Higher energy consumer staples stocks send TSX modestly higher

TORONTO — The Toronto stock market closed slightly higher Friday as consumer stocks advanced in the wake of a strong retail report and energy stocks climbed amid questions about whether the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah could mean a change in the amount of oil his country is producing.The S&P/TSX composite index gained 15.37 points to 14,779.35, with the consumer staples section ahead 0.9% as Statistics Canada reported retail sales rose 0.4% to $43 billion in November. Economists had generally expected a decline.“We’re all focused on the consumer, whether it’s in the U.S. or Canada, and to see the Canadian consumer stepping up and spending certainly has a beneficial impact,” said Patrick Blais, managing director and portfolio manager, Manulife Asset Management. “Given the drop in oil prices, we‘re all trying to assess if it will have an impact on confidence and therefore the Canadian consumer.”The Canadian dollar declined 0.13 of a cent to 80.49 cents US.U.S. indexes were mainly lower as the Dow Jones industrials tumbled 141.38 points to 17,672.6 and the S&P 500 index was off 11.33 points at 2,051.82. The Nasdaq gained 7.48 points to 4,757.88.Oil prices initially rose slightly on news of the death of Saudi Arabia’s monarch but closed down 72 cents to US$45.59 a barrel.Crude prices have plunged 40% since the end of November when Saudi Arabia said it would seek to maintain market share by refusing to cut production in order to support prices. Overall, prices are down about 55% from last June because of global oversupply.There were questions about whether Abdullah’s successor, Prince Salman — 79-years-old and himself in poor health — will change the kingdom’s oil policy. But Blais said the change at the top likely wouldn’t matter. “Saudi Arabia has definitely made their intentions clear and it’s in their best interest, long term, to find a market level for the oil price,” added Blais.“There is so much oversupply that we may be in for low oil prices for quite some time.”Meanwhile, the spinoff effects of plunging oil on smaller producers continued as Penn West Petroleum Ltd. (TSX:PWT) CEO David Roberts said the company is in talks with bondholders about relaxing covenant agreements as the collapse in oil prices threatens the company’s ability to meet conditions on its debt. Its shares dipped six cents to $1.90.The TSX energy sector was ahead 1.5%.A rising U.S. dollar helped push other commodities lower.The base metals sector was the leading decliner, down 4.3% as March copper shed eight cents to US$2.50 a pound. Copper, viewed as a global economic gauge, has tumbled more than 11 per cent this month amid weak data from China and economic downgrades by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.The gold sector lost about three per cent as February bullion declined $8.10 to US$1,292.60 an ounce. General Electric Co. reported fourth-quarter earnings ex-items of 56 cents per share, a penny ahead of expectations, while the industrial conglomerate posted revenue of US$42 billion, missing forecasts of $42.4 billion. Its stock moved up 20 cents to US$24.48.The TSX ran ahead 470 points or 3.3% this week, recouping losses of the past two weeks. The advance was led by a seven per cent run-up in the much-battered energy sector as oil found some temporary stability around the $45 a barrel mark.

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