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Europe: FTSE little changed as Sky soars on Comcast bid


[LONDON] Comcast's bid for pay-TV group Sky and strong results from housebuilder Persimmon helped keep Britain's FTSE 100 on an even keel on Tuesday, as investors digested the first public comments from new Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell.

Market reaction over Mr Powell's nod to "gradual" rate increases was muted. "Gradual" has been the operative word since the Fed began raising rates under Powell's predecessor, Janet Yellen, in late 2015.

Britain's top share index closed down 0.1 per cent, with Sky soaring 20.5 per cent as investors priced in a possible bidding war for the company following Comcast's surprise move. Rival broadcaster ITV rose 1 per cent.

The offer from the US$184 billion U.S. media giant could scupper the plans of Rupert Murdoch's Fox to buy out Sky and sell it to Walt Disney.

That takeover has already been delayed by concerns for media plurality in Britain and whether Murdoch would be a "fit and proper" owner of such an important broadcaster.

"Remember there is a US$1.5 billion break Fox have to pay if the Fox/Disney deal breaks," said from Neil Campling, Co-Head of the Global Thematic Group at Mirabaud Securities.

"There is no way we can see that Fox will walk away given how advanced the regulatory clearance process is. This bid marks a floor not an end to this particular saga. Let the battle commence."

Not everyone agreed, with Liberum analysts doubting Fox or Disney would get into a bidding war.

Investec said Disney may decide it has "enough to do in the US versus a contested European bid process.

Standard Chartered rose 1.2 per cent after it joined rival UK banks in resuming dividend payments as profits soared, though weaker than expected revenue kept investor exuberance in check.

Gains were seen among housebuilders after Persimmon announced a more than doubling of dividend payments, a 25 per cent jump in profits and a 7 per cent increase in reservation rates.

Concerns over a downturn in the housing market have weighed on the industry in recent months, with a decline in mortgage approvals and the Bank of England raising benchmark interest rates.

Persimmon was forced to scale back its management bonus plan this week after widespread criticism that it could have netted bosses more than 200 million pounds from share options.

The cash return plan unveiled on Tuesday would make Persimmon the second-highest yielding housebuilding stock, said Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell.

"Persimmon has gone a long way to calming at least one unhappy party by showering investors in the stock with a cash windfall of their own," said Mould.

Persimmon rose 4.7 per cent, with Berkeley and Taylor Wimpey both up 0.8 per cent.

Troubled subprime lender Provident Financial saw its shares surge 70.4 per cent to their highest in six months after the company said it would raise 331 million pounds via a rights issue.

Three traders said the smaller-than-expected cash call had set off a short-squeeze as hedge funds attempt to cover their positions. The stock is the most shorted of any UK company.