UK stocks opened lower on Friday with the FTSE 100 off 36.1 points to 7,400.6 early on after the coronavirus continued to spread outside China, particularly in South Korea, where more than 200 cases have been confirmed.

European equities opened weaker as they took their cue from a soft session in Asia, while increasingly nervous investors chased the gold price to north of $1630.

In corporate news, publishing and education play Pearson (PSON) softened 1.75% to 573.8p as annual profit more than halved owing to reduced gains on asset disposals and restructuring costs.

Turning to the outlook, Pearson forecast a decline in annual operating profit to between £410m and £490m, after excluding the 25% stake in Penguin Random House that it agreed to sell in December.

Property giant Hammerson (HMSO) was marked 2.9% higher to 232.2p on the sale of its retail parks portfolio to private equity group Orion for £400m.

Chief executive David Atkins explained that ‘against a challenged retail and investment backdrop we have exited the retail parks sector. Having achieved disposals of close to £1bn since the beginning of 2019, our focus remains on strengthening our balance sheet to create further resilience.’

Safety, health and environmental technology star turn Halma (HLMA) ticked up 18p to £22.35 as investors applauded the £15.3m acquisition of Utah-based Maxtec, a manufacturer of oxygen analysis and delivery products used in the medical sector.

Building insulation provider Kingspan (KGP) climbed 2.4% to €65 after it reported a rise in annual profit on higher sales, although the Ireland-headquartered company also said 2020 had gotten off to a slow start.

Gulf-region hospitals group NMC Health (NMC) dropped 2% to 840p after it received notifications from some of its major shareholders about their investments in the company, yet added that it continues to urgently seek more clarification about the size of their shareholdings.

Elsewhere, industrial engineer 600 Group (SIXH:AIM) slumped 21.5% to 11p after warning performance for the year to 28 March will be ‘significantly below’ the board’s  previously-downgraded expectations.

Trading conditions have become more challenging since 600 Group warned on profits in December following a General Motors strike in the US, the grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft and the coronavirus outbreak in China, while two significant projects have been pushed into the next financial year.

Marine contractor James Fisher and Sons (FSJ) sailed 2% higher to £19.23 on the news its JFD Australia arm has inked a £35m, four year contract extension to supply its submarine escape and rescue system to the Royal Australian Navy.

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Issue Date: 21 Feb 2020