Royal Mail, RBS share sales dominate as FTSE edges higher

LONDON (Reuters) - Gains in Royal Bank of Scotland shares bolstered Britain’s top equity index on Thursday on news it would be returned to private hands sooner than expected, while shares in Royal Mail fell after the government sold half its stake at a discount.

A man stands under a screen showing the activity of the FTSE index at Canary Wharf financial district in London August 5, 2011. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The blue-chip FTSE 100 index closed up 0.2 percent at 6,846.74 points. The index erased some of its gains in tandem with European equities as optimism over a Greek debt deal turned sour with negative comments from the International Monetary Fund.

Royal Mail was the biggest FTSE loser, down 4.5 percent after the British government said it would sell half of its remaining stake in the company, leaving it with about 15 percent of the postal service.

The stock fell to 493.3 pence from 516.5 pence after the government sold the shares at 500p each, a discount to Wednesday’s close.

Royal Bank of Scotland gained 1.9 percent after finance minister George Osborne said Britain would start selling its 32 billion pound ($49.5 billion) stake in the bank. The sale plan represents a milestone in terms of RBS’s recovery from the financial crisis but also means Osborne has given up on his original intention to sell the shares for a profit.

“I think they’re going to want to put this one to bed... They’ve recovered some of the losses, but not all of them, and they can just sort of draw a line under it and move on,” ETX Capital sales trader Mark Priest said.

Also in the sector, Standard Chartered fell 2.1 percent, giving away some of the previous session’s 5.8 percent rise as hopes that Osborne would change a bank levy system were disappointed.

Grocers such as Sainsbury, Tesco and Wm Morrison rose 1 to 2 percent, extending a rally in the previous session following a reassuring update from Sainsbury.

Investors had placed record negative bets on the sector ahead of the update. As so-called “short” positions are called off, however, this can squeeze share prices higher.

An upgrade of Sainsbury to “buy” from “hold” by Cantor illustrated the improving sentiment in the sector.

“The last 18 months have been so dire for the British supermarket sector, any news that isn’t terrible is seen as quite positive,” David Madden, market analyst at IG, said.

“It isn’t anything new that the sales of UK retailers are on the decline, so a lot of it has been factored in... I see money going back into the sector.”

Among other notable movers, Vodafone and Johnson Matthey both traded without their latest dividend payouts and lost 1.4 percent and 2.9 percent respectively.

Editing by Louise Ireland and Susan Thomas