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Earnings boost keeps UK stocks barely above red as virus concerns rage

(Reuters) - British stocks ended well off session highs on Thursday, barely staying positive as optimism over corporate earnings was offset by a discouraging U.S. jobs report and rising COVID-19 cases.

FILE PHOTO: A man wearing a protective face mask walks past the London Stock Exchange Group building in the City of London financial district, whilst British stocks tumble as investors fear that the coronavirus outbreak could stall the global economy, in London, Britain, March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The blue-chip FTSE 100 index .FTSE ended up 0.1% and was kept above negative territory by a 7.9% jump in anglo-Dutch consumer behemoth Unilever ULVR.L, after its second-quarter sales fell much less than expected.

Software maker Sage Group PLC SGE.L and miner Polymetal International PLC POLYP.L were among the best performing blue-chip stocks after they both posted stronger earnings.

The mid-cap FTSE 250 .FTMC rose 0.1%, boosted by security contractor G4S GFS.L after it reported a higher-than-expected first-half operating profit.

Russian gold miner Petropavlovsk PLC POG.L topped the midcap index after marking strong production over the first half.

“Business resilience is a much sought-after attribute in the current economic climate and Unilever has certainly got the right ingredients,” said Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell.

Most other British stocks trended lower as global novel coronavirus cases continued to rise. A bulk of losses for the day came after a weak open on Wall Street, in the wake of data suggesting a recovery in the U.S. labour market was stalling.

Financials and utilities weighed the most on the FTSE 100, while the midcap index was bogged down by consumer discretionary stocks.

“...with high uncertainty with the direction of the coronavirus, businesses will likely struggle to justify hirings,” Edward Moya, Senior Market Analyst at OANDA, New York, wrote in a note.

A raft of global stimulus, improving economic data and hopes of a COVID-19 vaccine have put UK stock indexes on track for their fourth straight month of gains, but analysts remain wary of Sino-U.S. tensions and increased coronavirus cases stymieing further gains.

Asian equity markets were weaker earlier in the day following Washington’s order to Beijing to close its consulate in Houston, Texas amid accusations of spying.

Reporting by Sagarika Jaisinghani in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta/ ubhranshu Sahu

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