Coronavirus fears keep FTSE in the red, but NMC shines

By Muvija M and Shashwat Awasthi
FILE PHOTO: A broker looks at financial information on computer screens on the IG Index trading floor

By Muvija M and Shashwat Awasthi

(Reuters) - London's FTSE 100 weakened again on Monday after Britain declared the coronavirus epidemic a serious and imminent threat to public health, though preliminary takeover approaches thrust shares in troubled healthcare company NMC 32% higher.

The FTSE 100 index of blue-chip companies <.FTSE> dipped 0.3%, with oil majors Shell <RDSa.L> and BP <BP.L> applying the most pressure as crude prices slipped. The midcap index <.FTMC> ended the day marginally lower.

The drop was in line with Asian markets, where most indexes were down, as the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak exceeded 900, surpassing that of the 2002-03 SARS epidemic.

UK shares, however, lagged their counterparts in Europe and on the Wall Street.

Meanwhile, NMC Health <NMC.L> snapped a five-day losing streak and recorded its best day since December after it said it had received preliminary bid approaches from KKR and GK Investment.

The news came as a relief to shareholders, who have seen NMC's market value dwindle since U.S. firm Muddy Waters launch a short-selling attack on the hospital operator in late 2019.

Payments group Finablr <FINF.L>, which shares the same founder as NMC, shot up by 10% to top the midcap bourse.

The pullback in the wider markets followed last week's rally, which included both British benchmark indexes recording their best day since mid-December.

In China, though workers began venturing out of their houses to offices and factories on Monday after the government eased some restrictions, markets were on edge as the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak hit a new daily record.

Liquidity injection by China's central bank, Beijing's pledge to lower tariffs on a host of U.S. imports and upbeat economic data from Washington had fuelled a recovery rally in stocks in early February.

OANDA analyst Jeffrey Halley said it was hard to see further gains in equities against the backdrop of the virus. "That is likely to be the theme of the week, as the economic damage is totalled up from the outbreak," he said.

In other news-related moves, Centrica <CNA.L> lost 3% to be the steepest blue-chip faller after the Times newspaper reported that the British Gas owner was expected to report lower profit due to the government's price cap on energy bills.

Among smaller caps, Intu Properties <INTUP.L> surged 30%, its biggest one-day rise since 1995 - after the shopping centre operator said it was in talks with top shareholder and billionaire John Whittaker's Peel Group and Link Real Estate Investment Trust, among others, to raise money.


(Graphic: NMC lags the FTSE 100 since Muddy Waters' short attack - https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/buzzifr/15/6515/6515/Pasted%20Image.jpg)


(Reporting by Muvija M and Shashwat Awasthi in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Mark Potter)