Asia Higher, Europe Flat

European stock markets were mostly flat on Thursday. In London, the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 lost 16.40 points, or 0.33%, to close at 4972.10. The FTSE ended flat, held down by pharma and banking sectors, but supported by good figures from Hilton, BAE Systems and GKN. US stocks were flat, following weak macro data, but in-line oil inventories. At home, defence firm BAE Systems announced underlying EBIT of 1.013 billion pounds and adjusted earnings per share up 8.4% to 18.0 pence. Hilton posted fiscal 2004 revenues of 11.893 billion pounds with pretax profits up 41% to 383.1 million pounds and intends to raise 300 million pounds to 400 million pounds from hotel assets disposals, returning a substantial part of the proceeds to shareholders. Market heavyweight Royal Bank of Scotland posted an 18% jump in total fiscal income to 22.754 billion pounds with fiscal profits up 14% to 6.917 billion pounds. Elsewhere, Citigroup downgraded Royal & Sun Alliance. Ryanair ended up, but off early jump after ordering 70 Boeing jets and taking options to buy 70 more.

In Germany, the DAX lost 6.37 points, or 0.15%, to close at 4304.29. Frankfurt failed to find any fresh impetus either from within a rash of corporate earnings reports before the opening, or from an unsteady start to Wall Street. The Dax closed 6 points lower in low volume. HVB paced gainers after posting results roughly in-line with forecasts and guidance. The bank revealed it was to shed around 4% of its workforce (2,400) by 2007 saving around 280 million euro. Dealers spoke of renewed takeover speculation spurring some investors to build holdings amid confidence the bank will not be downgraded by S&P. Infineon rose after Deutsche Bank upped its rating. Deutsche Boerse gained on what some called position building ahead of a possible EGM which might afford shareholders the right to vote out its supervisory board.

France's CAC-40 gained 0.48 points, or 0.01%, to close at 3977.67. The CAC40 finished flat, keeping pace with movements on Wall Street where major stock indices were little changed. Crude oil was volatile following mixed inventory data in the U.S., trading either side of $51 as European stock markets closed. In Paris, losses in Sanofi, Lafarge and banks offset advances in Axa, Total and a rallying Cap Gemini. The IT group jumped after delivering solid underlying figures: EBITA beat consensus at 78 million euro and 2005 outlook looked robust. Axa was boosted by better-than-expected fiscal 2004 results across all levels and rewarded shareholders with a proposed DPS of 0.61 euro, well ahead of consensus of 0.54 euro. On a negative note, Sanofi fell after announcing that its Plavix patent-infringement pre-trial hearing in New York has been postponed until 8 April. St Gobain was shattered by news its offices were raided by EU antitrust authorities, along with peers Pilkington and Asahi.

Asian markets were higher on Thursday. In Japan, the Nikkei 225 gained 30.97 points, or 0.27%, to close at 11,531.15, helped by gains on Wall Street overnight and strengthening commodity prices. NSK rose 2.22% on news the firm is going to double sales of lithography equipment for colour filters to 20 billion yen in the business year to March 2009, from 10 million yen expected this year. Eagle Industry jumped 13.46% after Nomura Securities rated the share a Buy. Thoho Zinc rose 2.89% on higher metal prices. On the downside, Nippon Broadcasting System tumbled 7.65% following an announcement on Wednesday that it will issue share warrants worth 15.9 billion yen to suitor Fuji Television Network in an effort to block a rival bid from Internet firm LiveDoor Inc.

In Hong Kong, Hang Seng shares surged 102.97 points, or 0.74%, to close at 14,060.91 in the afternoon session, led by Esprit and HSBC, revising up from Wednesday's 1% fall. Fashion retailer Esprit was boosted by analysts' upgrades after it posted an exceptionally strong set of interim results with net profit surging 76% year-over-year due to margin gains and a lower tax rate. Among 33 constituent stocks, 22 went up while five down.

Canada's benchmark TSX/S&P lost 17.95 points, or 0.19%, to close at 9,657.74.

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