FTSE closes sharply lower as Covid clouds gather on Thursday

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UK's benchmark FTSE 100 index suffered sharp declines on Thursday as heightened concerns about increased Covid-19 cases and the confirmation of new restrictions imposed in London and other parts of the country cast a pall over investors.

Hawkish US stimulus comments from US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin added to the gloom.

At the finish, the FTSE 100 had fallen around 1.7% to 5,832.52, with mid cap FTSE 250 stock also under pressure, the index 0.6% off at 17,838.45.

Budget airline Ryanair's share price dived 4% to €11.775 in Thursday trading after it announced cuts to its capacity for the winter season from 60% to 40%, citing continued travel restrictions across the European Union.

The company also cut its full-year passenger estimate to 38 million, although this could be revised down further if travel restrictions continue.

Pizza chain Domino's Pizza said it expected annual underlying profit to meet market expectations after reporting a 'strong' third-quarter performance as UK and Republic of Ireland sales rose by nearly a fifth, helped by VAT cuts.

In the 13 weeks to 27 September, UK and Republic of Ireland system sales were up 18.7% and like-for-like sales were up 17.5% year-on-year.

Despite this, shares had plunged more than 8.5% to 340p as the company said the VAT cuts had little direct benefit to profit.

JOBS UNDER PRESSURE

Recruitment company Hays said it expected to report only a modest profit in the first half of the year. The impact of the pandemic has hurt hiring activity across its main businesses. Its shares were down 1.3% to 114.3p.

Homewares retailer Dunelm said first-quarter performance 'significantly' exceeded its expectations thanks to an uptick in gross margins and sales.

For the 13-week period ended 26 September 2020, total sales were £359.1m, an increase of 36.7% year over year. Dunelm's shares reversed earlier gains to slide 3.7% to £14.995.

Asset and wealth management company Schroders announced a 2% increase in assets during the third quarter. Total assets grew from £525.8 billion to £536.3 billion, but it wasn't enough to win over the market with the shares trading 2.4% lower at £27.28.

European online electrical retailer AO World saw its shares leap 30% to 302.5p after reporting a continuation of strong sales growth in recent months, driving analysts to upgrade their earnings forecasts.

For the six months ended 30 September 2020, the company expects to report revenue in the region of £715m, an increase of 57% year-on-year.

HOMES UNDER THE HAMMER

Property developer Countryside Properties said it had sold fewer houses at lower prices amid significant coronavirus-led disruptions to its business, though said overall annual performance met its expectations.

Its shares drifted 0.8% down on the news to 343.2p.

Housebuilder Vistry Group's affordable homes and regeneration arm secured contracts and exchanged on joint venture developments with housing providers with a gross development value of £165 million to provide more than 660 new homes.

Its shares managed to nudge 1.3% higher to 590.5p.

Packaging company Mondi headed the FTSE loser board, falling 4.5% to £15.91 after its third-quarter earnings were down 13% on the previous quarter amid ongoing closures and lower prices.

Underlying earnings reached €306 million in the three months to the end of September, compared to €353 million in the second quarter, and €383 million in the third quarter of 2019. Mondi's shares were down by 3.7% in early trading.

Rolls-Royce topped the FTSE leader board on Thursday, jumping more than 8% to 195.1p after pricing three tranches of new debt worth a combined £2 billion as part of a recapitalisation plan.

The aerospace engineering giant said it planned to issue bonds in US dollars, euros and sterling broken down into tranches of $1 billion, €750 million, and £545 million.