Asia Higher, Europe Mixed

The Japanese Nikkei index was higher on Thursday helped by merger and acquisition speculation

European stock markets were mixed on Thursday. In London, the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 gained 9.6 points, or 0.19%, to close at 5000.00,after hitting a record 5014.8 in mid-afternoon. The market reacted positively to the Bank of England's decision to keep interest rates unchanged at 4.75% while chemicals group ICI surged on good results. Wall Street was mixed after better than expected economic data, but Ericsson's results dragged the Nasdaq lower. At home, ICI helped to shake early FTSE gloom, reporting strong customer demand as its fiscal profits rose 11% to 479 million pounds. Shire Pharma was the biggest faller after Health Canada requested the suspension of sales of its ADHD treatment, Adderall, in Canada. Banking giant Barclays also dropped on concerns about its rising bad debt provisions. Unilever said its dual chairman/CEO structure will be abandoned with Patrick Cescau becoming group CEO. Elsewhere, BT saw a 3% rise in third-quarter group turnover to 4.854 billion pounds, while earnings rose 9% to 4.8 pence. Rolls Royce bettered expectations with profits of 345 million pounds but dropped after a broker downgrade, while Hilton rose after an upgrade.

Germany's DAX lost 11.14 points, or 0.26%, to close at 4342.01, after U.S. initial jobless claims and trade figures came in at the lower end of expectations, which was positive for U.S. stocks. Of local note, DaimlerChrysler reported group fourth-quarter operating profit of 785 million euro, which was below expectations. Net profit of 526 billion euro was in line, but Mercedes Car Group's fourth-quarter operating profit was only 20 million euro, well below estimates of 400 million euro. Chrysler's fourth-quarter operating profits fell 4.7% to 386 million euro, with a margin of 3%. The company's 2005 outlook appears to be undemanding given the low 2004 basis. No increase in the dividend. Adidas eased after it said it is taking a 800 million euro loan from Barclays to help bolster its finances. Deutsche Telekom dipped after Goldman Sachs cut its rating to in-line from overweight.

In France, the CAC-40 gained 0.75 points, or 0.02%, to close at 3970.37. The CAC40 was barely changed on Thursday as France Telecom and Alcatel offset banking advances. Wall Street was making mixed progress in early trading. The Dow edged higher following a narrower-than-expected US trade deficit and good jobless claims figures, while the Nasdaq was pushed lower by the weight of Ericsson, following a below-consensus fourth-quarter gross margin. In this context, Alcatel slipped. France Telecom was marked lower after better-than-forecast profits were overshadowed by a smaller-than-expected dividend payment of 0.48 euro. Telcos and techs aside, the key drivers in France today were banks. SocGen posted stronger-than-expected fiscal 2004 earnings. Hermes shone after fiscal 2004 sales topped expectations.

Asian markets were higher on Thursday as Japan's Nikkei 225 gained 80.21 points or 0.70%, to close at 11,553.56. The Japanese benchmark index gained ground helped by merger and acquisition speculation. M&A speculation was fueled by a report in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun alleging that Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group and Daiwa Securities Group Inc might start talks. Both companies denied that merger talks were in progress. Trading was suspended in both of the companies to allow time for the markets to assess the possibilities and when trading was resumed, both companies' shares moved higher, Daiwa up 5.3% and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group up 2.7%. This was the highlight of an otherwise mixed session.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng was closed for the Chinese New Year.

Canada's benchmark TSX/S&P gained 93.73 points, or 1.00%, to close at 9,496.36.

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