London markets drift in early trade on Wednesday despite some strong early performances among the blue-chips. The FTSE 100 slides around 8 points to 6,879 with investors holding fire ahead of a barrage of economic data.
Far east-based banking group Standard Chartered (STAN) heads the Footsie leader board with a substantial near 8% hike to £10.44 as investors get excited about incoming chief executive Bill Winters. The rise comes despite rising bad debts and further losses in South Korea slashing pre-tax profits 25% to $5.1 billion in 2014.
Broadcaster ITV (ITV) is also a strong runner, up 4% to 230.9p after the strongest advertising performance in five years helped the media group beat forecasts for 2014. News that ITV is also hiking the annual payout by 34% and is proposing an extra payout for shareholders puts buyers firmly in the box seat.
Embattled African oil producer Afren (AFR) slumps 21.9% to 7.1p as it defaults on a portion of its debt and says any restructuring of its balance sheet is likely to 'substantially dilute' shareholders. There's more on the story here.
Heading the other way is Mexican precious metals producer Fresnillo (FRES), which sinks 4% to 755p, the biggest Footsie faller in early deals. The company says profits have plunged 40% to $251.1 milllion in 2014 as record silver production was offset by lower prices and higher production costs.
Baker Greggs (GRG) edges 15p higher to 885.5p as stellar annual results and a strong start to 2015 prompt further forecast upgrades. With its finances strengthening, Greggs returns to a progressive dividend, hiking the total payout 12.8% to 22p, and resumes its share buyback programme,flagging 'capacity to return up to £10 million' in the first half of 2015.
Shopping centre landlord Capital & Regional (CAL) leaps 7.3% to 56.3p on a 820% rise in pre-tax profits to £67.2 million in 2014. Net asset value increased 11% to 60p a share, while full-year dividend increased 46.1% year-on-year to 0.95p a share.
Industrial restructuring outfit Melrose (MRO) slides 4.8% to 282p as it sketches a 'geographically patchy' outlook for the year ahead. Its Brush subsidiary, which manufactures electricity generation equipment, is set for a tough year, management say in a full year results update.
Funeral services operator Dignity (DTY), a running Shares Play of the Week, firms another 34p to £19.55 on better-than-expected final results and news of a strong start to 2015. Deaths in the first eight weeks of 2015 are up 23% year-on-year, auguring well for Dignity's first quarter.
Motor retailer Lookers (LOOK) softens 3.25p to 149.75p despite delivering its sixth year of successive profit growth. Though the outlook statement is positive, Lookers expects the UK new car market will now stabilise after three years of strong growth, prompting investors to book profits.
Life insurer Legal & General (LGEN) falls 2.3% to 271.5p as its £1.2 billion operating profit in 2014 falls below the £1.3 billion expected. Net cash was 10% higher than in 2013 at £1.1 billion on more than doubling its bulk annuity sales to £6 billion.
Quality control expert Exova (EXO) gains 3.8% to 151p as slow progress in aerospace and energy is offset by strong performance in its fire and health sciences divisions. Adjusted earnings per share (EPS) was 11.8p in 2014.
Events company Tarsus (TRS) is up 7% to 233p as it reports in-line numbers and flags a positive outlook for 2015 with forward bookings for its shows up 10% across the board. Pre-tax profits nearly halved year-on-year to £8.2 million but this reflects the amortisation of acquisitions and the inherent nature of the group's business with its larger exhibitions weighted towards odd years.
More solid progress from IT Testing business SQS (SQS:AIM) fails to capture the market's attention despite further margin improvements. Gross margins ticked up 1.5% to 33.4% enabling adjusted gross profits to rise 24% to €89 million.
Specialist cameras designer Vislink (VLK:AIM) overshoots profits hopes despite revenues drifting below expectations. Having given up the ghost on past hopes of hitting its £8 million operating profit target, the company has indicated operating profit will beat £6.5 million market expectations, implying at least 38% growth.
Work-wear specialist Berendsen (BRSN) drifts 1.8% lower to £10.93 on a downgrade from analysts at investment bank Credit Suisse. They cut Berendsen's rating from 'outperform' to 'neutral' and reduce their target price marginally to £11.
Gambling group Sportech (SPO) falls 3.3% to 67p after swinging to a pre-tax loss of £21.3 million in 2014 following a profit of £5.2 million the previous year. This was due to a hefty goodwill impairment on its football pools division and a 6% fall in revenue to £104.1 million. Chief executive Ian Penrose says the results are ahead of internal expectations.
Punch Taverns (PUB) climbs 3% to 95p as investors welcome the appointment of food retailer Duncan Garrood as chief executive of the indebted British pub company following a year of painful restructuring.