a month. European indices and the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the US all fell.
Still, it was not just China that unnerved investors.
Tensions over Ukraine remained high, with Russia’s grip on Crimea appearing to tighten and the details of sanctions against Russia being prepared by the European Union.
The collapse of a building in New York (Frankfurt: HX6.F – news) also briefly unsettled the market.
A host of companies trading ex-dividend acted as a further drag and took around 21 points off the FTSE. Among those shares without rights to their latest payouts were Standard Chartered (HKSE: 2888.HK – news) and British American Tobacco (LSE: BATS.L – news) . Adjusting for the payouts, they lost 11.56p to £12.03 and 19.1p to £32.18 respectively.
Amid the general nervousness, Randgold Resources (Dusseldorf: RGR1.DU – news) benefited from its status as a proxy for safe-haven gold, which was up as much as 1.6pc as investors traders away from riskier assets. Randgold’s shares rose 87.08p to £49.27, accounting for the fact it also traded ex-dividend. Fresnillo (Berlin: FNL.BE – news) , the Mexican silver and gold miner, added 18 to 900p.
But the biggest riser in the FTSE 100 was Prudential (Frankfurt: PRU.F – news) , 37p better at a record £13.98 in the wake of encouraging full-year results that showed the insurer enjoyed a strong performance in the US and Asia.
Beleaguered security services provider G4S (LSE: GFS.L – news) brought up the rear in the benchmark index with a decline of 12.9 to 232½p. Analysts had expected full-year adjusted operating profits of £455m, but the company disappointed with a 2.8pc increase to £442m.
Some of the biggest movers in the mid-cap FTSE 250 were similarly driven by corporate updates. Hikma Pharmaceuticals (LSE: HIK.L – news) impressed with annual results and gained 54p to £15.27.
Ocado , the online grocer, suffered one of the worst falls in the second-tier after a trading update pointed towards slowing sales growth. The shares lost 33 to 539p.
African Barrick Gold (LSE: ABG.L – news) , the heaviest FTSE 250 faller a day earlier after its biggest shareholder cut its stake, was the best-performing mid-capper and closed up 10 at 260p.
The rise in the gold price helped, as did Canaccord Genuity (Other OTC: CCORF – news) analyst Dmitry Kalachev, who advised clients that the drop presented a buying opportunity and repeated his “buy” recommendation.
Analysts at Jefferies lent support to William Hill (Other OTC: WIMHF – news) , 5.3 higher at 381.4p in the FTSE 100, by arguing that shares in the bookmaker had the potential to more than double to 800p in three years.
Like Ladbrokes, the bookie has been hit by investor worries about the impact of potential government crack-down on fixed-odds betting terminals.
But the Jefferies experts said that they “look forward with optimism” and advised buying the stock.
“The path to glory will not be straightforward, with recent negative news flow and speculation typical of the gambling sector,” they cautioned.
“However, we currently think that negativity in the news flow is over-exaggerated and William Hill’s share price is unduly depressed, representing an excellent entry point for those wanting to take a multi-year view in a compounding growth opportunity.”
Nevertheless, broker research weighed on other shares.
N Brown (LSE: BWNG.L – news) , the online and catalogue clothing retailer lost 15 to 564½p following a downgrade to “sell” at UBS (Xetra: UB0BL6 – news) .
Oil sector services group Hunting (Other OTC: HNTIF – news) fell 21 to 857½p in the wake of a cut to “hold” by Investec (LSE: INVP.L – news) analyst Neill Morton, who reduced his rating after a strong showing from the shares.
Until today, Hunting had gained 12.6pc since the beginning of the year.
Lower down the scale, Asia-focused explorer Salamander Energy (Other OTC: SALDF – news) was lifted 2¼ to 101½p ahead of annual results tomorrow by a gas discovery at a well in Indonesia.
Hummingbird Resources (Other OTC: HUMRF – news) , which digs for gold in Liberia, also drew attention after announcing a resources upgrade to its Tuzon deposit. Cantor Fitzgerald boosted its target price on the shares to 80p, from 68p, and they rallied towards that level, closing up 9¼ at 57p. The same went for Amara Mining (LSE: MIR.L – news) , which rose 14.8pc, a gain of 2.125p to 16½, following an encouraging assessment of its Yaoure gold project in the Ivory Coast.
Finally, the London market gave a mixed welcome to its latest entrants. While Poundland surged from its 300p float price to 370p on its debut, Pets at Home disappointed on its first day of trading and slipped to 238p from 245p.