StockMarketWire.com - UK markets staged a late afternoon rally in response to a firm start in New York having spent much of Thursday struggling for momentum.

With the UK still firmly in lockdown and British government facing difficult questions over its coronavirus testing strategy, investors were willing to take positives where they could be found, with oil stocks particularly strong thanks to an 18% jump in oil prices.

Royal Dutch Shell led the FTSE 100 higher with a 10 % jump to £14.874, with BP also running hot, up 6.5% at 355.15p.

In the US, early trading saw the S&P 500 gain around 1.5% to 2,509.16, while tech-heavy Nadsaq pushed 1.2% higher at 7,449.57.

The UK yesterday saw its largest number of deaths since the virus took hold across the nation. In Italy, however, the virus impact appeared to stabilise with just 12 new cases of the virus reported on Wednesday.

At the close, the benchmark FTSE 100 index ended the Thursday session close on 0.5% to the good at 5,480.22, although the mid cap FTSE 250 found the going tougher, losing nearly 0.8% to 14,436.80.

MORE DIVIDENDS FACE THE AXE

In company news, energy firm Centrica said it would cancel its dividend as part of a move to cut costs and said it would delay the sale of its stake in Spirit Energy until energy and financial markets were stable. On the back of the announcement, the shares price fell 8% to 34.19p.

Distribution and services company Bunzl pulled its dividend despite reporting a rise in revenue in the first quarter of year. The firm warned of disruptions as the food service and retail sectors were expected to be significantly affected by lockdown measures.

The company said it would no longer propose a final dividend for the year ended 31 December. The shares dropped almost 5% to £14.89.

National Grid said it had not yet seen a 'material impact' on its financial performance from the virus outbreak but was starting to see some delays and disruption to its capital programme. Shares fell 4.5% to 871p in early trading.

Comparison website Moneysupermarket.com has committed to pay its final dividend for 2019, bucking a growing trend among companies who are cancelling or suspending payouts to preserve cash.

Moneysupermarket declared an 8.61p per share payout alongside its full year results on 20 February but the dividend policy will remain under review for this year.

The news will come as only a modest lift to shareholders after Moneysupermarket pulled 2020 guidance as the coronavirus put a severe dent in business in recent weeks. The share price reversed earlier losses to end about 0.7% up at 294p.

RECRUITER WARNS

Shares in recruitment firm Hays plunged 13% to 95p after it said it had seen 'a very material deceleration in client and candidate activity' in March, scrapped its interim dividend and tapped investors for £200m. Similarly, Safestore said its key trading performance indicators showed to relatively limited impact from the pandemic, with 4.92 million square feet of occupied space across the portfolio, a drop of just 0.8% since its first quarter ended on 31 January. Shares rallied more than 5% to 637p.

Pharma giant AstraZeneca said it had completed the previously agreed sale of its global rights to Movantik, a treatment for opioid-induced constipation, to RedHill Biopharma for at least $52.5m. Shares dipped 1.7% to £69.80.

Popular high street store Pets at Home said it expected underlying pre-tax profit for the full year to be slightly above the top end of the range of current market expectations.

For most of the fourth quarter, the group traded in line with market expectations although it saw a dip in demand in-store and online in the closing weeks of the year. The shares dipped 1% to 237.6p.

Low-cost airline Wizz Air revealed that the virus had forced it to cut capacity by 34% in March. It operated rescue flights from Germany to Ukraine, from Malta and Croatia to North Macedonia as well as from North America to Hungary in order to repatriate passengers.

It is currently running flights from China to Hungary in order to deliver medical equipment such as protective gear and coronavirus test kits. The share price rose 3% to £21.62.

Rival low-cost airline EasyJet said it had received a request from founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou to call a general meeting to remove Andreas Bierwirth as a director of the company.

The shares dropped more than 5% to 497.2p.

Bookmaker William Hill said it had appointed Matt Ashley as its chief financial officer with effect from 6 April 2020, while Stephen Parry will take up the role of chief operating officer later in the year.

Shares in the bookie slumped 4.5% to 64.14p. At market close:

[LON:BNZL] Bunzl PLC share price was -77.75p at 1487.25p

[LON:CNA] Centrica PLC share price was -2.9p at 34.21p

[LON:HAS] Hays PLC share price was -15.47p at 93.93p

[LON:MONY] Moneysupermarket.Com Group PLC share price was +1.4p at 293.4p

[LON:RDSB] Royal Dutch Shell PLC share price was +127p at 1479.4p



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