Stocks close little changed on hopes for quick resolution to Greece debt crisis

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TORONTO - The Toronto stock market closed little changed Wednesday as investors looked ahead to an important meeting of European Union leaders for indications on how they will deal with a continental debt crisis.

The S&P/TSX composite index inched up 12.09 points to 11,286.33, while the Canadian dollar was ahead 0.43 of a cent at 94.07 cents US. Oil rose 77 cents to US$74.52 a barrel.

TSX gains were led by financial stocks on the belief that the European Union will move to help Greece with its mounting debt problem. But there were also mixed signals about the outcome of a Thursday meeting between EU leaders and European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet.

"Our view is that there will be a solution, or at least indications that they're closer to a solution that will be EU led, as opposed to specific to Germany or specific to any one particular country - but it is going to weigh on the markets until it comes about," said Philip Petursson, director of institutional equities at MFC Global Investment Management.

But German officials said Wednesday there was no urgent need for a bailout at the moment and that "no decision on such help" was imminent. They also said EU rules prohibited them from guaranteeing another country's debts.

Markets have dropped in recent weeks over concerns that debt problems in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal might spread and endanger the global economic recovery.

"Spain is, I think, actually the biggest concern because it represents such a large portion of the EU economy - it's about seven or eight per cent of the EU as far as GDP is concerned," Petursson said.

He added that the EU needs to come up with a collective solution and not just one that deals with the immediate problem posed by Greece.

On the TSX, the financials sector gained 1.28 per cent. Manulife Financial (TSX:MFC) moved up 26 cents to $19.50 while Royal Bank (TSX:RY) was ahead 94 cents at $54.75.

The energy sector led decliners even as oil prices advanced in the face of a report showing unexpected growth in U.S. crude inventories. The American Petroleum Institute said U.S. crude stocks jumped 7.2 million barrels last week, much more than the two million barrels analysts had expected.

Although the March crude contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange shook off early declines to move ahead 77 cents to US$74.52 a barrel, the energy sector on the TSX slipped 0.98 per cent. Suncor Energy (TSX:SU) was down 60 cents at C$31.25.

Talisman Energy Inc. (TSX:TLM) shares declined 20 cents to $17.80 after the company said it had a $111-million net loss in the fourth quarter in stark contrast to the $1.2-billion net profit in the final quarter of 2008. Revenue rose to $1.82 billion from $1.77 billion in the year-ago quarter.

The gold sector was down 1.14 per cent as the April bullion contract on the Nymex slipped 90 cents to US$1,076.30 an ounce. Barrick Gold Corp. (TSX:ABX) fell 45 cents to C$37.90.

March copper was ahead a fifth of a cent at US$2.99, but the base metals sector lost one per cent. Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B) dropped 73 cents to C$35.54 and Inmet Mining (TSX:IMN) was down $1.08 to $55.92.

The TSX Venture Exchange added 2.25 points to 1,476.78.

New York markets took in comments by Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke about how the central bank plans to unwind stimulus measures without sending the U.S. back into recession.

In prepared remarks to a House committee, Bernanke said the Fed will likely start tightening credit by boosting the interest rate it pays banks on money they leave at the central bank. Consumers and companies would then have to pay more to borrow.

Bernanke also indicated the Fed was still months away from raising interest rates or draining most of the stimulus money it injected to aid the financial system.

New York's Dow Jones industrials declined 20.26 points to 10,038.38.

The Nasdaq composite index dropped three points to 2,147.87 while the S&P 500 index was 2.39 points lower to 1,068.13.

In economic news, Canada's trade deficit with the rest of the world widened slightly in December.

Exports rose 1.7 per cent and imports increased 1.8 per cent, adding up to a deficit of $246 million in December, up from $201 million in November.

And the U.S. Commerce Department said that the U.S. trade deficit surged to a larger-than-expected US$40.18 billion in December. The deficit was 10.4 per cent higher than the November imbalance and much larger than the US$36-billion deficit that economists had expected.

In other corporate news, the operator of Canada's largest securities markets, TMX Group Inc. (TSX:X), said it had a $26.8-million net loss in the fourth quarter. Still, TMX shares rose 64 cents to $29.15.

Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) reported a $56-million net loss in the fourth quarter of 2009, a dramatic improvement from the net loss of $727 million racked up in the same period of 2008. Much of that loss was due to foreign exchange reversals. Air Canada's operating revenues dropped by $150 million to $2.35 billion, but its shares gained six cents to $1.38.

MDS Inc. (TSX: MDS) said it has agreed to sell some of its last remaining non-core businesses but that a Montreal unit would be closed and 225 jobs in that city cut. The Canadian life sciences company will get $45 million in cash and notes for selling parts of its MDS Pharma Services early stage business. MDS shares were ahead six cents to $8.50.

Anglo-Australian miner BHP Billiton Ltd. on Wednesday announced it had more than doubled its first-half profit to US$6.1 billion after selling record quantities of key commodities.

Organizations: TSX, European Union, S&P European Central Bank MFC Global Investment Management Manulife Financial Fed American Petroleum Institute New York Mercantile Exchange Suncor Energy MDS Inc. Talisman Energy Inc. Nymex Barrick Gold Teck Resources Air Canada Inmet Mining Federal Reserve Board House committee Dow Jones U.S. Commerce Department TMX Group MDS Pharma Services BHP Billiton

Geographic location: Greece, U.S., TORONTO Spain Germany Portugal New York Canada Montreal

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