TSX flat amid Loblaw REIT plan, solid bank earnings, hopes for fiscal cliff pact

TORONTO – The Toronto stock market was little changed late morning Thursday despite strong earnings reports from TD Bank (TSX:TD), CIBC (TSX:CM) and National Bank (TSX:NA).

The S&P/TSX composite index declined 4.44 points to 12,152.85.

The market did get some lift from grocer Loblaw Companies Ltd. (TSX: L). Its stock soared 16.6 per cent to $39.18 after the company said it wants to unlock shareholder value by creating one of the largest real estate investment trusts in Canada.

Units of the REIT are expected to be sold in an initial public offering to be completed in mid-2013, subject to regulatory approvals. Shares in Loblaw majority owner George Weston (TSX:WN) ran up 8.15 per cent to $68.58.

TD Bank’s (TSX:TD) quarterly profit amounted to $1.66 per share before adjustments, down two cents per share from the same time last year. On an adjusted basis, TD had $1.83 per share of diluted earnings, up from $1.75 per share a year earlier and two cents a share above a consensus estimate. Its shares dropped $1.36 to $81.22.

TD also announced it is buying the U.S.-based Epoch investment management business for US$668 million in cash.

CIBC (TSX:CM) shares dipped 49 cents to $80.03 as the bank had $852 million or $2.02 of net income in the fourth quarter, an increase of nearly $100 million from the same time last year. On an adjusted basis, CIBC’s fourth-quarter profit amounted to $2.04 per share, six cents above estimates.

And National Bank’s (TSX:NA) quarterly earnings ran ahead 20 per cent from a year ago to $351 million or $1.97 per share. Ex-items, the bank earned $1.93 a share, which matched expectations.

National is also upping its dividend by five per cent to 83 cents a share but its shares gave back 42 cents to $77.35.

The TSX Venture Exchange dipped 0.66 of point to 1,183.88.

The Canadian dollar rose 0.21 of a cent to 101.05 cents US.

U.S. indexes were modestly positive as traders also hoped that lawmakers are getting closer to an agreement that would avert a fiscal crisis at the end of the year.

The Dow Jones industrials rose 15.66 points to 13,050.15, the Nasdaq was up 14.74 points to 2,988.44 while the S&P 500 index was up 2.54 points to 1,411.82.

Traders were encouraged Wednesday by reports that a substantial number of Republicans had signed a letter calling for exploration of “all options” on taxes and entitlement programs, a signal that some rank-and-file members could be ready to bargain.

President Barack Obama and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner spoke Wednesday for the first time in days in a telephone discussion on the so-called “fiscal cliff.” That’s the name for the automatic spending cuts and tax increases that would kick in at the start of next year if no budget deal is reached.

Economists think the subsequent sharp drop in economic activity would send the U.S. back into recession.

Obama said a compromise was “not that tough” and could even be done quickly, raising the possibility that broader negotiations might soon resume between the White House and congressional leaders.

But Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner warned Wednesday after markets closed that the administration would “absolutely” let the double whammy take effect as scheduled unless Republicans give in to Obama’s demand to raise tax rates at upper income levels.

The gold sector was up 1.26 per cent while February gold moved up $8.80 to US$1,702.60 an ounce. Kinross Gold (TSX:K) gained 14 cents to C$9.58.

The consumer discretion sector was up 0.44 per cent as Dollarama Inc. (TSX:DOL) posted quarterly net profits of $51.5 million or 68 cents per diluted share, up from $41.8 million or 55 cents a year earlier. Revenues soared to just under $458 million from $400.3 million but its shares dipped 63 cents to $61.97.

And Rona Inc. (TSX:RON) shares gained 22 cents to $10.37 as it said it is planning to sell non-core assets to focus the business and improve profitability. Rona is Canada’s largest home-improvement retailer.

The industrials sector was up amid a major deal by transport giant Bombardier Inc.’s (TSX:BBD.B) aerospace division. American carrier Delta Air Lines has placed a firm order for 40 of its CRJ900 NextGen regional jets. Delta has also taken options on an additional 30 planes.

Montreal-based Bombardier said that, based on the list price, the firm order is valued at approximately US$1.85 billion and could reach approximately $3.29 billion if the 30 options are exercised and its shares gained five cents to $3.33.

Other commodities were lower as the March copper contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange shed one cent to US$3.68 a pound after rising three cents Wednesday amid rising hopes for more economic stimulus in China, the world’s biggest consumer of the metal. The base metals sector was down 0.1 per cent and First Quantum Minerals (TSX:FM) lost 52 cents to C$20.33.

The energy component was also off 0.1 per cent as the January crude contract extended losses from Wednesday that resulted from data showing a sharp run-up in U.S. gasoline inventories last week. Crude lost $1.66 to US$86.22 a barrel.

Suncor Energy Inc. (TSX:SU) says unplanned maintenance work at its oilsands plant led to lower-than-expected production during November. Full-year production is expected to fall in the low end of its target range of 325,000 to 340,000 barrels per day. Its shares added 11 cents to C$32.79.

Techs were also weak with Research In Motion Ltd. (TSX:RIM) down 15 cents to $11.69.

In other corporate news, Lululemon Athletica Inc. (TSX:LLL) earned $57.3 million or 39 cents a share in its latest quarter, up from $38.8 million a year ago. Revenue grew by 37 per cent to $316.5 million. Its shares were 98 cents higher at $69.02.

European bourses were positive as London’s FTSE 100 index gained 0.34 per cent, Frankfurt’s DAX climbed 0.23 per cent and the Paris CAC 40 rose 0.37 per cent.