Sun, Nov 16, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Drugs keep Europe going

REUTERS , LONDON

Drug stocks, fortified by hopes of bigger US sales, lifted European shares on Friday to end the week flat, though still near their best levels of the year.

The FTSE Eurotop 300 index ended the day up 0.5 percent at 939.91 points, with more than two shares rising for each one falling.

The benchmark struggled to match this year's peak set last week as Wall Street trading was mixed, but is up 10.5 percent for the year after its hefty rally from a six-year nadir in March.

"The market is no longer as good value as it was. Although we have a lot of headwind behind it with economic data coming up nicely, we have had several months in a row of good performance and I would not be surprised to see a pause," said Richard Champion of Pavilion Asset Management.

Among the standouts, ING Groep fell 1.4 percent to 18.6 euros as the Dutch firm, Europe's number three insurer, offered cautious guidance after reporting a weaker than expected third-quarter net operating profit.

Italian bank Capitalia reported forecast-beating quarterly numbers, sending its shares higher.

Parmalat ended the week down 12 percent on concerns about the Italian food group's balance sheet, sinking further on Friday on news its finance director had resigned.

Autos lagged as new car sales in western Europe slipped last month, and a dip in US retail sales last month was blamed on weaker demand. Europe's biggest carmaker Volkswagen said it would cut investment over the next five years, and its stock eased a touch to 44.9 euros.

The DJ Euro Stoxx 50 index, a benchmark of euro zone blue chips, closed up 0.8 percent at 2,656.9 points, while the FTSE 100 in London clocked up its best close since late August last year after hitting fresh yearly highs.

The construction sector benefited from signs of a European and Japanese economic recovery, hitting new highs for the year.

Glass maker Saint-Gobain rose three percent, while cement makers Lafarge, Holcim and Heidelbergercement all rose two percent or more.

"We are having a bit more rotation into what has underperformed, like some of the cyclicals. People are scouting around for what has not been involved in the rally," Champion said.

The DJ Stoxx health index hit yearly high on hopes reform of the US Medicare program for seniors would boost demand for prescription medicines in the world's biggest market.

"Investors are getting more confident that there will be a Medicare drug benefit passed in the near term," said Marc Booty, pharmaceuticals analyst at Commerzbank.

Pavilion Asset Management's Champion said it was too early to call a turn in the healthcare sector.

French drug firm Aventis SA rose 5.8 percent, while Britain's GlaxoSmithKline Plc tacked on 2.4 percent. Swiss Novartis AG rallied 3.7 percent, while Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca gained 2.8 percent.

The Eurotop 300 index is only some six points from its yearly high set a week ago, underpinned by third-quarter earnings, the best since the start of 2000, and further signs of recovery.

Eurostat data on Friday confirmed the euro zone economy grew at 0.4 percent in the third quarter, its fastest rate in a year, and should pick up even more steam in the next six months.

Data on Friday showed a strong improvement in the University of Michigan index of US consumer confidence, and a surprise rise in producer prices.

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