By Sara Sjolin, MarketWatch
U.K. construction PMI decline more than forecast in December
U.K. stocks closed a volatile day in positive territory on Wednesday, as energy majors rallied on the back of rising oil prices and retailer Next jumped after an upbeat trading report.
Weakness in the pound also boosted the British stock market, with sterling falling after weaker-than-expected data on the U.K. construction sector.
What equity benchmarks did: The FTSE 100 index ended 0.3% higher at 7,671.11, partly reversing a 0.5% loss from Tuesday, the first trading session of the year.
The pound retreated to $1.3518 from $1.3589 late Tuesday in New York, when sterling traded around its highest level since late September.
What drove the market: The blue-chip benchmark traded as low as 7,640.53, hanging around the flatline earlier in the day, but bounced higher in the afternoon as the London-listed oil companies tracked a rally in crude prices .
West Texas Intermediate oil jumped 1.7% to $61.40 and Brent rose 1.4% to $67.46--both trading around their highest levels in 2 1/2 years--as antigovernment protests continued in Iran. The riots, which have left more than 20 people dead, are feared to lead to potential disruptions to crude output from OPEC's third-largest producer, which would limit global oil supply.
U.K. stocks also got a boost from the drop in the pound, which erased an earlier advance after a disappointing reading on the U.K. construction sector. The construction purchasing managers index from December fell to 52.2 from 53.1 in November, missing forecasts of a 52.9 print. A level above 50 signals expansion.
The report follows a weaker-than-expected manufacturing PMI out on Tuesday, which slipped to 56.3 last month from November's 51-month high of 58.2. The services PMI for the U.K. is due on Thursday.
A weaker sterling tends to support the FTSE's big multinationals, as around 75% of revenues for the index are made overseas.
Stock movers: Next PLC (>> Next) climbed 6.7% to top the FTSE 100 index after saying its pre-Christmas sales got a boost from the cold weather . The clothing and home goods company said online sales performed particularly well in the 54-day period to Dec. 24, jumping 13.6% on the year. Total sales for the period rose 1.5%.
The upbeat trading update also included a boost to Next's guidance. The retailer said it now expects to report pretax profit of GBP725 million ($983 million) for the year to January 2018--an improvement on its previous guidance of GBP717 million.
Among other retailers, shares of Marks & Spencer Group PLC (>> Marks & Spencer Group) (>> Marks & Spencer Group) added 1.4%, while Primark-parent Associated British Foods (>> Associated British Foods) (>> Associated British Foods) rose 2.1%.
In the oil sector, shares of BP PLC (>> BP) (>> BP) put on 1.3% and Royal Dutch Shell PLC (>> Royal Dutch Shell Plc) (>> Royal Dutch Shell Plc) gained 1.4%. On the FTSE 250 index , shares of Tullow Oil PLC (>> Tullow Oil) jumped 4.2%.
Also outside the FTSE 100, Carillion PLC (>> Carillion) lost 5.4% after the construction company said it is being investigated by the Financial Conduct Authority in connection with the "timeliness and content of announcements" made by Carillion between December 2016 and July 2017.
What strategists said: "For U.K. investors, the afternoon's big question is whether Next's good figures this morning, which prompted a 7% rally in the shares, will be reflected across the rest of the British High Street," said Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at IG, in a note.
"Cautious optimism is being shown in the likes of M&S and Associated British Food, but Next's numbers reflect the relentless trend in strength in online operations and weakness in bricks and mortar. Those shops still relying on the latter may find they cannot match Next's performance," he added.