London markets make a cautious start to trade early on Thursday ahead of a key policy meeting of the European Central Bank. In early deals the FTSE 100 nudges 10 points higher to 6,928, barely 1% off the potentially significant 7,000 mark. Midcaps are stronger, the FTSE 250 rallying around 80 points, or 0.5%, to 17,219.
Life insurer Aviva (AV.) heads the blue-chip leader board as the shares jump 4.7% to 557.2p as the group reports an operating pre-tax profit increase of 6% in 2014, to £2.1 billion. The group attracted 15% more business while costs fell by £571 million. The final dividend rises 30% to 12.2p a share.
Internet betting exchange Betfair (BET) surges 13% to £20.19 after raising its guidance for financial year 2015. The company now says core earnings could be as high as £118 million, significantly higher than £97 million to £103 million range previously. This follows a better-than-expected third quarter with earnings up 17% to £23.6 million, ahead of analysts' average forecast of £17.4 million, and is nicely timed ahead of the upcoming Cheltenham horse racing festival.
Virgin Money (VM.) advances 5% to 335p as underlying pre-tax profit jumps 127% to £121.2 million in 2014 on a growing mortgage book. When costs for November’s IPO are considered, pre-tax profits dived 82% to £34 million.
Among bigger movers, serial profit warner William Sinclair (SNCL:AIM) slumps 29% to 34.5p as it gives CEO Peter Rush the boot after just two years in charge and issues yet another profit warning after a poor start to the Spring selling season. Troubleshooter Stuart Burgin has been drafted in as Interim Chief Executive as the horticulture products play launches a transformation drive.
Engineer Spirax-Sarco (SPX) surges nearly 9% to £33.55 as it declares a £91 million return of capital at a full-year results update. The 120p special dividend comes on the back of a 1% gain in earnings per share (140.4p) despite significant currency headwinds.
Oil services firm Hunting (HTG) leaps 7.5% to 509p as 2014 results proved resilient to lower oil prices with revenues up 7% year-on-year to $1.38 billion. However, pre-tax profits fall 20% to $108.5 million on a number of impairments and the group opts not to provide guidance on 2015 given the volatile market backdrop.
Kurdistan oil producer Genel Energy (GENL) is up 7% to 600p as 2014 numbers demonstrate its ability to generate cash in the domestic market – a key consideration due to uncertainty over export payments. Revenue beats consensus – coming in at $520 million against a forecast $501 million – and the realised domestic price of $40 to $45 per barrel is also better than anticipated.
Automotive retailer Vertu Motors (VTU:AIM) reverses 7.4% to 56.5p despite flagging record annual sales and profits in its pre-close trading update. Disappointment at a lack of further upgrades, with new car sales growth decelerating and margin pressure in used cars, lie behind today's share price decline.
Vimto-to-Sunkist maker Nichols (NICL:AIM) nudges 12p (1.1%) higher to £10.90 on full-year figures showing plenty of fizz. Taxable profits were up 14.1% to £25.7 million as Nichols once again outperformed the soft drinks market with a boost froma new Vimtoad advertising campaign.
Online casino operator 32Red (TTR:AIM) slips 0.4% to 63p after gaining 7.9% at market open on a 49% increase in pre-tax profit to £3.4 million in 2014. Net gaming revenue is up 26%, its fifth consecutive year of double-digit growth, which chief executive Ed Ware says is the result of increased marketing investment.