Europe Closes Higher

European markets closed higher Thursday on a retreat in oil prices

European stock markets were higher on Thursday. In London, the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 gained 29.60 points, or 0.60%, to close at 4977.00. The FTSE closed just shy of a three-week high set earlier in the session as a rise in oil stocks offset a fall in the pharma sector. As expected, the Bank of England kept rates steady at 4.75% for the eighth straight month. BP and Shell were boosted as WTI edges back towards the $56 per barrel mark. The oil giants also benefited from news that Venezuela is considering opening the Tomoporo field to foreign investment. The U.S. traded higher, supported by a strong first-quarter statement from Alcoa and Dell's confirmation of its outlook. However Pfizer suffers after the FDA asks it to withdraw its Cox-2 pain drug Bextra and include the strongest warning on sister drug Celebrex. Pharma stocks at home fell in response with GlaxoSmithKline and Shire both down. Elsewhere, the retail sector was in focus after Boots announced a fourth-quarter drop of 0.9% in BTC like-for-like sales and said it expects lower BTC operating profits in 2005/2006. The group also said it plans to sell Boots Healthcare International, with the process to be launched shortly. Media group WPP rose after an upgrade from CSFB.

Germany's Dax gained 10.34 points, or 0.24%, to close at 4389.52. Frankfurt closed higher as Wall Street broke out of early morning ranges. The German industrial output recorded a marked drop in February, falling the most in almost two years as record oil prices increased companies' costs and eroded consumers' purchasing power. Manufacturing orders also showed weakness in February. Together with January's drop, orders have now retraced most of December's surge, which was caused by strong demand in the aerospace industry. On the corporate news front, auto stocks dipped on earnings concerns, with DaimlerChrysler down as it goes ex-dividend, while VW fell after S&P downgraded it to sell. BMW was unchanged after posting a 7% rise in first-quarter sales, surpassing those of its peer DaimlerChrylser, which fell 9%.

In France, the CAC 40 gained 17.38 points, or 0.42%, to close at 4124.37. The CAC40 ended marginally higher on Thursday. Solid outlooks from Dell and Alcoa and the start of another retreat in oil prices offset a profit warning from Wal-Mart and Pfizer being asked to withdraw Bextra. WTI was just down 5 cents per barrel, trading at $55.80 per barrel. At home, Vivendi Universal remained the top performer amongst the CAC40 constituents after UBS raised its target price to 29.50 euro from 28.50 euro. Sanofi ended in the black after a seesaw session as La Tribune reported that a minority shareholder of Rhodia is seeking damages of 2.85 billion euro from the pharma giant for environmental risks. BNP-Paribas expands in eastern Europe after agreeing to buy Credisson International, a Romanian consumer credit business, for an undisclosed sum. Valeo dipped after a late bounce yesterday on rumours that Blackstone could launch an LBO for the group. This rumour initially entered the market in February. A spokesperson for Valeo declined to comment on rumours. Clarins will post fiscal 2004 results and first-quarter sales after the close today.

Asian markets were mixed on Thursday. In Japan, the Nikkei 225 lost 16.17 points, or 0.14%, to close at 11,810.99. The benchmark index's decline was limited by gains in exporters such as tech stocks and auto names, thanks to the weakness in the yen against the dollar. Retailer Ito-Yokado edged lower after it posted a 68% fall in annual net profit to 17.2 billion yen as it closed loss-making outlets and took restructuring charges. Seven-Eleven dropped after it reported a 3.4% rise in annual profit to 96.3 billion yen on the back of store openings and strong take-out food sales. The fall in oil prices overnight hit oil firms such as Nippon Oil and Showa Shell. Nitto Denko, a maker of LCD polarizing film, rose on hopes of an LCD sector recovery while Osaka Securities Exchange surged after reports said that a fund controlled by shareholder activist Yoshiak Murakami held 6% of the company as of January, making it the bourse's top shareholder. Murakami may press for management reforms and a dividend increase using the voting rights, local newspapers reported on Thursday.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng gained 40.09 points, or 0.30%, to close at 13,562.26. Hong Kong stocks were flat as sentiment continued to be weighed down by interest rate pressures, with HSBC and BOC HK expected to raise rates soon in order to catch up to U.S. rates.

Canada's benchmark TSX/S&P lost 47.66 points, or 0.49%, to close at 9,625.35.

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