Pearson, Easyjet drag on FTSE after weak updates

Thu Jan 23, 2014 7:20am EST

* FTSE 100 down 0.2 pct, off eight-months peak

* Pearson suffers biggest daily fall in 12 years after update

* Weak Chinese data hits mining stocks

By Francesco Canepa

LONDON, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Britain's FTSE 100 was on the back foot on Thursday, weighed down by weak updates from Easyjet and Pearson and renewed concerns about economic activity in top metals consumer China.

Shares in Pearson plunged 7.9 percent, their biggest fall in 12 years, after the publisher reported big restructuring charges alongside weak demand in its education businesses in North America and Britain.

"We had hoped that things had stabilised and obviously pressure continued," said Investec analyst Steve Liechti, who put his estimates, price target and recommendation for the stock under review after the update.

"There are a lot of structural pressures on the business and we don't see any sort of mitigation of these pressures near-term."

Pearson's stock knocked 3.2 points off the FTSE, which was down 12.16 points, or 0.2 percent, at 6,814.17 points at 1141 GMT. The index was slipping further away from an eight-months high of 6,867 points hit on Tuesday.

Easyjet was also among the top fallers, off 2.6 percent after the budget airline guided that first half seasonal losses would be higher this year than last year due to the timing of Easter, which falls in its fiscal second half.

"At the minute people are just trying to get out. Some of the longer term players are taking profits (on Easyjet)," said Vinay Sharma, trader at Gekko Global Markets.

"Usually we do see some flow in terms of clients looking for value but I haven't seen this morning as of yet."

Basic materials knocked a further 2.1 points off the FTSE as data showed activity in China's factory sector contracted in January for the first time in six months, according to the Markit/HSBC PMI, pointing to a weak start in 2014.

On the upside, though, there were some signs of strength in Europe, with the equivalent surveys showing growth slowing less than expected in France and activity picking up in Germany.

The weak corporate updates and mixed macro data fuelled investor concern about the strength of 2013 earnings at a time when analysts say profit growth is key to driving any further gains in equity markets.

On average, FTSE 100 companies' earnings are seen missing the consensus by 1 percent, according to StarMine SmartEstimates, which track the up-to-date forecasts of the most accurate analysts.

Companies in the broader STOXX Europe 600 are seen falling short of consensus by 0.8 percent.

Robert Quinn, chief European equity strategist at S&P Capital IQ, said he preferred continental European indexes to the FTSE in light of the latter's larger weighting in basic materials, energy and consumer staples stocks. All of those sectors are expected to suffer from an ongoing economic slowdown in emerging markets.

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