ABF shines on FTSE as blue chips shrug off sterling strength

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s FTSE 100 advanced on Thursday as sterling retreated from its highest level since the Brexit vote, while focus turned from geopolitical risks to corporate earnings that were largely supportive.

People walk through the lobby of the London Stock Exchange in London, Britain November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

The FTSE 100 .FTSE closed 0.4 percent higher at 7,226.05 points, accelerating gains through the session as weaker-than-expected data weighed on sterling.

The pound’s jump to its highest level since the June 2016 Brexit referendum put pressure on Britain’s FTSE earlier in the day, but gains in financials and mining stocks helped boost the index.

Sterling's recent strength has made some investors cautious around the FTSE's large, dollar-earning constituents. On the day shares in big consumer firms such as British American Tobacco BATS.L, Reckitt Benckiser RB.L and Diageo DGE.L all fell between 0.5 percent and 3.2 percent.

“Large-cap UK equities are still largely driven by the fate of sterling and with the recent strength of the currency the valuations of UK multinationals trade at a discount to global peers,” said Edward Park, investment director at Brooks Macdonald.

Park has upgraded his outlook for UK equities from negative to neutral, but was keeping exposure to UK domestic earners below the benchmark average.

Associated British Foods ABF.L shares rose more than 4 percent despite profit falling slightly, as traders focused on a resilient performance from its fashion business Primark.

“As previously guided, margins in the second half are expected to improve, benefiting from better buying and a weaker U.S. dollar,” wrote analysts at Davy Research.

“News of a new U.S. store in Florida may spark some interest,” noted UBS analysts.

Reckitt Benckiser RB.L shares fell 3.2 percent after Credit Suisse downgraded the stock to underperform.

Russia-exposed stocks recovered some of their sharp losses as investors grew less anxious about U.S. sanctions. Evraz EVRE.L gained 6.6 percent to top the FTSE, while Polymetal International POLYP.L rose 2 percent.

Mid-cap stocks saw strong gains after results. Emerging markets asset manager Ashmore ASHM.L rose 3.8 percent after reporting the strongest net inflows since June 2013, boosting its assets by 10 percent in its third quarter.

Strong demand for trainers and track pants boosted JD Sports JD.L profits, sending its shares up 5.2 percent.

Shares in roadside assistance firm AA AAAA.L soared 17.4 percent to the top of the small-cap index after reporting results, and chief financial officer Martin Clarke saying there had not been any "substantive" approach for the firm.

Earnings were being watched keenly for signs of strain from a stronger pound, and after a first quarter marred by significantly higher volatility than 2017.

“We view this earnings season as critical for sentiment given the market’s heightened volatility and the slightly softer economic data in Q1,” said Brooks Macdonald’s Park.

Goldman Sachs strategists expect earnings for the more internationally-exposed FTSE 100 to deliver greater positive surprises than FTSE 250 results. But analysts have been revising down their estimates for FTSE 100 earnings in recent weeks.

Reporting by Helen Reid and Kit Rees; Editing by Mark Heinrich