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Vodafone lifts FTSE closer to record high

Vodafone shares surged 3% as investors cheered the completion of a long-awaited deal to sell its stake in US operator Verizon Wireless.

As well as realising £50 billion for investors in the shape of cash and shares, the City was also excited by the mobile giant's prospects going forward.

Vodafone and a strong session for banking stocks ensured the FTSE-100 Index took another step towards a record high, rising 25.1 points to 6838.1.

The top-flight closed higher for a third week in a row, having risen by more than 150 points since last weekend and bringing the December 1999 intra-day high of 6950.6 firmly into view.

Sentiment in world markets has been lifted by this week's data showing that US manufacturing activity grew at the fastest pace in nearly four years.

The pound held its own against a resurgent dollar to stand at 1.66, while it was also flat against the euro at 1.21. The resilient performance came after ONS retail sales and public sector borrowing figures suggested more tentative steps forward for the UK economy.

The return of the Verizon proceeds to Vodafone shareholders is expected to give a major lift to the London market in the coming weeks as much of the money will be re-invested.

And Vodafone shares are benefiting from speculation that it may now become a bid target, while Citigroup reiterated its buy rating on the slimmed down company as a result of its strong record of capital growth and healthy dividend.

As well as Vodafone, which climbed 6.9p to 236.5p, Royal Bank of Scotland was higher on expectations that the state-owned bank will unveil a radical restructuring alongside full-year results on Thursday.

As many as 30,000 jobs - equivalent to one-quarter of its workforce - are reportedly expected to be lost as RBS looks to focus on retail customers, small businesses and larger corporates. RBS was up 4.4p at 360.1p in the wake of the media speculation.

HSBC was up 2.1p to 654.2p ahead of results on Monday and Barclays 2.75p higher at 258p.

Investors also returned to BAE Systems after a pounding for the defence and security products business in the wake of full-year results on Thursday.

Shares fell 8% in the previous session, wiping around £1 billion from its market value, though the stock recovered 10.9p to 411.3p yesterday.

Royal Mail fell 1.5% after Ofcom opened an investigation into a complaint by TNT Post UK about changes to Royal Mail's access contracts due to come into effect from March 31. Royal Mail said the complaint is unfounded but shares dropped 9p to 600p.

Other bigt FTSE-100 risers were Arm Holdings up 23p at 970p and Persimmon ahead 27p at 1464p. The biggest fallers were Coca-Cola HBC down 45p at 1550p, InterContinental Hotels off 50p at 1925p, IMI down 39p at 1526p and ITV off 3.6p at 204.2p.

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