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What to Watch: Laura Ashley losses, Germany worries, Ryanair strike, and Ocado fire

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
A Laura Ashley store in Kensington, London. Photo: Alastair Grant/AP

Here are the top business, market, and economic stories you should be watching today in the UK, Europe, and abroad:

Laura Ashley slides into loss as home furnishings ‘underperform’

Laura Ashley (ALY.L) slid to a pre-tax loss of £14.3m in the first half of the year, after what its chair called a “difficult trading period” where home furnishings “underperformed.” Its shares dipped 5% on the news.

The company’s losses in the year to 30 June compare with a narrow £100,000 profit in the same period a year earlier.

Its total group sales were also down from £257.2m to £232.5m, with like-for-like retail sales and online revenue falling. But like-for-like fashion retail sales were up 9.2%.

Andrew Khoo, chairman of Laura Ashley, blamed losses on the “performance of home furnishing and that of our website following a re-platforming exercise which took place in November 2018.”

But he said the company was “delighted” by the growth of its licensed hospitality arm, with nine Laura Ashley licensed tearooms and two hotels.

UK and South Korea sign agreement to continue trading after Brexit

The British and South Korean governments are set to sign a trade agreement on Thursday, ensuring current trade rules continue “as far as possible” after Brexit.

International trade secretary Liz Truss said the deal would “allow businesses like Bentley and Denby to keep trading,” protecting British jobs in manufacturing, technology and professional services.

The government said in a press release the deal covers one of the biggest national markets covered by an existing EU trade deal, preventing disruption for almost 7,000 UK firms.

But not all other current UK trade deals via the EU have been rolled over, with Brexit just a few months away.

Alarm bells over German economy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: PA

The Germany economy “continued to underperform” in August, according to a leading economic index.

Survey results from the IHS Markit purchasing managers’ index suggest job creation is at a five-year low, with a marked fall in goods production, new orders sinking and firms’ expectations for future output turning negative for the first time since 2014.

“Concerns about demand was one of several factors–alongside heightened uncertainty, weakness in the car industry and geopolitical tensions–behind a decrease in business confidence in August,” the IHS Markit report published on Thursday said.

But principal economist Phil Smith said growth in services was “just about” compensating for manufacturing’s “sustained weakness.”

Ryanair says first flights leaving ‘as scheduled’ despite pilot strike

Ryanair (RYA.L) said its first flights leaving the UK and Ireland on Thursday had departed without disruption, despite a strike by some of its British pilots in a row over pay.

The airline lost its last-ditch legal bid to stop the walkout, planned by members of the Balpa union for Thursday, Friday and dates in early September.

But it successfully secured a court order to prevent a walkout by Irish pilots, and said disruption would be limited as many pilots had volunteered to work.

Burford Capital caught up in sex tape claim

The main entrance to the Royal Courts of Justice in central London. Photo: PA

Embattled Burford Capital (BUR.L) has been caught up in a complex legal battle in London’s high court involving a Venezuelan business tycoon and a Russian shipping company.

The legal spat includes an accusation that a senior executive at London-listed Burford unlawfully traded confidential documents for a sex tape.

The allegations come as Burford is already battling to defend its reputation. Muddy Waters Research, a well-known US short-seller, published a 25-page report on the company at the start of the month alleging it was “arguably insolvent” and raising issues with accounting and governance.

Shares in Burford are over 40% lower than where they were trading before the Muddy Waters report.

Ocado shares down after another warehouse fire

Shares in Ocado (OCDO.L) fell and it cancelled some deliveries after a fire at its warehouse in south-east London, in the second blaze to hit the company this year.

The online grocery and technology company’s share price was down 1.8% at 10.05am.

It took 25 firefighters from three fire stations more than three hours to bring the fire under control, but Ocado said the blaze at its Erith facility had been “small.”

The fire forced the company to cancel “some customer orders,” which were re-booked for Friday. The blaze began just after 7pm on Wednesday night , and was extinguished shortly after 10pm.

European markets

Most European markets opened lower on Thursday morning, after muted figures emerged from a leading industry survey on the health of eurozone economies.

The IHS Market flash eurozone PMI composite index ticked upwards from 51.5 to 51.8, with figures above 50 showing growth and under 50 showing contraction. But it remains one of the weakest readings in almost six years.

The Euronext 100 (^N100) was down 0.4%, France’s CAC 40 (^FCHI) was down 0.3%, the. German DAX (^GDAXI) was down 0.2% and the FTSE was down 0.8%.

Overnight in Asia, Japan’s Nikkei (^N225) and China’s Shanghai Composite index (000001.SS) were both up 0.1%, but the Hong Kong Hang Seng Index (^HSI) slid 0.8%.

What to expect in the US

US stocks looked set for a lower open, with S&P500 futures (ES=F) and Dow Jones futures (YM=F) both down. 0.2%, while Nasdaq futures (NQ=F) were down 0.3%.