* FTSE 100 flat, holding below 2-month high
* Outlooks cheer Astrazeneca, Shire
* Ashmore outflows weigh on asset manager peers
By Toni Vorobyova
LONDON, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Britain’s top share index steadied near two-month highs on Tuesday, with a sell-off in financials offset by a crop of solid updates in the healthcare and retail sectors.
Investors are scrutinising corporate updates for clues on whether the quarterly reporting season will be sufficiently strong to justify the relatively expensive valuations at which the equity market currently trades.
So far the signals have been mixed.
Sainsbury rose 1.9 percent thanks to industry data showing it was the only major British grocer to resist pressure from discounters and keep market share over the key Christmas trading period.
Also among the gainers, Astrazeneca rose 2.3 percent after forecasting a faster-than-expected return to growth, while rival Shire added 1.9 percent in a late rally after saying earnings growth will come in at the upper end of earlier guidance.
The updates, however, were not enough to push the FTSE 100 out of its recent trading range, especially given weak updates in other sectors.
“This year it seems that earnings will matter even more ... so I think stock picking will become more important rather than what the passive investor has become accustomed to,” said Brenda Kelly, analyst at IG Markets.
“The FTSE is still trapped in a channel range unable to break through 6,770... We have yet to see a weekly close above the 6,754 level and unless this occurs we can expect to see a sideways to a downside bias for the index.”
The FTSE 100 was broadly flat at 6,755.18 points by 1521 GMT, failing to hold on to an earlier two-month intraday high of 6,772.63 points.
Financial stocks put downward pressure on the index after news of steep client outflows at mid-cap Ashmore.
Ashmore tumbled 12.6 percent, on track for its biggest one-day drop in five years, after saying volatility in core emerging markets had spooked investors, who withdrew a net $3.5 billion from its funds in the last three months of 2013.
The drop in mid-cap Ashmore helped push the FTSE 250 down 0.5 percent, and the negative sentiment also reverberated around its blue-chip peers.
Aberdeen Asset Management, which is due to issue a trading update on Jan. 16 and which also has a strong focus on emerging markets, dropped 1.4 percent, while Schroders fell 2.1 percent.
“In general it has probably helped moderate expectations for some of the others that are more exposed to emerging markets - the likes of Aberdeen and Schroders. It highlights the fact that clients do consider allocations right up to the year end,” said Stuart Duncan, analyst at Peel Hunt.