Pick of the early market news

UK recession worries re-surfaced yesterday though the FTSE 100 fell only slightly, down 37 points to 5,612. In the US the Dow Jones pushed up 0.26% higher, to 12,392. Overnight, most Asian markets have fallen slightly but China's Shanghai Composite index reversed the trend, climbing 0.2% higher. Today, more Merkel-Sarkozy meetings - and more finger-jabbing towards Greece.

Let's commence with M&S. The high street bellwether says group sales lifted 2.4% in the last 13 weeks of 2011. Food continues to be a big success story with like-for-like sales up 3% - or 4.5% as a whole - while general merchandise suffered a 1.8% slump. However sales of its direct delivery business leapt 22.4% following an online Christmas food order service.

Home sales were down 13.3%, primarily impacted by M&S' decision to exit technology. "Our key focus departments performed well," says boss Marc Bolland, "and the planned roll-out of new ranges and store layout later this year will provide a step change in our Home offer."

"In light of the ongoing macro-economic uncertainty, we expect trading conditions to remain challenging," he added. "We continue to be cautious about the outlook for the year ahead. Our focus will be on offering our customers great value and quality at a time when they are managing their budgets carefully."

Next, a trading update from Balfour Beatty. Overall trading remains in line with company expectations with a stable order book, despite "weak" market conditions in some core markets. During the year, Support Services and US Construction order books increased while the UK Construction order book contracted, it confirmed.

Balfour says its 25.5% interest in Barking Power Limited has been sold to the Balfour Beatty Pension Fund at book value of £55 million. Average net cash for the year was approximately £200 million reflecting investments completed during the year and cyclical unwind of working capital; year-end net cash was at a similar level to that at the half-year it says.

"We continue to manage the business on the basis that conditions in our core markets will remain difficult while positioning the Group to take advantage of the positive medium and long-term prospects for infrastructure markets."

Finally, a trading update from recruiter Hays. Net fees have increased 9% for the last quarter while like-for-like growth in the second quarter pushed up 8%. Continued strong performance of its international business saw growth of 15%, representing 70% of net fees in the quarter.

"Asia, which accounts for 14% of the division's net fees, achieved net fee growth of 16%. In Japan, we continue to see good progress as net fees increased by 14% and our business there posted a record monthly fee performance in the quarter."

However UK numbers aren't so good. Net fees decreased 7% in UK & Ireland, with private sector net fees declining 4%. Public sector net fees declined 16%, and remained broadly stable on a sequential basis, said Hays.

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